Dear Coworker: Why do you care what I eat?
June 30, 2014 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting really tired of a particular coworker's constant prying about what I eat. It's starting to feel like bullying, and it happened to me before at my previous job. What do I do?

A woman I work with, who is older than me and in a more senior position, is constantly asking prying questions about what I eat. She's in the office three days a week, and every single time, she manages to make some sort of comment about my food, which usually comes off as underhandedly bitchy. I eat a paleo diet, but I don't like to talk about it or shove it in other peoples' faces.

Here are some examples of things she says:

-She sees I'm eating a salad: "Wow, that's the BIGGEST salad I've ever seen!"

-I eat my own lunch even though catering is offered for a meeting: she announces to everyone (including the client), "Oh, she's doing some weird detox thing, so she can't have a sandwich."

-Three of us (me, her, and another coworker) go to a restaurant after a client meeting. I don't order a drink, and she presses as to why. Then, when she orders a drink, she says, "Well, I better get a skinny margarita so I can keep up with miss healthy."

The comments are incessant. Why does she give a crap about what I eat? I dread eating my lunch every day because I know she'll have something to say about it. I usually eat at my desk, and have tried eating somewhere else, but inevitably, she just asks where I went when I return. In general, she is very nosy.

This exact same situation happened at my previous job, with the same dynamic (senior manager in her 50s-60s making underhanded comments about my food and appearance).

This situation is driving me crazy. Any advice? I'm hesitant to speak up because of the power dynamic (and the fear that she might make things worse for me). I work in a very small company (12 people), and she is really close with our HR lady.

Any recommended books, tips, etc. would be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by shiggins to Human Relations (66 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Take her aside and ask her, very politely, to stop commenting on your food choices.
posted by xingcat at 8:22 AM on June 30, 2014 [12 favorites]

I get this all the time from a wide variety of people at my office, where I am considered a freak of nature for eating oatmeal and tofu. I think it's a combination of curiosity and a need to make inane small talk - it's the thing about me that stands out the most in a sea of biscuit-eaters, I guess. I just ignore it. I know it's annoying, but I think it will make your work life awkward if you try to address it with her.
posted by something something at 8:24 AM on June 30, 2014 [22 favorites]

Food is a ridiculously polarising office topic. I feel like it should be a workplace taboo like politics and religion because it is so personal and people get so het up about it. You know she's the one who looks like an insecure idiot in this scenario, right? You don't need to do anything; she's making herself look stupid with every bitchy remark she makes.

The way you write this situation up it sounds like HR is not your best bet so a polite confrontation a la xingcat followed by straight-up ignoring might be the way forward. If you're allowed to listen to music at work, I would listen to music so I didn't have to hear it.

I used to have a similar situation at my previous job. I like food, eat a lot of it. Whatever, my choice. But one of my colleagues would constantly go: "Wow, I can't believe you can eat that much", "Do you know how many grams of fat are in that sandwich?" and so on. She probably had a lot more to say; I just plugged in my earphones and ignored her.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:32 AM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Mmm, this sounds like an edge case - the comments about "wow, that's a big salad" are actually kind of harmless. But critical things like announcing "oh, she's doing some weird detox thing" to a client are indeed kind of rude.

What I would do is a sort of amended version of xingcat's advice - something like, you appreciate her friendliness, but sometimes she says things in a way that kind of make you feel a little....judged, and that angle makes you a bit uncomfortable. You know? Use lots of "I-statements" - "you may not mean it this way, but when you say [foo] it sort of makes me feel [baz]".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:36 AM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

" she just asks where I went when I return."
So smile mysteriously. Tell her you met your lover for a nooner. You don't have to answer her questions.
When I was a serious bodybuilder (don't ask, it was long ago) people always commented on what I was eating, how often, what amounts. I found humor deflected most of the remarks, and those who didn't back off--I asked them why they were so interested ("Are you writing a book?) and then politely told them to MYOB.
I think you would enjoy your lunch more if you ate elsewhere, though.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:37 AM on June 30, 2014 [12 favorites]

Ask a Manager has a bunch of threads about this and similar issues. The advice & comments have a lot of great scripts for telling people to back off.
posted by almostmanda at 8:38 AM on June 30, 2014 [29 favorites]

who is older than me and in a more senior position...she might make things worse for me

More senior how? Does she supervise you in some way? Or has she just been there longer? What is the actual power dynamic? How does her age matter? Try to set aside whatever happened at your previous job and look at what can she actually do to you?

You said she's very nosy. Take a look around and see if she is like this with everyone. If it's just you, then it might need addressing. If it's everyone, then it might be less likely that she could actually harm your career in some way.

And seconding Ask A Manager being a great work advice resource.
posted by Beti at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is really and truly one of the worst things about working in an office. A lot of people are just weird about food and/or constantly look to compare what they are eating to what other people are eating.

I would speak to her, politely and directly and I would use something that you said in your question in what you say to her: "I dread eating my lunch every day because I know [you will] have something to say about it." Sandwich it with a lot of "I know you don't mean anything by it/I'm certain you would never want to be rude". Good luck and godspeed.
posted by kate blank at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

My experience is that people say things like this not because of you, but because of them. Because they look at what you're eating and feel judged, or fat, or old, or whatever, and saying things like this establishes you as a weird outlier and them as normal person who eats normally.

It's like, if two women go out to supper, and one is having a salad and one's having a burger, we all know that the woman with the salad is making the "right" decisions. Many women have spent their lives being judged on their food intake, and have developed some defensive techniques around eating. This woman's technique is making sure that someone else is the weird one--if everyone's looking at what you're eating and thinking about how weird it is, no one's looking at her.

I try not to take that kind of thing personally--it's probably not malicious, and she almost certainly isn't thinking it through, like, oh, better put the spotlight on Shiggins! I know that it's annoying as hell, because I'm also a Weird Eater who's been stuck with officemates who were aggressively defensive about their food choices. Dealing with those people got a lot easier for me, though, when I realised that they're almost universally doing it because they're unhappy and self-conscious--being sympathetic, in that situation, was healthier and less misery-making for me than being angry.
posted by MeghanC at 8:43 AM on June 30, 2014 [62 favorites]

It might be a kindness to suggest to her some other casual/personal topics to talk about. I think some people talk about food because it's something we all use and can relate to, it's not obviously political or as personal as "your parents", and talking about clothes has its own problems. Maybe you'd personally prefer to talk about clothes?

And if she is overweight and you are not, then giving her a hard time about it is probably not the best approach, unless your goal is to dominate and humiliate her rather than to have a reasonable working relationship with her.
posted by amtho at 8:44 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

She might even believe she's being friendly and complimentary. There's such a weird female culture around food and guilt that it then becomes an easy way to make small talk with another woman on the basis that she shares that weird food culture (which isn't a safe assumption but it's still commonly assumed). I think letting her know that her talk about your food choices is making you uncomfortable - especially when she singles you out in front of clients! - is a good idea. Or, if you want to go the "little white lie" route say your diet is medically indicated, although that may just lead to more nosy questions as that will be the new small talk subject.
posted by Kurichina at 8:48 AM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've found that if you eat relatively healthy some people take it as if you're attacking their less healthy choices. Or you're deliberately not being "fun" or you're just faking but you really secretly love McDonald's. And offices just make it worse. I haven't worked in an office in a long time but when people said things like "YOU'RE NOT EATING ANY CAKE?!?!" I used to just look the person in the eye and calmly say something like "If I ate cake every time there was a birthday I'd be obese, and I don't want to be obese, so I don't eat it." Which worked; I think most people get, though they don't want to admit it, that there's a health/food trade-off most of us have to navigate.

For her comments I'd be tempted to add some stealth snark. Like ""Wow, that's the BIGGEST salad I've ever seen!" "Oh, you only go to drive thru places, I guess? You should try a real restaurant, they even serve salads as meals, it's great!"

I would not speak to her directly, as nice as those suggestions sound, because I've seen way too many nasty people use things like that against the well-meaning initiator of the conversation.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:49 AM on June 30, 2014 [16 favorites]

This is so awkward and so annoying. And I can't think of any situation where you don't run into this -- if you're thinner than usual, if you're heavier than usual, if you have food allergies, if you like food, if you hate food. I myself am of medium-size and I still get this because of my ordering choices ("Oh, you're so good!" if I order a salad instead of fries).

I think in your situation, I'd try the Pam, named for Pam Beasley of The Office's responses to Michael Scott's weirder behavior: a flat facial expression, and a blandly factual request to cease the inappropriate behavior. "Please don't throw garbage at me." Any responses from the Michael should be met with the same:

MICHAEL: But I have the right to throw garbage at you!
PAM: Please don't throw garbage at me.
MICHAEL: But you're no fun!
PAM: Please don't throw garbage at me.
MICHAEL: But I care about your health/but you're so weird/but [any other justification for throwing garbage]
PAM: Please don't throw garbage at me.

The idea is that you're giving the Michael nothing in response, which makes you boring and makes your coworker back off (eventually -- it may take a while). It's also similar to Suzette Haden Elgin's Computer Mode in that the idea is to avoid escalating the situation or rewarding your coworker with a response.

I'd suggest "Please don't comment on my food choices." as a place to start. The key thing is that you don't feel like you need to defend your request -- your coworker will come at you with eleventy billion justifications for WHY she has the right to comment on your food choices. Don't engage. "Please don't comment on my food choices." The end.
posted by pie ninja at 8:51 AM on June 30, 2014 [24 favorites]

Hit post too soon. You can also sometimes shut people down by responding in some bland way ("Yup, it's a pretty big salad!") but then adding, not really to her but just like a general observation, "God, talking about food is so boring, isn't it?"
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:52 AM on June 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Just a second ago I was at our corporate cafeteria when a lady behind me commented to one of the food servers that he looked like he was losing weight. He said he had lost 25 pounds in the last three months by watching what he ate and eating less (he looks terrific). The lady said, "so, you're trying to lose weight then?", and he said yes. She then said "well you had better go get yourself a milkshake and cheeseburger" in a very serious tone. I'm not sure what part of his response she didn't understand, but my take on it was that she felt uncomfortable by him losing weight intentionally, maybe she is jealous and wanted diffuse her discomfort by making such an authoritative statement about what he *should* be eating, which is likely along the lines of what she normally eats. Seems like most people are authorities on what humans should eat, and some people have a need to express it. It's an annoying thing for sure. Rather than confronting her I would just smile and keep eating your big ass salads.
posted by waving at 8:53 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

There was another question along these lines a couple/three/whenever years ago, and the answer I personally like best was the one that recommended responding to comments about your food with total non-sequiturs, as if the person had asked you an appropriate question. So:

Them: Wow, that's a huge salad!
You: Oh, I loved the Lego movie - I would watch that again and again!

Them: She can't eat a sandwich, she's on some detox thing!
You: Yes, my partner and I had a lovely weekend, thanks - we did [fun thing].

Good luck. This kind of behavior is incredibly irritating, I know, and while snarky responses are fun to fantasize about, I'm not sure they'd solve the problem so much as create a new one.
posted by rtha at 8:53 AM on June 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm going to make a guess about this lady:

1. She's overweight and self-conscious, so she's deflecting her perceived flaws onto you. Fat people think we're being judged all the time for our food chocies, so to make someone's healthy choices seem weird, some will do this obnoxious behavior.


2. She's thin and working like a dog to stay that way. People in my generation and earlier tend to have disordered thinking about food. So she's just hyper-aware of every morsal going into her mouth, and yours and the dude three cubes over who eats a microwave burrito every day.

I think one thing you can do is have a short discussion with her. I'd recommend, prior to the next time you bust our your big salad.

"Sheila, you probably don't even notice that you're doing this, but it appears that you comment on my food every day. I have an issue that requires me to have a very proscribed diet and i'm self-conscious enough, without your running commentary. So, please be mindful and not say anything, or if you accidentally do, I'll gently remind you about it. Would that be okay?"

Chances are, she'll be mortified, but if you're pleasant and non judgemental, it shouldn't be an issue.

So the next time she comments, just say, "I know, but the less said the better."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:53 AM on June 30, 2014 [21 favorites]

I think the "explain to me I'm so confused" methodology that works so well with *ist jokes and comments can work here as well.

"I don't understand, is my salad offending you?"
*looking around at the other people there* "I'm sorry, is it against policy for me to eat the lunch I brought?"

Or you could ding-train her while playing up the awkwardness of what she's doing by just saying "okay" every time she does it. Just let it hang there, making everyone uncomfortable. I mean, you're not obligated to explain and she's being like Emily Post level rude, so just acknowledge that she spoke but don't dignify it with an answer. If she is being this horrible as a reflexive unconsidered action, from the depths of her own insecurities or eating disorders, then eventually she will be forced to consider that there is an entire subject of conversation with you that ends awkwardly every single time and maybe she will stop.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:55 AM on June 30, 2014 [13 favorites]

I'd take it to mean she is concerned that you are judging her because she isn't eating healthy so is heading you off at the pass with bitchy comments. She is self conscious about her own choices, and because she likes to judge people she things you are judging her choices. You are seeing peoples own insecurities.

I say this as my own conclusions as a fat lazy person that eats shit food and have watched it with fascination in more office lunch rooms than I can count as certain types of people like to make comments on the healthy persons lunch, while my less threatening lunches will go uncommented upon as I am no threat either in the who has the most correct lunch stakes and also in general fitness stakes.

I'd do the whole kill them with kindness route in response. Say to the huge salad comment, say you should see the one I had last night, twice this big and it had the most delicious dressing I made myself {insert recipe here}. If she's being a dick it takes away her power, if she's just making small talk, it makes small talk.
posted by wwax at 8:55 AM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

There are many good comments already, but the salient factor in solving this will require confrontation of some type. Obviously be diplomatic, but in the end you might have to generate some discomfort to get the resolution you want.
posted by jjmoney at 9:00 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Beti, I might be making too much of the power dynamic, but it seems to be a recurring pattern. I am in my late 20s, and in my last job, there were two women in their 50s/60s who bullied me (one constantly made comments about my food and appearance; the other one was my direct supervisor and tried to belittle me in every way she could).

The woman at this job has been at the company longer than anyone else (aside from the president). While she isn't my direct supervisor, per se, she is one of my managers.

I am not thin; I am actively trying to lose weight, which is another thing that I hate talking about. She isn't thin either, but she is very occupied with her appearance (always dresses really fancy even though no one else in our office does, etc.).

I don't want to explain why I eat the way I do, either; if I say it's for a "medical reason," she'll want to know what that is, too. (Earlier this year, when I was withdrawing from SSRIs, she managed to pry that bit of information from me, even though I was trying to keep it hush-hush.)

The read I get is that she is self-conscious and assumes that I am judging her, but I'm not. I just want her to leave me alone. Small talk in general drives me crazy, but especially when it's the kind that Kurichina mentioned: There's such a weird female culture around food and guilt that it then becomes an easy way to make small talk with another woman on the basis that she shares that weird food culture (which isn't a safe assumption but it's still commonly assumed).

I guess I'm just complaining at this point; the answers are helpful and giving me ideas, though. Thanks, everyone!
posted by shiggins at 9:04 AM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have experienced this behaviour in Japan (where it is completely normal). I think if you are going out with clients, or are eating with clients, you really do need to avoid sticking out. If you can, unless it is going to make you sick or kill you, eat what everyone else eats, or don't eat at all.

The most common scenario in Japan is drinking. In order not to appear rude, if you don't want to drink, you just get your glass filled up with beer, and then don't drink it.

My experience in Japan taught me that likes and dislikes are fine, but there is a time and a place for everything. So try to fit in and stay on message when dining with clients, and then ignore this person when there is no chance of derailing something sensitive because of your eating habits.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:06 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

When someone else is unthinkingly doing something that I don't like, I usually say something like, "Hey, c'mon, I don't like it when you X. Knock it off."

"Knock it off" is a command and it's direct, so it's a good signal that you really want the other person to stop. But it's also chummy enough that the other person won't feel seriously chastised and hurt. Don't use sarcasm, and don't take her aside and make it seem really serious. That might embarrass her and lead to indignation. What you're looking for is the equivalent of one kid saying to another kid at the playground, "you're playing too hard." It's a good first step that solves problems while letting both sides save face.

But if she persists, then you can try escalating by taking her aside.
posted by painquale at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

Beti, I might be making too much of the power dynamic, but it seems to be a recurring pattern. I am in my late 20s, and in my last job, there were two women in their 50s/60s who bullied me (one constantly made comments about my food and appearance; the other one was my direct supervisor and tried to belittle me in every way she could).

FWIW, I'm a woman in my twenties and have encountered these people, too. Older established workers who boss around or bully the female entry-levels. Occasional comments about what I was or wasn't eating, but also a lot of snide comments about my relationship status, expertise, clothing, etc. The pattern I've noticed is that they're it's from people who stopped advancing at some point because of their shitty attitudes, often at the step before or in their first management position. They're bitter because they don't garner the respect they think is owed to them due to their seniority. And most times, the higher-ups don't think it's worth trying to properly manage someone who is that stuck in their ways/willing to make a scene/close to retirement. It's maddening.
posted by almostmanda at 9:31 AM on June 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

This happens to me too. I bring my lunch every day in a special lunch box -- it's not flashy or stupid looking, and it's a plain boring color and doesn't have cartoon characters on it. And people ask me about it endlessly. Most of the time people are just interested in the lunch box itself, and I'm happy to have that conversation. But a lot of people either start or end with comments about my food -- either what it is or how much there is (something like "I'd want more cucumbers than that" or "that's a lot of meat"). I usually just say "yep." It goes like this:

Other: I'd want more cucumbers than that.
Me: Yep.
Other: That's a lot of meat
Me: Yep.
Other: That's a huge salad
Me: Yep.
Other: She can't eat a sandwich, she's on some detox thing!*
Me: Yep.

The only one of these I'd handle differently is the last one. It's completely unacceptable to try and score points off a co-worker this way in front of a client, and it should be discussed with the person and/or their supervisor. But I'm a senior manager, so I'm in a position of strength in those conversations. If I didn't want to take the person on, I'd go with "yep."

I don't agree with KokuRyu about eating nothing at all -- one of my co-workers does that, and it's ALWAYS an issue. People pile on asking why she's not eating, when really, they don't need to know that she's breastfeeding and her baby is lactose intolerant and she finds it too hard to find out what foods in some random situation have dairy in them so she instead chooses to not eat any food she has not prepared herself.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:33 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

The first example you gave seemed innocuous but the further examples are really egregiously awful and gross. I personally would be pretty confrontational in your position, but I totally understand if that's not something you want to deal with. You could say something sort of innocently passive-aggressive like "wow, it's so strange how you're always so concerned about my eating habits, my own mother doesn't even worry this much!" or something similar to publicly call out how inappropriate it is for her to voice her constant obsession with your food intake, especially in the presence of clients.

If you don't want to say anything in front of clients, which is also totally okay and has the bonus of making you the better person (not that it's hard with someone awful like her) you can just look really startled that she would even say anything so incredibly inappropriate. And rest assured that these clients are probably well aware that her comments are very unprofessional and don't think it reflects badly upon you.
posted by elizardbits at 9:40 AM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

As others have pointed out, this is all about her own insecurity. It's too bad, because by belittling you she's just making another person join her in feeling bad. I, too, have gotten lots of comments on paleo (which I am by no means strict about anymore), and my go to response is, "Everyone is so different. I'm just trying to do what works for me".

Because while it's possible for people to argue with that, most people realize at that point that they shouldn't.

Lastly, I'd try fighting fire with compliments. Don't respond to "that's such a big salad" with something about her food choices. Instead say something like, "thanks, that's a great blazer!" or, better, "thanks, wow that client meeting you led went well!"

Basically, unless she's being egregiously bullying (in which case feel free to say, "please don't comment on my food choices"), try countering with something that might make her feel better. It might not Actually make her feel better, but it might make you feel a little better, and that's the main thing you can control.
posted by ldthomps at 9:50 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

If digging the SSRI withdrawal story out of you didn't embarrass her, I doubt anything would. That's just...ugh.

I vote for boring her to tears at every opportunity you get, when it's just the two of you. And fortunately, people with non-standard eating habits have a fantastic weapon -- evangelism!

When she comments on your food, start talking about paleo. Not your meals specifically, but the way of eating in general -- pros and cons (leaving out physical appearance benefits), sudden adoption versus gradual, what some of the prevailing thinking is within that way of eating, how there's been a lot of rethinking about nutrition in the last twenty years, who the key paleo thinkers are and what they say, and so on. Make it as unpersonal -- yet educational -- as possible.

If paleo's anything like low carbing (and it is, right?) then I know from experience doing this isn't difficult at all. And if it's filling the conversational air with lots of stuff that she doesn't care about, and no stuff that she actually wants, it might make her wander off and find a new target. Or, hey, maybe you'll convert her -- which is solving the problem another way.

(And elizardbits is 100% correct about your clients -- those comments make her look unprofessional, not you.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:51 AM on June 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm just going to chime in and agree that this is a jealousy/insecurity issue, and it's so so common among the older/younger female dynamic in any office.

The best thing to do is kill her with kindness, meaning, don't snark or otherwise call her out. Go with OrangeDisk's "yep" script. You aren't going to get her to back off without causing other problems, and she isn't interested in converting to whatever diet you're following, or else she would have already had a sincere and civil conversation with you about it.

She is already making herself look unprofessional in front of your colleagues and clients. You can't do anything about that and it isn't your responsibility to do anything about it. It's your responsibility to get your own job done, and to make yourself look good in front of clients.

Keep your head down at work and be professional. Learn how to keep your private information to yourself, she's already proven she's untrustworthy with it. If a situation like the client lunch comes up again, keep your expression neutral and change the subject. Everyone else at the table will get what's going on.
posted by vignettist at 10:09 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I still say don't try to stick out in client meetings.

But if weight is an issue (I have some experience with this issue, in that I have been quite obese, I'm not anymore, but I have a twin sister who is, so I have to be conscious about not appearing to "compete" with her), you might be appearing competitive.

In that case, you're going to have to rise to the challenge. It's a competitive world out there. The best way to compete is to ignore this woman's comments, but don't leave yourself exposed in business meetings.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:09 AM on June 30, 2014

She sounds insecure...I would just ignore it if I were you. I like the response from OrangeDisk above - just keep saying something bland like "yep", and eventually she will get bored. The key is consistency, and not letting it bother you.

I agree that this is some weird female-food-culture thing that I just don't understand. I am quite thin, and I used to eat somewhat unhealthily. Inevitably I would get all sorts of passive-aggressive comments from a certain type of insecure woman. ("Oh, someone's being indulgent today!" or "Wow, I wish I could eat like that and look like you!") For the last few months I've really made an effort to eat more healthily....and now I get even more comments about my food. ("Wow, you're being so GOOD today!", etc.) I still look pretty much exactly the same. My morality hasn't changed just because I made different food choices.

Just keep eating what you eat, and smile and nod when she makes weird comments. It's not about you at's all just her odd insecurities. I would not bring this up with HR or anyone else at the office - you don't want to get a reputation for not being able to deal with typical office busybodies.
posted by barnoley at 10:11 AM on June 30, 2014

I agree wholeheartedly with MeghanC. This is probably a reflexion of her insecurities.
Some people genuinely resent others for making better choices. Heck, sometimes they think you're just being a show off & and you chow down on twizzlers, Kraft Mac n cheese, and canned chili when no coworkers are looking. Some people, through various reasons that probably go beyond willpower, simply cannot fathom not eating tons of carbs and/or junk food.

I eat mostly Paleo, not for weigh reasons but for health reasons (AI). I feel much healthier eating a different diet than most people do. Whenever someone attempts to give me grief, I make it clear to them that I do it for health reasons & would order Papa John's in a heartbeat if I could.

Now, I have no idea if that's the case with you, but you could pull her aside, claim you've been having some nasty indigestion issues that you're trying to resolve by eating this way. But that you are self-conscious about it & would appreciate it if she didn't bring it up so much so you don't feel like a freak, especially in front of clients.
Even if that's not the case, LIE (yeah, I said it).
People tend to be less judgmental of tummy aches than they are of other health issues (none of her business), and especially than of some "skinny bitch always flaunting how healthy she is" <- which may or may not be what she is thinking.
posted by Neekee at 10:16 AM on June 30, 2014

I am in my late 20s, and in my last job, there were two women in their 50s/60s who bullied me (one constantly made comments about my food and appearance; the other one was my direct supervisor and tried to belittle me in every way she could).

I will suggest these older women are interacting with you so negatively for probably a couple of reasons which are coming together in exactly the wrong way.

First, they likely find you threatening in some way. You are younger, prettier (I don't care if you think you are a hag -- just being younger can make some women feel "God, what a bitch! How dare you out pretty me, damnit.") and possibly more competent/competitive at your job. It might help if you try to find something to compliment her on, something genuine, not bs. If she is good at something at work, tell her you have noticed she is the best person at the company at x. Everyone may know it but just take it for granted and acknowledgement can mean a lot to some people. Also, if you are getting a lot of limelight for the work you do, try to include her in credit where you can and try to bask less in front of her. You might think it is not a big deal but is she is hurting, it's like rubbing salt in the wound.

Second, she is old enough that she may have more traditional female experiences and more traditional expectations of female roles. She may be trying to be caring by "mothering" you, which is totally inappropriate on the job but it may not have any kind of malicious intent, at least not that piece of it. It's just what a lot of women do and, for some women, it can be really hard to figure out how to interact effectively without being motherly towards people. It might help to say something like "Thank you for your concern. But you really don't know enough about my life to give good diet advice." Don't get into why you eat the way you eat. Try to acknowledge that her behavior probably comes from a place of caring but then make it clear that the behavior itself is not appropriate for a work setting. Just keep repeating that basic position that food/diet is a complicated topic, there aren't enough hours in the day to get into it all, it has nothing to do with work and is just not appropriate.

I would absolutely not tell her you are upset, you are uncomfortable, etc. I would absolutely not make this about your feelings. (if she is being catty, that's just fuel for the fire, not a solution.) I would emphasize that it is an act of poor boundaries and just keep reiterating as politely and non-plussed as possible (in some fashion or another -- there have been lots of good scripts up thread) where the appropriate boundary line is.

As for her remark in front of clients, I would bring that up as an issue not of employee relations but of public relations. It potentially hurts the company to say something like that in front of clients and really is very inappropriate and needs to stop for that reason.
posted by Michele in California at 10:20 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Log every comment in a diary. Might save a lot of trouble in case she gets worse.
posted by Freedomboy at 10:25 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing pie ninja and leaving emotions out of it.I'm inferring from the "miss healthy" type comments that coworker knows perfectly well she's a bully.
posted by brujita at 10:27 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I eat a paleo diet, but I don't like to talk about it or shove it in other peoples' faces.

I wonder if responding to her comments every single time with a long and very enthusiastic spiel about paleo would deter her?
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:35 AM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Could you just engage with her? I mean, she sounds like a bit of a B, but maybe she's INSATIABLY curious about why you're always eating "weird stuff" and would cool it if she knew. I eat paleo sometimes when I have the willpower and time, and I know a MASSIVE amount of SUPER boring information about nutrition and diet. I'd just attempt to bore the shit out of her every time she asked about my food. I've tried this tactic before, and it's worked out. People get this impression like "don't ask her about her food, she'll NEVER stop talking about the paleo diet" which is totally fine with me, though, since I actually kind of enjoy small talk and I'd rather talk about nutrition than the weather.

Eating a certain way really does make people around you feel guilty and judged for eating "normally" and they react weird. but I try not to think of it as "bullying" or "nosing" because I think it's mostly a self-preservation tactic like MeghanC says. Coming back from lunch after eating chicken fingers and fries and seeing someone eating a big salad makes you feel guilty and jealous of their willpower, so you lash out at them.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:40 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not very constructive, but here's me in that situation: "Would you like me to notify you on my upcoming lunch choices? That way you could prepare your comments on them in advance." I'm a big believer in the healing power of sarcasm.
posted by Flexagon at 10:47 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd just attempt to bore the shit out of her every time she asked about my food. I've tried this tactic before, and it's worked out.

Amusingly, Robert Pattinson tried this exact approach when he had a really aggressive stalkery fan who kept hovering outside his stage door trying to get a date - he finally agreed to take her for coffee, but then acted so completely and utterly boring while they were there that she left after about ten minutes and never bothered him again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:49 AM on June 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

Make a bingo card entitled "Things my co-worker says about what I eat" with things she has said before about your diet. Every time she says something, pull it out in front of her and cross off a square.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:51 AM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

I work in an environment where almost everyone has some kind of dietary restriction. It is therefore somewhat common for people to bring their own lunch or even ask that a catered or potluck dinner be completely gluten free / nut free / dairy free / vegetarian / vegan / etc. Of all the people who had particular diets, there was only one colleague who seemed to systematically get comments. In my mind, the reason people commented was because she was already as skinny as her muscular frame could be, but kept thinking she needed to lose more weight. People, perhaps wrongly, associated her diet with her poor body image. She would make comments indicating that she felt horrible about herself if she "fell off" the wagon and would "feel fat" if she missed one day at the gym. Basically, there were a lot of indicators that she suffered from a distorted body image and that her relationship to food was not a simple, easy one. I recognize this is even more reason not to comment on her diet - but it was hard to see someone go through such a negative experience with body image.

I'm not saying that's the case here. However, there might be a discrepancy between how you perceive yourself (as needing to lose weight) and the comments you're reporting. You also seem to be hyper-aware of how people read your relationship to food. People comment on my lunches too, since I cook a lot and tend to eat healthy. I'm always happy to blab away about it - but then, I'm also slightly extroverted.

That said: the comments bother you. The easiest way to deal with it is to kindly tell your coworker that you would appreciate it if she could stop commenting on what you eat. There's no reason to be rude or to even assume she means any harm. She might not realize they bother you and is likely, as others said, only focusing on her own insecurities. Tell her, and if she continues, then it officially becomes bullying.
posted by Milau at 11:01 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

...I'd try the Pam, named for Pam Beasley of The Office's responses to Michael Scott's weirder behavior: a flat facial expression, and a blandly factual request to cease the inappropriate behavior...It's also similar to Suzette Haden Elgin's Computer Mode in that the idea is to avoid escalating the situation or rewarding your coworker with a response.

Yup! At work we call this "the Broken Record". It's a fantastic response, and in my experience, very effective.

Another potential response is Ding Training. Let's modify that script for your needs:

You: munch munch munch Yum! munch munch munch
Her: That's a big salad.
You: Ding. (say it in a normal tone of voice- don't yell it or make it accusatory or make a bell sound effect, just dryly say the word "ding".)
Her: Huh?
(Make sure to keep the tone light. You're making a point, but in a fun, ironic way. Do not allow hurt feelings to get involved here- slightly aloof is better than plaintive.)
You: I decided to start keeping track of all the times you make remarks about my food. Every time you say something, I'm gonna ring an imaginary bell.
Her: Oh, don't be absurd.
You: Ding.
Her: It's not like I'm serious.
You: Ding.
Him: Okay, I'm gonna start saying "ding" on you, too.
You: Be my guest. Say, are you working over time on July 4th? (Let it go, and get back to whatever you were talking about before.)

Every time she's starts in on you, you dryly say "ding" before going on to the next point.

Her: I see you're still on that bizarre detox diet.
You: Ding. Say, after lunch, can you send me the latest TP2 reports? I need them for my spreadsheet.

Do not make a big deal, don't accuse her, don't stop the conversation, don't have a tone of "See how often you do this?" Just say it calmly, then get on with the conversation.

Read pseudostrabismus' entire post; it's a gem.
posted by magstheaxe at 11:12 AM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

My evil twin (uh ... Eyebrows McGraw) suggests that next time she does it in front of a couple of co-workers, you burst into tears and say, "I've just been trying to stick to this really strict diet to help with the infertility. *sob sob* It's so hard and I feel so isolated and left out of social occasions and I try to just go along and get along but people are always COMMENTING on it and making me feel TERRIBLE and all that I want is *sob* to be able to be a MOTHER one day *sob sob* -- please excuse me *sob sob*" and go to the bathroom for a while.

It will never, ever come up again.

Really, though, you maybe could ask HR something like, "I've been feeling kinda uncomfortable lately because a coworker has been asking a lot of prying questions and making personal comments about my health and body, and I'm not really sure how to handle it. I don't want to make waves, but I don't think it's appropriate for people senior to me to be demanding information about my health?" Without actually giving any SPECIFICS about who it is or what happened, but flagging for HR that someone is misbehaving and you don't like it. Employees will probably be reminded that commenting on other people's food and/or health and/or bodies is off limits, and then you can document every time she does it afterwards ... and that you already spoke to HR about the hostile environment. Then when you go BACK to HR because it's STILL going on, you'll be on stronger ground even though she's more senior and is networked into the company.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:27 AM on June 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

The trick with inappropriate questioners is not to let them get you flustered; you do this by continually putting the ball back in their court. "I'm sorry?" "I don't understand why you are so concerned." "Is there something you're concerned about?" "I'm confused, are you upset about my lunch?" "Why, is it bothering you?" Just keep putting the onus back on them to explain their line of questioning; don't accept that you need to give them this information. They usually quit after a few tries, because they're not getting the rush they crave from embarrassing or flustering you.

This happens to me less as I get older, but when I was your age, some older folks did seem to take a special glee in flustering me or upsetting me. It's bullying.
posted by emjaybee at 11:46 AM on June 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Following up with Eyebrows McGee, if you don't want to start a whole new set of rumors with an infertility story, you could just look slightly hurt and tell her that it makes you feel bad when she makes comments on your lunch. There's no real way she can argue with that line of reasoning without looking like an all-out jerk.
posted by fermezporte at 12:04 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't tell her you have an issue that makes you eat a special diet. And don't let her "pry" information out of you; she's a jerk, but you need to take responsiblity for not feeding her.

Ignore her, except when she says something factually incorrect to others. When she tells a client you're doing a "detox thing", just matter of factually say to the client, "I'm not doing a detox thing". And move on. For everything else, just follow Eyebrows McGee's advice.
posted by spaltavian at 12:29 PM on June 30, 2014

I would ignore her comments to you and start asking questions of her.

Q. "wow that's a big salad"
A. "Oh, how was your lunch today?"

Q. "she's doing some weird detox thing..."
A. "Oh, so what's on the catering table today?"
A. "oh, what are you eating today?"
A. "oh, how is the food from XXX restaurant?"

Q. "Well, I better get a skinny margarita so I can keep up with miss healthy."
A. "Are the margaritas good here?"

And if/when this other pestering starts, then just announce that you're going to go eat outside as it seems that you are bothering her with your lunch.
"And I really don't want to bother you with what I am eating, so I'll be back in a few!"
posted by calgirl at 12:43 PM on June 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

As someone who was a vegetarian from 1989-2009, I had to deal with a lot of people commenting about what I was eating, and trying to tell me why it was wrong (all unprompted).

My takeaway: A lot people are really comfortable with pointing out who's eating differently. And, from my experience, if you do a snarky or witty comeback, it doesn't shut them down, but instead invites a debate - either then, or at some future point in time. Not only because they think how you're eating is wrong, but because they discovered they can get a reaction out of you. And, in my case, if I said anything, then I was the "stereotypical vegetarian." There was no winning.

What worked for me was to not engage at all. If I was eating, I'd take a bite and nod instead of answering the question; if I were ordering at a restaurant with people and was asked about it, I deflected. I just didn't engage.

Also, I didn't get the impression that anyone witnessing the questions thought the questioner was rude. Instead, it was clear that the questioner asked what others were quietly wondering.

One more thing: when I stopped being a vegetarian, my family cheered. Cheered as if their favorite team won the World Series. It was baffling why my diet was so damn important to them.
posted by vivzan at 1:19 PM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

The trick with inappropriate questioners is not to let them get you flustered; you do this by continually putting the ball back in their court. "I'm sorry?"

This is what works for me. I'm watching what I eat (not in a diet way but in an "I watch what I eat" way and it's no one's business past that) and I occasionally get comments. And I'm a little spacey anyhow, so a lot of times I just act like I can't hear people because I sort of can't. And otherwise I'll just sort of stare in a completely blank way as if they said something in another language. I feel no need to engage with people who are being weird if they are not people I have a friendly relationship with (in which case I would tell them to please stop talking about my food choices). I did more or less the same thing when people used to ask me about having kids. A blank stare or just an "I can't" with no extra information. You have to be sort of committed to really waiting them out and being okay living in the awkwardness about it (so you'll have to work on your end, no more info for this lady, period) but I think you can do it.
posted by jessamyn at 3:05 PM on June 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am a fat lady and have had to deal with this behaviour for many many years. I've tried most of the tricks listed above and frankly, it's all too hard and I'm tired of their rudeness being my problem.

If someone makes a comment, I stop what I'm doing and stare at them. Flatly, and not in the least bit friendly. And wait. They're going to make me feel uncomfortable? I'll make them feel uncomfortable. Make the conversation halt. Let it screech to a halt. Let there be crickets chirping in the silence. If it doesn't halt, make it halt. "I beg your pardon?",and "I'm sorry - what did you just say?" will all work nicely.

And after a few heartbeats of silence, start the conversation again as if nothing happened.

I am old, cynical, pissed off and done with the bullshit. I don't care if I upset someone and I can quit my job - your mileage may vary.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:56 PM on June 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: "That's such a big salad!"
"A bag...? Oh! No, it's not a bagged salad, it's from home."
"Nooo, it's so big!"
"Oh, maybe! But I think the big salads these days are made with kale or quinoa or [insert what you are not having]. But I like these a lot.
"No, I mean your a eating such a large salad...for one....per..."
"Ohhh, okay. Yeah, it's part of my training for a salad eating contest. By the end of the week I'll hopefully be up to two or three! Oh, I've got to run; I need to clear out some room in the lunchroom fridge for all the salads! Thanks for reminding me!


"How's the training going?"
"For the salad eating contest."
"You're in a salad eating contest?!" Neat! Good luck!
posted by Room 641-A at 4:26 PM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Small talk in general drives me crazy

I think this might be part of the problem. It's super rude to not do small talk in the office, especially if you're female. If she is seeing this as part of a stand offish pattern, she might be snippy about food because food comments have plausible deniability built in to them. I mean, who doesn't talk about food? (In our office it probably gets more discussion than our actual business.)

If it were just her, I'd think it was just her, but since it happened at your last office, too, I think you might be coming off as stand offish, and people usually interpret that as "acting superior" or something.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:35 PM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm definitely someone who asks people what they are eating. The sad truth is that when you sit in an office all day, every day, there is very little variety or interesting things to talk about. Plus, I love food, and what I eat for lunch could very well be the highlight of my boring work day. I really think it is small talk, and it's possible your manager has some hang-ups with food. Like is she overweight, perhaps? Does she seem to eat whatever she wants? She may just find your self-will interesting if she has none. Maybe she's jealous if the comments are snide. But discussing lunch is normal small talk.

I think to some extent you should expect normal curiosity. I imagine she asks everyone else what they are eating too. That said, I've never said anything insulting about it or judged the healthiness of it. She shouldn't do that. Although I did have an assistant who add the weirdest lunches I had ever seen. She'd bring in this weird sandwich with weird ingredients, and then smush it in aluminum foil right before eating, and it was hard not to notice it happening five feet from me. People definitely teased her about it, although I'm not sure what she expected. She was a rather odd assistant.

I think maybe when she says stuff, you just say, "Okay?" Treat her inquiries and comments as if they are befuddling in how stupid and inappropriate they are. If it's awkward enough for her, she may just stop. Me, personally, I would just be an asshole right back and show her how annoying it is. "Well, some of us can't get by on chicken tenders everyday like you can." Or whatever.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:43 PM on June 30, 2014

She hates her body and is trying to make you feel bad so you'll hate yours too and join her in her misery. Anytime she says anything, just reply with "thanks, it's delicious!" She may not stop, but you don't have to let her control how you feel.
posted by MsMolly at 5:12 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've done the faux-buddy response:
Her: "What a BIG salad!"
Me: "Yeah, I KNOW!!! So big. So good." (with a gleeful, yet friendly look on my face)

Her: "Well, I better get a skinny margarita so I can keep up with miss healthy."
Me: "Try it with just ice, nothing else - then you'll be making progress!" (Again, with a wholesome, wide grin, and the light of god in my eyes.)

Her: some inane comment about your specific piece of food.
You: "Yeah! It's soooooooooooooooo GOOD!"

I don't know, something about over the top enthusiasm and unadulterated gleefulness can make critical people shut up.
posted by ihavequestions at 5:15 PM on June 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

-She sees I'm eating a salad: "Wow, that's the BIGGEST salad I've ever seen!" My salad? Oh, it's large? Oh, hmmm. or Yes, I like to eat salads.

-I eat my own lunch even though catering is offered for a meeting: she announces to everyone (including the client), "Oh, she's doing some weird detox thing, so she can't have a sandwich." (later) Co-worker, it was really awkward when you made that detox comment in front of a client. It was kind of judge-y.

-Three of us (me, her, and another coworker) go to a restaurant after a client meeting. I don't order a drink, and she presses as to why. Then, when she orders a drink, she says, "Well, I better get a skinny margarita so I can keep up with miss healthy." Gosh, are we doing competitive ordering? Or, don't go out with her. Go out after work with other people.

she just asks where I went when I return. Out. Where? Sometimes it's nice to have a calm, quiet lunch. If she presses you Did you need a full report?

I dread eating my lunch every day because I know she'll have something to say about it. I usually eat at my desk.
She extracted info about SSRIs.

You need to develop better boundaries. Learn to be visibly annoyed when others are rude or invasive. Learn to value your own peace of mind over avoidance of conflict. It takes time to learn this. I recently read something that really resonated: People will treat you the way you let them.

She sounds kind of passive-aggressive and put-down-y. Who cares who she's friends with? You are young and smart and have no reason to feel inferior. Start taking yourself seriously, valuing yourself, and be willing to stop pleasing her. You don't have to have this job forever. Practice boundaries on her.
posted by theora55 at 5:30 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Room 641-A, that sounds like the most amusing trick ever. It will be an exercise in wit to see if I can come up with a bizarre "misheard" interpretation within a couple of seconds, but I can see this totally throwing her off.
posted by shiggins at 6:01 PM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm going to agree with the others - let her know gently that making such comments in front of clients may send out the wrong impression. Otherwise, when it's just the two fo you, deflect and put the focus back onto her.
posted by bgal81 at 6:09 PM on June 30, 2014

She's insecure. It sucks for you but that's really all there is to it. You eat in a way that is "healthy" and "good" and it makes her feel bad because she either struggles to do the same or can't. We, as a society, have totally screwed up food for women. Foods gets sorted into good and bad and women are judged and defined by how they relate to good and bad foods. "Star, they're just like us!" made it so that we expect to eat a hamburger and still look like Jennifer Lawrence. Really its a very messed up thing. I can't eat a hamburger and look like JLaw. I can't even eat a salad every single meal and look like her. So this woman is stuck in this screwed up women and food cycle and she's insecure and scared of failing and taking it out on you because you seem to do better at being good.

As for how to deal with it, say something like "You know Heather, it makes me uncomfortable when you tell clients that I'm not eating the lunch because of a fast. I would prefer you not point that out." or "Heather, I need you to stop commenting on my lunch. It makes me uncomfortable." Be direct. She probably doesn't even understand what she's doing. Her relationship with food is so off that comments like that feel normal instead of intrusive and rude. Just call her out, every time and she will stop. Probably, but food deals like this are hard to crack.
posted by GilvearSt at 6:47 PM on June 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

do you have any office buddies that are in earshot when she makes her comments? Tell them about what's going on, and start a game where you see if you guys can predict what nasty comment she is going to make about your lunch. it could turn her comments from annoying to hilarious.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:00 AM on July 1, 2014

Just ignore it.

She knows you're bothered by the comments she makes so she keeps pushing your button. Act cold, collected but polite and completely ignore whatever she says. Engage in conversations with others when having your lunch. If keen, go for a walk, have lunch somewhere else and if she asks when you're back, just shrug your shoulders and say 'Out to get some air'.

I don't waste my energy playing this game with these people.
posted by azalea at 6:06 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

When she comments just to you - ignore it. Don't even look up, respond, stare, andything. Develop selective hearing. It's one of the best skills you can have on the job.

When she says things in front of a client: "Oh, you sound like my mother!" Paints her as an old raining on health parade fuddy duddy who is out of touch and invasive in your adult life.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:31 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

@emjaybee and @jessamyn have it. Yes - "It's bullying" and "you have to be sort of committed to really waiting them out and being okay living in the awkwardness about it (so you'll have to work on your end, no more info for this lady, period)."

There is no need to try to insult her back in return, or to attempt to embarrass her publicly (it will backfire), or to imply anything sizeist, ageist, or sexist about her (which is just wrong - and oy, some of these answers). Obviously, not all female senior managers in their 50's and 60's behave like this particular coworker of yours does, so let's avoid stereotyping - there are so few women in real high-level management roles (with P&L responsibility) as it is.
posted by hush at 11:10 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Obviously, not all female senior managers in their 50's and 60's behave like this particular coworker of yours does, so let's avoid stereotyping - there are so few women in real management roles (with P&L responsibility) as it is.

To be clear, the bullies I was referencing in my previous comment were not exclusively female. Men do this too, and it's often worse because higher level management is less likely to do anything about it.
posted by almostmanda at 11:42 AM on July 1, 2014

I'm all for honest communication, but it seems like if there's any chance she is doing it to intentionally cause you distress then any approach that involves you telling her it bothers you will just feed the fire.

I'd go, if possible, for whatever response seems the most bland, unflappable and oblivious to the meanness she may be intending. Respond as if she isn't being a nosy cow, it'll confuse her and hopefully remove the positive feedback (you cringing) that she's getting.

Biggest salad I've ever seen! - It is big isn't it? Smile.
Detox - Nah, I just like my salads. Smile.
Martini thing - (cribbing from a previous poster : ) oh, are they good here?

As others have said, try your best to make it so boring for her she just gives it up.
posted by pennypiper at 5:00 PM on July 1, 2014

Lots of good points about her being a bully. In which case, ignore my advice above. Don't ever let her know she can get under your skin. A vegan coworker got bullies off her back by acting thrilled about her food, as in, Happy happy joy joy bc I'm going to eat this food.
Huge salad? - SO EXCITED to gobble it all up! :D
Hummus again? - On nom nom nom!
What is that, bird seed? - It's a bowl full of pure delish, that's what! :D

Once they realized that their derogatory comments weren't getting under her skin, they left her alone and moved on.
posted by Neekee at 1:44 PM on July 2, 2014

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