Is Your Office “Water Cooler” Talk Keeping You Stuck in Your Eating Disorder?
By Nicole Keay
Even if we don’t work in an office that has a water cooler, we can be sure that “water cooler conversations” are still taking place. These are the conversations you and your colleagues engage in when you’re taking a break from your work-related tasks. They take place in the lunchroom, your cubicles, at the printer, in meeting rooms, and on your afternoon trip to grab your caffeinated pick-me-up. They’re everywhere and they’re hard to avoid.
It’s natural to want to fit in and be liked in your workplace. It’s the place and the people we end up spending most of our week with. For that reason, we make friends with our colleagues; eat in the lunchroom when we’d rather sit at our desk; and take part in office potlucks and parties.
How to lose that last 10 lbs, summer bodies, the latest exercise and diet trends, juice cleanses … the list of “water cooler” topics goes on. As women, we seem to bond over body talk. We reach a certain age and, like it’s some right of passage, we start hating and obsessing over our bodies. We’re automatically conditioned to do so by our culture and the media. Our conversations jump between dating, hobbies, career goals, and so on … but body talk always seems to sneak its way in. For most of us, that conversation is inherently negative.
I can’t speak to the male experience, but as a female who was suffering from an eating disorder, this environment was toxic. At first, these conversations seemed harmless, but for me, it quickly spiraled into something that not only made me feel like a farce, but also made me sicker.
My restrictive eating soon became a topic of conversation itself. Not about it being restrictive and unhealthy, but because it was envied. “You’re so good”, “I wish I had your discipline”, “You’re always so healthy” are what I heard on a regular basis. It was hard for me to hear praise around something that was a constant battle. My eating disorder, on the other hand, thrived on this newfound support. It used these comments as justification that what I was doing was not only healthy and accepted, but also downright desired.
I hid my excessive exercise behind marathon training. I had been injured from running excessively and not doing enough strength training. So I explained my frequent trips to the gym and yoga by proclaiming they were necessary to my training and to keeping me from further injury. All of which might have been totally normal if it weren’t for my eating disorder. There are people that run and train just the way I did; I ran with them. The difference is they fuelled their bodies properly and rested when they needed to. They didn’t obsessively fixate on calories in versus calories out to lose weight or compensate for bingeing and purging. Of course, I made sure that no one saw that side, so to them, my “dedication” was inspiring.
The more praise that I received from colleagues, the more pressure I felt to maintain this identity. That pressure was two-fold:
- I had to keep up the jig. This was who I was at work, and how could I step out of that? How could I break that health-conscious, green smoothie drinking, marathon running picture of perfection that I created and everyone applauded? I felt like I would let people down if I did.
- Secondly, it kept me from feeling sick enough. If everyone saw my behaviour as healthy, if they wanted and wished they could emulate it, why was I struggling? Clearly I wasn’t that sick. If I wasn’t that sick, I certainly didn’t deserve help.
I eventually did speak up and get help. I took a month off of work for inpatient treatment. When I returned, it was hard to adjust back without falling into old ways. I no longer felt like I belonged, I no longer knew my place. I had been that person in every workplace I had been in. It was my identity and my downfall because I didn’t know how to be that person in a healthy, positive way.
If this scenario seems all too familiar or you are just ready to move past the body-bashing, diet-focused BS and focus your time and thoughts elsewhere, here are a few suggestions to try:
- Avoid or limit your exposure: If avoiding the conversations altogether seems impossible and isolating, then try limiting your exposure to them. Instead of spending your whole break in the lunchroom, prep it there and engage in conversation for 5-10 minutes and then head to your desk or outside to eat your lunch. If you choose to stay and the conversation takes that toxic turn, excuse yourself and say you have to get back to work and leave the room.
- Shut it down: This may take some courage to work up to depending on who you are and where you are at in your recovery. If it feels right, stop the conversation by explaining how it isn’t constructive. If that feels too daunting, shift focus and steer the conversation in a different direction. Just avoid being too preachy! It’s great that you’ve set your path on positive self-talk and self-love, but not everyone is ready to jump on-board.
- Be open: This won’t feel right for everyone but be open about your struggles, whether it is with an eating disorder, disordered eating, or body image. Chances are someone else at that table can relate or feels the same way. It is an opportunity for others to see just how damaging the conversation is to their own self-worth in general.
- Find a buddy: Do you have a best friend at work? Someone you trust and you know will have your back? Open up to them about how these types of conversations are really affecting your well-being and your recovery. They can help either shut down the conversation or find a way to help get you out of it.
It is highly unlikely that your efforts will change the minds of everyone you work with, or come in contact with. It will however, keep you from spiralling down that path. We have enough of a battle with our internal bullies that we don’t need to encourage others’. Keep your focus on putting a stop to your negative self-talk and body bashing. Keep your focus on your recovery. In the end, the freedom you feel will be so worth it.
Nicole is the Looking Glass Foundation’s Communications Manager. Her passion for working with eating disorders comes from her own personal journey. By having authentic conversations and sharing our stories, Nicole believes that we can work to eliminate stigma by creating deeper awareness and understanding for eating disorders, and mental illness as a whole. She loves yoga, a great cup of coffee and spending time outdoors with friends and family.