“This idea that weight loss is universally lauded and praised really hurts people struggling,” says Claire Mysko, the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA. Sudden weight loss is often a side effect of serious illnesses such as cancer and thyroid disease, not to mention eating disorders. Mysko notes many people in recovery for restrictive disorders such as anorexia report that their weight loss was widely encouraged at first, which reinforces life-threatening behaviors and often delays treatment until the disorder is worse—and harder to treat.
Disordered eating is both widespread and devastating. Anorexia is the psychiatric disorder most likely to be fatal in Americans, with a mortality rate of about 10 percent. According to NEDA’s numbers, at least 30 million Americans will experience a full-blown eating disorder at some point in their life, but Mysko says the real number is likely far higher because many don’t seek treatment. The number of people struggling with disordered eating behaviors that don’t fit the full diagnostic criteria is even higher: A 2008 study found them among 75 percent of American women.
Lechner and Mysko both point to a relatively recent workplace trend that reinforces these norms, even as diet chat becomes more passé among the socially aware: workplace-wellness programs. These weight-loss and exercise challenges, many of which are subsidized by the Affordable Care Act, have become a typical part of office life in the past decade, pressuring employees to restrict their eating and sometimes overexercise, often to win cash prizes for themselves or their team.
Read: Health begins at work
“There’s a huge amount of money being invested in a program that essentially makes it okay for people to shame others,” Mysko says. “There’s an idea that if people feel shamed, they’re going to ‘take better care of themselves,’ and all of these very shaming kinds of messages are validated by these programs.” In reality, the opposite is true: Research has consistently shown that shaming fat people harms both their physical and psychological well-being.
Part of the blame also goes to the idea of “wellness,” as Knoll detailed it in her piece. The wellness trend, as shaped by Instagram influencers and nutrition and supplement start-ups, recasts thinness as not a goal in and of itself, but as the primary indicator of corporeal sophistication and spiritual peace. That helps the diet industry evade the hard-fought battles that activists have won to diminish some of dieting’s more extreme components, such as liquid meal replacements, and sell basically the same stuff they’ve always offered. It also makes old opportunities for idle chatter and passive aggression feel novel and righteous.
“Wellness in general is a relatively new phenomenon, so I don’t think there’s deep awareness of how we behave around this issue,” Lechner explains. That can attract the attention of workers who are looking for a way to act out, by either putting themselves down or shaming their colleagues—or often both. “You’re likely to find within the same person the same violation of quite a few different boundaries,” Lechner says. In workplaces where people have been unable to negotiate healthy boundaries for themselves, it’s up to employers to find a way to deal with the instigators. “The stuff they need to manage is just escaping through another door,” Lechner says. “This time, it’s through wellness.”