Actual names have been changed to protect the author’s job security.
We’ve heard it 10,000 times in various ways, whether it be from questionable sources like the Dove Real Beauty ads, national coverage of fashion industry models, obnoxious high school health teachers—being thin shouldn’t be the definition of “good” or “attractive” and the desire to get thin can lead to a variety of health issues and eating disorders. Wherever you get your information about eating disorders, you know they’re bad and you know that the media is a huge player in the thin-is-better-than-your-everything game our culture has been roped into.
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and I’ve been hearing about it a bit, but it isn’t the biggest news of the week for me. Or it wasn’t, until the property managers at my high-rise office started running a campaign called “The Beach Ready Challenge.”
The campaign comes across as really benign if you haven’t ever struggled with body image, or if you don’t take a minute to think about implications of marketing ploys by your property management office. But after days of emails, and posters popping up in the lobby, I really couldn’t ignore it. This particular event is called the “Beach Ready Challenge” and I’ll give you a clip from their cringe-worthy email blast:
Big Bux Business Center is committed to providing its tenants with community minded events that seek to educate us in a positive way. In order to provide a head start on the road to wellness, we have joined forces and invite all Big Bux Business Center tenants to challenge each other on the scale for our Beach Ready Challenge. This year, one lucky man and one lucky woman will win a trip to a Paradise Island.
It’s The Biggest Loser in my office (they even do before and after pictures!). Did you catch all the subtle body-shaming stuff in there? About how you need to lose weight in order to be “Beach Ready” and that losing weight is necessarily “positive,” “a head start on the road to wellness,” and “lucky”? You win a trip to an island paradise for losing weight! Go you for being so healthy!
Except it’s not really healthy. Even The Biggest Loser can’t justify their contestants’ rapid weight loss anymore and the most recent winner won’t deny that she developed an eating disorder to achieve the win, and her trainer seems to be working with her off screen after the fact to makes sure she is really healthy. My building’s challenge offers no actual health tips from nutritionists, personal trainers, dietitians, or doctor. They don’t even tell you to seek out a medical professional’s advice before embarking on this road to wellness. They just tell you that in order to be valuable here, you have to lose weight.
There are about a hundred reasons I could name that would make it generally unhealthy to lose weight in this way, but this is practically thinspiration for people with eating disorders or people with ED-tending thoughts and actions. They’re giving people an excuse to lose weight rapidly in an unsupervised way and then offering a prize for it. I wonder if the person who organized this knows that the National Eating Disorder Association research shows that 20 million women alone will suffer from eating disorders in their lifetime and that it is the most fatal mental health issue? Did they know that eating disorders are on the rise in children? Is ‘losing weight’ so ubiquitous a value that it can infiltrate every corner of our lives? How can a child watch their parent’s unhealthy relationship with food, body image, and exercise, and NOT think that weight has something to do with a person’s value?
And the result of my first two emails bringing up the issues with this campaign? A short note from the Marketing Department on Monday, the first day of Eating Disorder Awareness Week:
My apologies that I didn’t get back to you earlier. In your original email, I erroneously assumed you wanted to state your feelings and were not looking for a response. We do take your comments into consideration and when evaluating programs for next year, we will consider this and all other feedback we receive. Our goal at the Center is to create fun, interactive programming for all tenants, and have no intention of offending anyone.
I caught your lack of an apology and your defense of the program, marketing employee. I also caught that you just thought I didn’t merit a response, despite the fact that I was told to contact you with questions or comments about the program. Thanks for that political, meaningless email that only tries to placate me and defend your actions.
It’s one thing to go into a gym, turn on the TV, or read a magazine that glorifies thinness and losing weight, but it is a completely different one to do it in the workplace. In an episode of The Office, “Weight Loss,” Dunder Mifflin does an office-wide weight loss challenge to get extra vacation days (sound ironically familiar?). Kelly stops eating, eventually causing her to pass out, in order to win.
The Office may be a funny mockumentary, but the episode highlights why the incentivization of weight loss in the workplace isn’t funny or productive. Kelly is clearly tired and unfocused, which are real physical and mental reactions your body can have to sudden extreme dieting and exercise programs. And then, there’s the added fact that Kelly is so motivated to win extra vacation that she actually passes out. People could just pass out at work from over-exercising and under-eating, but they could also die from a desire to be thin and subsequent rapid weight loss. It sounds melodramatic, but for people with eating disorders, dying isn’t far off the mark. Does my property manager know if anyone here is working with an advanced eating disorder? Nope—there aren’t any medical professionals involved! The management would like to reward those who survive, I guess.
The nasty penchant for thinness has infiltrated the rest of our offices, but in more subtle ways. You might be selling paper, working at a tech start up, or be at the front desk of a finance firm like me, but “fitness” and “health” has entered into the realm of appropriate office conversation. Juice cleanse craze anyone? Calling it healthy rather than skinny makes it okay to talk about—you say it’s a “detox” and no one asks any questions. Health is so trendy, it gets integrated into programs like the one at my building to engage the spectrum of workers from overpaid yuppies, to wealthy CEOs, to lowly administrative staff who dream of glamorous (read: skinny) lives.
But what does weight have to do with how well you work? Absolutely nothing (unless you’re a fashion model and then it has everything to do with it), and yet when it is brought into your email inbox, lobby, and newsletter, it subliminally changes what it means to be an engaged and contributing member of your office workplace. If we turn around the marketing department’s own words, we find that if you don’t participate in this program, you’re boring (not fun), negative (not positive), a loner (not interactive), and willingly unhealthy. Those aren’t resume building words—they negatively impact your standing in the office community.
After numerous emails to the marketing point person for the program and one snippy reply quoted above, I got called into a meeting with the CFO at my company. She had been put into an awkward situation when she got a call from the property management office who wanted to know if my statements were our official stance on the program, since the email was written from a work affiliated email address (never mind that their newsletters came to my work inbox and I just hit reply). I hadn’t ever brought the company’s name into it or iterated anything but my personal feelings. I even gave them my cell phone number to call to speak with me about it. Instead, they saw me as such a threat that they decided to go over my head to a superior. Suddenly, my vocal resistance to the program was met with actual repercussions in my workplace. I had become a less valuable employee.
For the few who should lose weight for health purposes, my workplace sure isn’t asking for any doctor’s sign off or help along the way. For the few who suffer from eating disorders or disordered thinking about weight, it simply triggers the disease that eventually could kill them. It creates an unsafe work environment. I go to work to do my job, and I do it damn well at a size [WHO CARES BECAUSE I DO MY JOB DAMN WELL].
Some tips on how to be “beach ready” this summer…
Step 1: Go to the beach.
Step 2: Enjoy being at the beach.
That’s it. There’s nothing more to do—you don’t have to lose weight to go to a public place and enjoy some good ol’ sandcastle building, swimming, sunning, or any other beach-worthy activity. And you certainly don’t need to lose weight to do your job well, either, despite the growing incentive to do so.