Tupperware and Take Out: Food Policing at Work
When I worked in fashion, like many a New Yorker, I ate lunch at my desk, reading emails and sending texts while shoveling bits of kale and sweet potato into my mouth. I sat in a pod — a U-shaped configuration of desks with the back of my chair almost touching the chair of the woman’s behind me (glamorous New York story here!) — and every day around noon or 1 pm, like show and tell, as each woman in my pod would extract their tupperware from the tetris of the work refrigerator or bring back lunches like prizes from the outside world, all the other pod women would crane their necks to review.
“Oh, that looks so healthy! I should have packed that.”
“Another salad! You’re so good.”
“Ugh, that looks so much better than what I brought.”
“A macro bowl! Is that how you stay so skinny?”
And on and on it went, the dissection of perfectly-portioned meals carefully measured into bento boxes, salads from places that dice, chop, steam, and stuff, or wonderfully large, flaky croissants oozing with ham and cheese. None were safe. All were for the eyes of the pod to review, like a security guard checking your bag before you enter the stadium, poking around with her stick and shoving things around to review your personal, private, possessions.
Out of guilt, embarrassment, competition, or intentional shaming, food policing at work, particularly between women, in my experience is so prevalent it’s nearly inescapable. Even now that I work at a different job, in a office with what feels like 99% men, women around me are somehow at my elbow whenever I’m putting food in my mouth.
“What did you get? That looks good.”
“You’re not having any of the guacamole? Don’t you like guacamole?”
“I’ve stopped eating snacks at work because It’s just easier not to think about it.”
Amid this seemingly constant flurry of questions and comments, I want to yell, “That’s nice. I DON’T CARE.” But I’m at work, and I’m trying with all my might to be taken as a professional who can sustain a polite smile during bizarre situations, like one in the American workforce does. And while food policing happens everywhere — in the home, in public spaces, definitely at family functions — food policing at work is particularly hazardous. This espionage of eyes remind women, at all times, that, even if they are trying with all their might to use their hard earned degrees to be contributing members to society through myriad mental, physical, or emotional labor, they are first and foremostly valued for their bodies and those bodies need to be kept in line.
Food policing is a layered, complex beast: Fat women are heavily food policed by the public; many men feel like they can be the food police for any women they see; and the poor are food policed through food stamp policies by politicians and through the voting populous. And I’m sure men get policed from time to time (before you point that out in the comments). All of these are problematic, some are suffocating. The impact of food policing on marginalized people is arguably the greatest sin. Food policing is annoying when your grandmother does it, sure, but it can also affect how you’re going to feed your entire family when it’s done by governing bodies.
With the understanding that there are different levels of food policing, permit to me to talk about why food policing at work needs to be addressed. Amongst the endless ways women are compacted into a gendered role at work — ruthless, ever evolving, social regulations around dress, gas lighting sceneries around speech (“She doesn’t speak up in meetings!”), pressure to be endlessly nice, even if you’re the boss — women’s eating at work is heavily monitored. The thing that gives you life, that sustains you, that literally gives you the energy to make it through the second half of the day, is the subject of public discourse. I’m not blaming women for creating these patriarchal values — this is a system that is meant to keep us fighting against each other over scraps while men revel in their superior salaries — but I do think a lot of women perpetuate the chains of female objectification through food policing. It can often come in the form of guilt that an individual isn’t doing “well enough” in her own methods of body restriction (i.e. through routinized and compulsory statements like, “I shouldn’t have eaten that cookie.”) Through individualized statements such as these, this omnipresent female coworker is, consciously or not, subtly coercing women around her to do the same. What an ingenious system: Make women think they have to “perfect” their eating to fit into impossible beauty standards and they will not only chastise themselves but will use social pressure, gossip, and guilt to keep each other in line.
I’m a photo art director and have spent much of my career on photo sets. And being on set, no matter how glamorous it is, usually means you are in a large, windowless room for ten hours, stuck with people and their neuroses. And the catering. Having a table of free food along one side of a room all day brings out inevitable weirdnesses in people. In some, you see pleasure (“There are cookies!,” “Can I take some of this home?”). In some, you see fear (“I shouldn’t eat carbs,” “How many calories do you think is in this?”). A photo set becomes a pressure cooker of people’s relationship to food. I’ve seen other people’s (particularly women’s) disordered eating projected all over the place. If they can’t have the cookies, no other women should get to peacefully have one.
While I was working in fashion, I worked with women who didn’t eat at all while they were on set (which is usually eight to ten hours a day) and I have worked with women who don’t eat at all in the office. (Whether or not they are sustaining from eating all day or hiding their eating, I can’t say). I have worked with women who cut out carbs, tell you how much weight they have lost or gained, praise you for looking check-boney, bobbly-headed, skinny. I have worked with a lot of women who don’t like their bodies and, if they mean to or not, they make you feel like you shouldn’t like yours either. And while I think this is symptomatic of a person’s “brokenness,” it was a fight to work within that world and maintain body love, food positivity, or just feeling good about yourself.
I now work in tech (thus the male dominated office culture, surprise, surprise) and here is what I think about most: I miss working with a lot of women. I miss the comradery, the bonding, the mentorships. I miss being around women in management positions that gave me inspiration for my own career. I miss making real friendships at my office. And I’m sure, or at least I hope, there are mostly female companies that don’t condone a culture of food policing. I hope there are fashion brands that are disrupting that culture from the inside out. I didn’t leave because of the food policing, but I wonder if I could have changed it. Should I, could I, have made an announcement? A club? A newsletter? Should I have approached the women in my pod one by one? With office dynamics and precious amounts of social clout, that seems like an awful lot to put on any one woman’s shoulder. I wonder about the food culture in places that seem socially conscious and have a female dominated work force like Bustle, The Wing and Refinery29. I'd like to hope these offices are the Neverland of anti-diet culture but I have no idea if that is the case.
In an era where the brand you work for is a large part of your identity and office culture can be what draws an application to submit their resume, can anti-food policing be listed as a perk on company websites? Nestled between health coverage and 401k benefits, could we see the promise that companies won’t condone food comparison or prideful disordered eating? Perhaps there can just be a sign in the kitchen, an email sent around: Please don’t comment on other people’s eating. Women’s bodies are already policed enough. What a small, delicious victory that could be.