Recently I asked folks on my Facebook wall what they would like me to blog about. Alison submitted the following:
Dealing with a coworker who is downright hostile towards fat women.. making comments, etc.. very triggering for someone who has suffered with body dysmorphia all my life and almost died from an eating disorder a while ago.. I just am not sure how to address it and feel like a wimp that I don’t.
First, as always, I want to remind you that the problem here is the fatphobic behavior, and not how anyone responds to it – especially those who are triggered by it. While I’m happy to give some options to deal with this, please also know that if you are dealing with this situation, you are allowed to make protecting yourself your first priority.
This is one of those situations where fatphobia compounds fatphobia since there is no guarantee that the person you complain to won’t share fatphobic beliefs, and (except in a few places) there are no legal protections. If a co-worker was being inappropriate about a protected status, like race, disability and in some cases sexual orientation, there would be more clear cut options (obviously that doesn’t mean that the people you report to, or the structures underpinning your corporate management, wouldn’t be racist, ableist, or homophobic, there would at least be some legal precedent on your side.)
Here are some options (if you have other ideas please feel free to leave them in the comments!)
Deal directly with the offending co-worker:
When they something hostile you can say something general like “I wish we lived in a world where people respected all bodies,” or slightly more direct like “I wish people wouldn’t make inappropriate comments about other people’s bodies in my workspace,” or way more direct “That kind of talk isn’t appropriate. Please stop.” This can be even more effective if you can recruit other co-workers to do the same. You might not be able to cure their fatphobia, but you will likely be able to make them shut the hell up about it.
Talk to a Supervisor (or HR, if that exists in your workplace)
There are several paths you can take here. I would start by documenting some of the incidents (date, time, place, what was said etc.) but you can start with a complaint and see if they want you to document.
You can ask them for help directly, “My co-worker is making inappropriate comments about women’s bodies, I’d like you to tell them to stop.” If you don’t feel that the direct approach is best, you can try something less direct “There is a co-worker making inappropriate comments about women’s bodies and it’s making me uncomfortable – what are the options?”
You can also bring up the eating disorder issue “There is a co-working making inappropriate comments about women’s bodies in a way that makes me uncomfortable and can trigger eating disorder behavior, what can be done?” If you are comfortable, you can be clear that you have a history of eating disorder and that this behavior is a direct threat to your health. If you need to push farther, consider getting other co-workers to make similar complaints, or sign onto a letter that you turn in, to try to get more traction.
You also don’t have to make this about fatphobia – you can make it about demeaning women, commenting on women’s bodies, and/or creating a hostile work environment. As sad as it is, even among those who might be tolerant of fatphobia, those are things that tend to be taken more seriously.
This behavior is reprehensible. Nobody should have their body disparaged at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) Everyone who experiences this gets to decide how to deal with it, and every time we object to it we strike a victory for basic human decency and respect, and against fatphobia.
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