Monday, February 19, 2007

There's No Free Lunch

In a general psychotherapy group I lead, one patient asked, "Are you an eating therapist?" By this, she meant, "Am I allowed to eat in group?" The answer, for my groups, is yes (provided the munching is unobtrusive). I'm too much of a proponent of intuitive eating plans not to let a hungry person eat (though I might challenge this if it became a pattern). Some therapists, however, look at eating (in group or in individual therapy) as a sign of resistance--to eat is to avoid (usually emotions), and a prohibition of eating, therefore, encourages patients to tackle their reluctance head-on.

But, what about food choices at work, what you eat in front of colleagues and your boss?

In a New York Times article from the Sunday Styles section, wrter Abby Ellin takes us on a journalistic jaunt into eating at the workplace. In her article, "When the Food Critics Are Deskside," employers weigh in about their office policies and thoughts and feelings related to employee lunches. Should you go out or stay in? Entertain clients or nibble at your desk?

And, then what about WHAT you eat? It comes as no surprise that folks are judging our food choices and extrapolating to characterological conclusions. Ellin writes: "No matter how private you think it is, what you eat-and how much--sends telltale signals. People make assumptions about your character, whether you're driven (grilled salmon) or lazy (pepperoni pizza). " It might seem short-sighted, but we make these assumptions left and right. Everyone wants a disciplined politician, right?

But, sometimes it goes too far. According to the article, the most fastidious food critic may your pre-employment interviewer. Steven Viscusi, the owner of a headhunting firm in New York states: "'When I'm interviewing someone and I see their bones protruding, I know it's a good hire. "

Is Viscusi just stating the (typically) unstated--the fact that we all associate dieting and thinness with self-control, which we then associate with a host of other positive attributes? Might we allow a slender woman her pork fried rice, but expect cottage cheese (and, on a good day, a slice of fruit) from our heavy office mate? To me, it's alarming how food choices transcend the kitchen and enter our social psychology--a heuristic for assessing good and bad, right and wrong.

28 comments:

PalmTreeChick said...

That just made me think about something...

If people didn't comment on, or talk about peoples' food choices and weight, or diets (in the workplace) imagine how quiet the office would be?

Beth said...

Of course people silently critique our public food choices. Especially in situations not specifically meant for dining: school, driving, working,etc. It's crazy how much anxiety I feel eating a snack at school, or that people are "looking" at me eat. There was a girl at the library last night sitting next to me last night eating McDonalds fries. I would never do that! Why? Aside from not really liking fries, I would be afraid of what people thought! Needless to say, after the library I had a big mac/fries binge.

Jen said...

I, for one, am very concious of what I eat around people I don't know very well. I tend to be much less concious around those who know me, however. Maybe it's just because I trust them not to judge me on my food choices?

josephine said...

I know I am very truly comfortable with someone when I can eat what I want in front of them. Eating, for many of us, is a very vulnerable act.

Jackie said...

According to the article, the most fastidious food critic may your pre-employment interviewer. Steven Viscusi, the owner of a headhunting firm in New York states: "'When I'm interviewing someone and I see their bones protruding, I know it's a good hire."

So a good hire is someone who is malnourished? I don't understand that, how can they think when they're obviously starving? Maybe it'd be good for a job where they need to move arond alot. I don't understand it, why would someone hire a living corpse?

-Jen- said...

Lunch in the teacher's lounge is the MOST brutal place a person can possibly eat! Everyone there has been talking about kids and school all morning and it seems like the only thing left to discuss is food and weight. Everything you eat is evaluated and commented on by other teachers at the table. Blah...

Jackie said...

Jen, I guess those teachers can't manage a moment, where they're not lording over someone else. They can't hold power over their students for an hour, hey lets hold it over people who aren't starving themselves!

Stella said...

Being a binge/ purger, I frequently buy large quantities of doughnuts, cookies etc, and find myself patronizing the grocery stores with self-check-out lines. This way, I can avoid the awkward and embarrasing check-out where I feel like everyone in line and the cashier are scrutinizing my food choices. Not only this, but I somehow feel guilty for being very thin when the overweight family behind me is buying the same things; like I am either a red-flag bulimic, or just am blessed with a high metablosim. When I buy all vegetables and organic items (the stuff I "really eat"), I will often get comments like "I should be eating that and myabe I'll look like you", or "no wonder you're so thin". I shrug it off, but it is still very uncomfortable. I've lied about what I am buying, saying it's for my roomates, to take to work, or that I run a lot, so I pretty much eat whatever I want, all to justisfy my food choices and seem "normal", healthy, or somehow deserving of my body. When eating in the car, I hide things under my coat or a grocery bag, and won't hold a doughnut or a ho-ho in my hand. Around people, I don't eat much, as I would much rather be seen in the light of the aesethic anorexic than the glutinous bulimic. It is so true that the hunger artist is cast in a light of martyrdom, discipline, control, and selflessness, and here I am, only perpetuating the myth I am trying to fight against. Maybe next time I go to the store, I will proudly display my box of choclate covered doughnuts, and when the cashier asks how I stay so thin, I'll say honestly "I am bulimic". Somehow this isn't the message I want to send either. Maybe I'll just check in to ordering groceries by mail.

josephine said...

Stella: That was very insightful.

I am a personal trainer and I avoid shopping at the local grocery store. I have had situations where gym members will actually come over to me and look in my cart, noting any foods I "shouldn't" have. They also take note if all my foods seem "too healthy". It drives me crazy! So, I shop at a less convenient grocery store and avoid the comments all together.

yuki said...

josephine: seems like your gym members don't expect you to be human just cause you're a personal trainer...

I love eating and exercising and that's enough to keep my weight acceptable.

æ said...

This subject strikes such a nerve for me, I'm not sure I feel like I can comment! But you know I love a good comment fest :)

I am sick and tired of having people talk about what I eat. Comments can go either way--that you're eating so "good" or "bad"--and I'm tired of them all. They're all loaded. What I put in my body is my business, and it should not result in a value statement. Like Stella, I am tempted to say, "why yes, it's [whatever I'm having that day]. And I'm recovering from non-purging bulimia too! Eating in this social situation is extremely stressful for me. Is there anything else you'd like to know?"

Having struggled with food and body issues for most of my life, the last thing I want is to feel supervised. True, I may be eating differently than you do, but trust me, I would love to be "normal." The fact is, my body is very sensitive to many "standard American diet" foods, and eating them--while it may help me fit in--is ultimately harmful for me.

The LAST place I want this to come up is at work and school--and it always does.

One blog I found recently with really interesting (and funny!) observations about workplace eating is Carrie Arnold's. It's at http://ed-bites.blogspot.com.

drstaceyny said...

ptc--that's sad.

beth--thanks for sharing this--haven't "seen" you in a while.

jen--could be. . .

josephine--do you think this is b/c of the judgments described in the article? (or for other reasons?)

jackie--good question--I guess he ASSUMED that this meant they were disciplined.

jen--blah is right! Can you bring up some more engaging topics?

stella--that would be an interesting thing--to see the response you get. Thanks for stopping by--you always make such good points (in such an articulate way).

josephine--wow, you can't win. : (

yuki--good for you.

ae--thanks for the blog referral. I'm glad you were able to comment.

Anonymous said...

The other thing the headhunter is forgetting is that those who don't eat have trouble concentrating...not such a good hire in that case ;)

Alyssa said...

I remember seeing a show once, years ago, in which a camera crew would go into grocery stores with a "spokesmodel" and ambush shoppers. They would then proceed to go through their carts and either praise or lecture them based on their food choices. Imagine being lectured on food by a model! It was so awful, and yet it has stuck with me. Just the other day I was wondering what the "food police" would think if they looked in my cart, and I concluded that maybe I'd be off the hook because my food choices were mostly "good." It's like Big Brother! It was really bad when I'd have lunch meetings with potential agents and casting directors. I knew that I'd be judged not only by what I ordered, but by how much of it I actually ate. Being an insecure actress (lol!), I went home hungry from A LOT of those meetings! The worst was when one of them (who was my husband's manager, not mine!) said "You're a big girl." During lunch. Then continued on with the conversation as if she hadn't just hit me over the head with a mental two-by four. I was so embarassed, and felt ashamed every time I saw her after that. The crazy thing was, that at the time I weighed 145, and I am 5'9" tall. When does it stop?

elizabeth said...

I had never thought twice about a certain game I play with myself at the grocery, until reading these responses. When putting my food on the conveyer belt, I always analyze the contents of my basket. I quietly judge myself based on the foods I chose. Especially when I have a cart of "good' food, I can't help but judge the people in front of me & behind me, as they load their groceries on the belt.

I can't believe this is something that I have almost subconsciously been doing. I never thought about the negative affect this has on my own relationship with food. The fact that I am perpetuating ideas of food choice determining a person's character is troublesome. Next time I go grocery shopping, I will be thinking about this and will pay closer attention to the thoughts that mindlessly go through my head.

Anonymous said...

Alyssa, I read somewhere on a British news site that there are such groups in the UK, who ambush people in grocery stores and suggest "healthier" choices.
I know where I'd tell them to go...

anathema said...

Work-place criticism is so true....

I'm a sort of recovering bulimic, but I recently started working for a gourmet food company (not sure what I was thinking). During the interview my boss even asked me what type of restaurants I ate at--to determine if I was snooty enough about food, I guess!

Once I got the position, however, things became even more uncomfortable. I was told to eat lunch out as much as possible in order to explore the gourmet world, and every time I went out for lunch my boss would question me about where and what I had eaten. About half the time I would lie to him (or at least be very vague) because I couldn't admit that I had run into McDonald's and eaten as many hamburgers as I could in order to cope with the despair I felt. And even when I had eaten at the "right" restaurants, I hated having to confess what I had eaten--my food consumption is still something I'm ashamed of, not to be discussed with someone I want to impress.

When my boss was out of the office on a trip (we were the only people in the office) I would bring junk food in with me and binge all day long while doing my work. I thought working full time would help me to get my mind OFF of food--and instead the food pressure I felt every day only served to make my symptoms worse (at work AND at home). I ended up quitting--but I still feel guilty about eating non-gourmet food and I feel extra self-conscious now when I eat at my new (non-food related) workplace....

Natalie C. said...

This is my first time on your blog. How great that you are exploring these topics. Sounds like a great book to me.

I think the judgments from people either spoken or just perceived come from an overall misunderstanding of obesity & how people get there. (overweight=lazy & glutonous). How many times have I heard people say, "I'm just going to eat exactly what my skinny roommate (or whoever) eats. Then I'll look like she does." Not true. I think it's almost as big a prejudice against overweight people in our society as racism is.

But with things as they are, I'm going to have to continue to keep from eating lunch in the car while waiting to pick up my son from preschool lest one of the anorexic moms sees me and stops being my friend because they're so grossed out watching me eat.

Natalie C. said...

By the way, I need to apologize about my last comment. I would not want to hurt anyone's feelings who IS anorexic. I have a friend who DOES struggle with anorexia-- treatment facility last summer, etc. (actually one of the preschool moms) and she and I have this barrier between us because I'm astounded how she could starve herself through her stress & she's astounded how I could eat so much through mine. Too bad we can't see the common ground there. But in our minds we're just on opposite ends of the universe. I'd actually like to be friends with her but I just feel so much judgment that I actually hide my food (even if it's healthy!-- just to eat is to disgust people sometimes!) when she or other skinny moms walk by.

Alyssa said...

Natalie,
Being a mom is sometimes like walking through a vast, continous minefield, isn't it? It's like some moms have to completely tear down your method of parenting (or eating, or driving, or ANYTHING!) if it at all differs from theirs, so they won't feel like they're doing anything wrong. Perhaps it's best that you're not friends with that other woman, if only for the sake of your mental health. It's sad, but sometimes it's what we have to do. Good luck to you! (A

tracy said...

Oh wow, my first thought was that the woman who asked if you were an eating therapist - even the way it was put - was sizing you up...and it had absolutely nothing to do with food. If she had said , shes trying to get her body used to following the symptoms of hunger etc...

But it seemed to me like she was announcing - I know the lingo, I've been around and I want you to know it and where do you stand?

I dont know, could just be the way I read it...

As to the post. The only time I ever bought the huge bathtub size popcorn at the movies was when I had lost 100 pounds and weighed 128.

Anonymous said...

Hi. What a cool blog! I've never seen it before and look forward to reading more posts, so far I jsut read this one and simply HAD to share.

I too have noticed how willingly people comment on what their co-workers eat, get into these convserations about dieting and "health". I put health in quotes because more often then not, we're talking about a size 8 wanting to be a size 2, as if this were "healthier". I wish they'd just admit it's an aethetic preference, which they are perfectly entiteled to have.)

But I digress, this is about the comments people make at the workplace, and it's not just women, it's men too these days who are worried about such issues.
So, I thought I'd share with you what I've started to do: I've started SAYING what I think about this. It's really freeing.

I will give you some examples:

1. A male co-worker, more than once, would comment on my food choices. He wasn't trying to be mean at all, just making conversation. I would say I wanted pasta, he would say "mmm.. all those carbs?" Etc. At some point I said to him, "Hey, I'm sure you don't mean to be rude, but it IS rude to comment on other people's food choices. I have never asked you for your nutritional advice, nor am interested in it." He said he hadn't meant anything by it, just making conversation, I told him yes I understand that but now he knows what I think of it. And it has stopped.

2. WHILE eating my lunch - something like chinese food, or maybe french fries, I don't remember - a male co-worker started going on and on about the fat in my food and how unhealthy it was. I put down my fork and told him, "Really? What medical school did you attend that you know all this? In any case, I didn't ask you for your nutritional advice. And furthermore, it is my personal preference not to dissect the nutritional contents of my food while eating. It's not informtative, it's just unpleasant. I prefer to simple enjoy my food in peace, as I allow everyone else to do."

3. A female co-worker was describing her OWN lunch as "good" and another, recent meal as "bad", and sort of tried to draw me into the same type of dissection of my own current and recent meals. I said "They aren't good or bad. Food is not a moral issue."

4. I was eating a big dessert after lunch. I just really really felt like having it so I ate it all. A male co-worker at the table commented on this. "Wow you're having THAT?"
I just smiled and said "Yes! It's really delicious."
And he smiled and everyone at the table was happy and we all kept eating.
See? No need to say "I know, I shouldn't" or make up some justification for it like I would in the past. I'd worry what someone would think of me for shamelessly eating something like this out of the blue, and so much of it, but I see what happened... whatever they did or didn't think to themselves really doesn't matter. If they DID think something bad that's just a reflection of their worries about themselves. But in fact, chances are they didn't think anything about this and had better stuff to think about.

I want to tell you guys, nothing terrible happened as a result of any of these conversations. Nobody was hurt. We are all still great friends and talk about lots of things, much more interesting things than obsessive food discussion!
I'm not saying I'm such a genius or that I neverhave uncomfortable moments or situations I don't handly well. I just want to give you a couple of examples that I thought WERE successful, at least for me.

Thanks for all the great comments you guys wrote too! Was very interesting to read.

Aimee said...

My desk can't be seen by other work mates and everyone here eats what they want any way. The only person who judges what I eat is my trainer.

But I do eat to avoid issues as highlighted by the therapists who don't allow eating. It's a big problem.

Anonymous said...

What a great blog! Anyway, I know this post is somewhat dated, but I wanted to offer my perspective. I have vascillated between eating disordered and disordered eating for the past 10 years. Interestingly, around my coworkers is the only time I eat normally (no bingeing, no restricting). I see my odd eating behaviors as a sign of mental weakness, and I don't want my colleagues to think I am unstable! It also turns out that I usually eat lunch with 5 guys and 1 other girl (I, myself, am female). I just know that they would not accept weird eating rituals from me!

Anonymous said...

The last time I had a job interview involving food, I was probably 135 on a 5'8" frame and was only concerned with neatness and taste, not calories.

But these days, now that I'm more like 175 because I'm almost ten years older, don't love exercise, DO love everything that *isn't* recommended (dessert, fried, and some fast food), and am on a Depakote/Zyprexa cocktail (both of which are notorious for weight gain), I find myself much more conscious. It doesn't stop me, just makes me think about it. My trainer hassles me about my diet because I tell him the truth when he asks what I ate (for instance, the 4 mini-chimichangas from Taco Cabana I had for lunch...mmm). And yes, I judge other people's grocery carts on whether or not it's "real food"--not that mine would pass either, considering I eat way too much processed stuff and TV dinners.

I really miss my teens-early 20s metabolism--eat whatever and never gain more than an ounce.

And living with people who expect me to feed them when they see me eating gave me a borderline eating disorder--don't eat where/when the roommates can see you, basically.

Lucienne said...

This is ridiculous. I eat whatever I feel like eating, in front of whoever is there. Eating is not a private activity, it's a social activity. You're supposed to enjoy what you eat while you talk to the people around you.

I'm also pretty tired of feeling sorry for people with eating disorders. While I sympathize with their issues, I also resent them, for they push everyone around them to unrealistic standards of perfection and have quite often pushed me to be ashamed of myself for being - quite normal. It is not just that they are victims of society - they perpetuate the cycle to other women, who might have otherwise been quite happy and healthy, had it not been for their influence.

catatonickid said...

It is the weight it's given that gets me (pardon the pun). There's a terrifying amount of pressure around what we eat when in 'public'.

Lately I've found folks have some attitudes I just don't get. My step-dad, for instance, insists that the small portions I eat reflect "extraordinary discipline and self-control" on my part. It's said with this tone of reverence and envy that freaks me out a bit. And he's not the only one. The interesting thing is these comments abound when I'm somewhat underweight and were few and far between when I weighed a bit more. Only, my portion sizes didn't alter. People's perceptions did.

These things have very little to do with discipline and everything to do with lack of appetite when in public. In no small part due to the constant scrutiny of other people! I wonder how many other folks are in the same boat??

CaitlinC73 said...

I seem to be in much of the same situation as Stella, but I would like to add something. I eat what I want all the time; sometimes this results in a salmon dinner or a salad and sometimes it causes me to eat large amounts of peanut brittle. I have come to hate eating around people because of the comments that I get every time and the resulting eating issues I have with it.
If I eat something that is considered healthy, the conversation that follows normally centers on my apparent discipline with regard to eating. I have also noticed that if I am eating something “healthy” it makes others uncomfortable, to the point that I do not believe they enjoy eating with me. If we go out to eat, they do not order what they want because they fear I will judge them. The conversation becomes focused entirely on what we are eating and our personal exercise routines rather than enjoying each other’s company.
If I am caught using mayonnaise or eating a cheeseburger, it is enough to send most people into frenzy asking about my eating habits and metabolism and what else I ate that day. I also find people looking at my plate; challenging me to finish as though it is not possible that I can, many going so far as to tell me that I cannot possibly finish. I binge when I go out to eat because of how uncomfortable it makes me.
For these reasons generally I feel pressure to eat non healthy items when I am eating with others because I find it to be the lesser of two evils. I would much prefer that I feel sickeningly full than make someone else feel uncomfortable eating with me. I try to avoid eating with people for this reason. I don’t like that people think it is ok to comment on my body because I feel as though they are marking perceived differences between us. I know that today, when a girl said, “Oh my gosh! You are so tiny!” I immediately got something to eat. I rarely hear things of that nature as a compliment; I think it comes out like an accusation.
On a lighter note, I love your blog and I hope you are enjoying your summer. I really appreciate the variety of your posts and you pose so many well thought out questions. I feel as though this blog gives the opportunity for women to say how they really feel about food. I have never shared my discomfort about food with anyone before this post.