Dining in the Peanut Gallery

Empty plate with fork and knife.“How do you stay so slim eating steak and potatoes?”

This question came out of nowhere in the lunchroom yesterday at work. To put this remark in context, two coworkers were sitting at one end of the lunchroom table, having a conversation. I was sitting at the other end of the table, eating my aforementioned steak and potatoes (leftovers from dinner the night before) and reading my Maclean’s. Basically, I was minding my own business and really enjoying my meal. Until one of my coworkers decided to interrupt the conversation she was having to remark on the food I had chosen to eat for lunch.

My answer to her was the same answer I usually give in situations like this, “I guess I have a fast metabolism.” And then I added, by way of apology, “I’m sure it won’t last.”

The other coworker said, “You should have seen her at last year’s Staff Appreciation Breakfast.” To which I replied, by way of apology, “Yes, there was REAL WHIPPED CREAM and I just couldn’t help myself. It was amazing.” And that coworker remarked that I “sure can put away food.”

While we’re on the subject of the Staff Appreciation Breakfast, the next Breakfast is coming up next week. I look forward to the Staff Appreciation Breakfast at my workplace every year. It’s a day for the bosses and managers to acknowledge the work done by administrative staff to keep the department running, and it’s a morning of REALLY good food. Hashbrowns. Pancakes. Blueberry compote. Real whipped cream. The works. Sadly, the event has been ruined for me.

I DID eat a lot at last year’s staff appreciation breakfast. I filled my plate and then went back for seconds and thirds. As I said, the food was amazing. What wasn’t amazing, however, were the remarks my (female) coworkers made last year: “You’re going up there again?!”, “Oh wow, look at Lauren!”, “Someone’s got a sweet tooth!”, “Just wait until you’re our age, you won’t be able to eat like that anymore!”

I was humiliated. No one likes to be made self-conscious while they’re eating, especially not a woman. I felt put on the spot, and I felt that my coworkers had decided I was an acceptable target for this kind of shaming because I am thin. No one at that table last year would have dreamed of remarking upon the plates of any of my more curvacious coworkers, and my coworkers at lunch yesterday would never have said what they said to a larger woman, so why did they think it was okay to do it to me?

I had just begun to get over the squirmy uncomfortable embarrassment I’ve felt every time I thought of the Staff Appreciation Breakfast. I was starting to look forward to next week’s event. I thought surely no one but me would remember how much I ate last year (I certainly have no clue what anyone else ate), but yesterday’s lunch was a reminder that I will not escape scrutiny. If I don’t watch what I eat, other people will do it for me. Apparently there’s a sign on my back that says, “Go ahead and comment on how much I’m eating. Don’t worry, I’m thin, so it’s not rude.”

Except of course it is. And it hurts my feelings.

I think I should take this moment to acknowledge that Fat Shaming (i.e. shaming or making fun of people who are overweight as if their bodies are your business) is pervasive, dehumanizing, emotionally damaging, and completely wrong. I cannot believe the emotional abuse and humiliation people think is okay to heap on someone because of their weight.

This is not to say that thin women (or any women really) have a free pass, because obviously they don’t. What I eat has been a subject of scrutiny for my entire life. When I was a kid, it was because I was a picky eater (foods I wouldn’t eat included onions, peppers, mushrooms, cooked peas, cooked carrots, mashed potatoes, zucchini, whipped cream, spinach, avocado, yoghurt with peaches, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, cheese from a lunchbox, and anything else I had determined was icky due to texture, mostly). I cannot blame my parents for wanting me to eat more. It was their job to make sure I ate enough nutrients to be healthy and I know that they worried about me.

That said, they were my parents and they loved me and needed to make sure I didn’t get scurvy or Rickets or something. Everyone else can go suck on an egg.

Like the gymnastics instructor who pulled my little sister and me out of class to show her assistant how skinny our arms were and to have a good laugh about it (this is the same gymnastics instructor who missed presentation day because she was hungover and needless to say she never instructed in my town again). Or the complete stranger from my first week at a new school in grade 10 who, when I declined some gross-looking English potato chips said, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you eat ANYTHING?” (this person had literally never seen me eat a meal so I don’t know what her problem was). Or the dweeb I dated briefly when I was fifteen who, after he badgered me into disclosing my struggles with disordered eating (that’s a story for another time), responded by saying, “No. You eat a LOT.” and then told me the story of the time he got meningitis which was obviously way more interesting than a bit of wonky dieting and some purging now and again.

Or the boyfriend in third year university who told me I got the flu because I don’t eat enough vegetables (which remarkably I didn’t find very comforting, in addition to it not being true, but at least he apologized later). Or the coworkers who’ve asked me how often I bring cheese and crackers and an apple for lunch (answer: almost every day, for four years, and I like it very much thank you). Or the countless numbers of women who have told me, with a hint of malevolent glee in their voices, that someday my metabolism will slow down and my eating habits (or at the very least, my eating habits as perceived by people who really don’t know a thing about them) will “catch up with me”. Basically, I’m damned if I don’t want to eat a lot (because then people think I’m “dieting”), and I’m damned if I do.

I have tried to tell myself that I should be flattered, that having people remark on my weight or my lunch because I am thinner than them (as opposed to larger) is not an insult, and that maybe they’re just jealous. It is very little comfort.

I don’t want anyone to be jealous of me, I want them to leave me alone and let me eat my damn lunch. I don’t need any warnings that someday my sinful ways will “catch up with me” and I’ll be fat and feel bad about myself; every woman who has ever been a teenaged girl is already afraid. And I shouldn’t have to justify my diet or describe it to ANYONE. But since so many people seem so bloody interested, I am going to say this once, and then never again:

I EAT JUST FINE.

Sure, I indulge at a free bonanza like the Staff Appreciation Breakfast. Why the hell not? Good food is one of the joys of life and, in the absence of allergies or other medical considerations, I see no reason to deny myself. For the most part though, I pay attention to the food groups, try to get in enough fruits and vegetables (though it’s hard), eat my fibre and my protein, never drink Coke or Pepsi or coffee, have primarily switched to organic meat and milk, enjoy cooking and baking, and yes, like most people, I have a sweet tooth that sometimes gets the better of me. I also take the bus to work which means I get a good 40-50 minutes of walking in every weekday, train in aerial silks, take Ukrainian dance classes, and like being active outside (though the city makes it harder). I know my genetics play a huge role in the shape of my body and my ability to maintain muscle, but I don’t eat poorly and when I do I don’t rub it in anyone’s faces.

And even if I ate fast food every damn day and never touched a vegetable, it still wouldn’t be any of your business. I don’t expect other women to apologize for their bodies so stop trying to get me to apologize for mine. I have the same insecurities you have and at times in my past they have cost me my health. I should not need to justify my desire to feed myself to you.

The next time some random person tells me I’m eating a lot maybe I should look at them coolly and say, “Don’t worry, I’m going to throw it all up later” and just keep eating with a weird smile on my face. That’d probably shut them up.

Or maybe (since eating disorders aren’t a joke even though I would find that hilarious) I should just look at them coolly and say, “That isn’t any of your business.” and leave it at that. I’m done apologizing for what I do and don’t eat. I’m done with acting like I should feel flattered by what is obviously negative attention, and I’m done with explanations. I NEVER notice or remark upon what other women are eating (except to occasionally say, “That looks/smells delicious!”). Humiliating me at the table serves only to patronize me (as if I were your child and not your colleague) and it won’t make you feel any better. So please focus your energy on enjoying YOUR lunch and let me do the same.

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4 thoughts on “Dining in the Peanut Gallery

  1. Yeah, I get a lot of remarks about what I eat too. I actually eat quite well I think, much better than I used to when I was a teenager. Of course, whenever I DO choose to indulge in meals that are larger or food that is more unhealthy than what I would usually eat, it’s out in public (like your staff appreciation breakfast), and so people might notice and comment on it. I’m pretty sure some people think that I eat a lot of chocolate and little else…

    Anyway, pay no attention to them. I know it can be hard if you’re sensitive to those kinds of comments, but when people make negative comments about what other people are eating, it’s usually because they have their own insecurities or struggles when it comes to weight or eating habits. So if anything, feel bad for the person who makes a negative comment… but never feel bad to the point where you apologize. Also, some people might actually be genuinely impressed and think it’s great if you have an appetite for a good hearty meal.. it can be refreshing to see, when we’re often surrounded by people discussing “this new diet” or “this new cleanse”. So if someone says to you, “wow you can eat a lot” or “wow that’s a full plate”, I wouldn’t necessarily be cold.. but definitely don’t be apologetic either. You are the way you are and you don’t have to apologize for that. Maybe just say “yep!” and smile and keep eating.

    Enjoy the appreciation breakfast! It sounds delicious. 🙂

  2. Hey Lauren,
    Thanks for writing this one. This kind of thing bothers me like crazy.

    That damned if you do eat, and damned if you don’t is something I’ve felt before, in fact as most of my relatives are overweight, family gatherings are downright traumatic. Especially because we’re all related, the warnings about genetics catching up with me are rampant. But the cool thing with this one is, the proof is in the pudding, and you’ll be fine. There’s no reason you or I are destined for fatdom, and all in all, it’s nobody’s business but yours.

  3. Once again,a very insightful and very well written piece… people hate those that don’t look like the rest of the tribe… the “different” one…so they ridicule and criticize until either you comply or you are forced out. Having lived with us for that year, you ate very well, tried some of our more unusual vegetarian dishes and hopefully we gave you enough?

  4. Yes Dave, of COURSE you guys fed me enough (way better than I could have fed myself at 19)! I also recall a lot of great salmon in addition to vegetarian fare.

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