Boss looms over me, her grin so wide it borders on manic.
"Here you go, Bunny. Five cashews is 50 calories."
Boss slowly counts out five cashews on top of my desk. I stare at them blankly, hunger waging war with humiliation.
"If you're good," she adds, "you can have two more without going over your limit for today."
This is a memory that surfaces whenever I begin to complain about the job I have now, working as an entry-level secretary for a company large enough to afford an actual HR department. Because I'm in DC, I'm also protected by a federal union that ensures my employers will never (legally) be allowed to comment on my weight and/or encourage me to try one fad diet after another.
Because at my previous job, yeah, my boss totally did that.
Up until this February, I had spent the past two years working for a small travel company based out of the owner's house. Business was good, although working in a home office tended to blend the lines between personal and professional to the point where I had seen her husband in his pajamas way too often for anyone's comfort.
Boss and I butted heads a lot because she had a quick temper and blatant prejudices, but I did get some perks with the job: She let me travel through Rome, the Netherlands, and Belgium in lieu of offering health insurance.
Some days I loved her, and some days I cursed her name to the uncaring heavens. I had graduated university only by the skin of my teeth, and I'd had to quit a decent job in Tokyo to take care of my mom after a major health scare. I clung to this job with the desperation of a lifelong slacker who had nothing to fall back on besides a mountain of debt.
I was willing to put up with a hell of a lot for the vague promise of future travel (I was only sent on trips when a client had to cancel), but as an employee at a tiny private company I had virtually no protection against emotional manipulation or personal attacks.
Boss would make indirect comments about everything from my hair ("You should really get a cut that lengthens your face") to my clothes ("You don't think that top is too bright for you?") that were designed to keep me on edge about my appearance. She would ask me what I'd eaten for breakfast and then make suggestions about lunch ("Don't eat it"). If I said I'd had spaghetti the night before, her expression told me I might as well have confessed to consuming human flesh.
The comments didn't come every day, so I learned to tune them out in the moment and vent later to my incredulous friends. Boss wasn't a small lady herself, and I could only assume that she was projecting her own negative body image onto me. I felt sorry for her and kept my silence. Every few months or so, Boss would embark on a new diet trend, turning the office into a tense arena of calorie counting versus food porn until her hanger overcame her desire to "lose 10 pounds in 10 days, for real this time, guys!"
The environment got markedly worse when some fool told Boss about the EOD (Every Other Day) diet, which limited your calorie intake to 500 a day, every other day. You could eat whatever you wanted on the alternating days, but supposedly your body would adjust so that you weren't stuffing yourself like a lunatic after each 500-calorie restriction.
Boss encouraged me to try it with her, and after she showed us how she'd dropped a whole jean size, I eventually gave in. She'd been on the diet for two and a half weeks by then, and she said that it was getting easier with time.
The first day was hard. I don't remember exactly what I ate, but I remember the headache and nausea. The second day was an eat-whatever-you-want day, and as I frantically shoved food in my mouth I didn't understand how anyone could make this work. My sister is a recovering bulimic; I knew what a binge was when I saw it.
By week three, I was in something of a hunger-based torpor. My grandma watched me carefully, carefully measure out half a cup of brown rice (108 calories).
"Ara ma, that's all you eat? I have curry, you want curry? Take curry for lunch."
No, Grandma. Lunch today is a boiled egg (78 calories) and half a sweet potato (80 calories). Tomorrow, I could eat curry tomorrow.
Boss reasoned that the EOD diet wasn't as restrictive as the HCG diet, in which you eat 500 calories every day and then inject yourself with human chorionic gonadotropin to make your body think it's a pregnant lady. To my nutrient-deprived brain, I guess this made sense.
My coworker thought we were both nuts, but Boss was so proud of me. She was finally beginning to compliment my appearance rather than criticize it, and I had lost 10 pounds of what was probably water weight so far. In a particularly crazy moment, I mused that she might even give me a raise if I lost enough weight.
The compulsion to overeat on the in-between days never really went away, despite the diet's claims. Boss once confessed that she'd eaten an entire package of goat cheese just to satisfy the craving, and when her weight loss began to slow she tried to control herself better.
Herself and me.
"Let's keep it below 1,200 calories on the off days," she suggested, showing me the My Fitness Pal app she'd recently downloaded. We had to lie to the calorie-counting app every other day, since any completed entry below 1,000 would generate a warning that the user wasn't eating enough.
One fateful afternoon, she came over to me with a bag of cashews.
"How many calories today?"
I checked my phone. "Um, 113 so far."
Boss smiled approvingly. "Good, then you can have a treat. Here you go, Bunny. Five cashews is 50 calories."
I felt like a slow dog that had just done a not-entirely-impressive trick, rewarded by my owner with a stale Milk-Bone.
Once Boss had gone back into the kitchen, my coworker leaned over and asked what in the actual fuck I thought I was doing.
I didn't have a good answer for her. I still don't, but that was the day I quit the diet, feeling Boss' disappointment like a palpable weight on my shoulders. It was also the day I decided to find a new job.
A month and a half later, my friend recommended me for an open position with her company, knowing that I was a) miserable and b) in desperate need of dental benefits. It was a stroke of incredible good fortune, since I had made no headway in the job hunt myself.
When I told Boss I was leaving, there were some hurt feelings on both sides until we managed to talk it through. She wasn't happy, but I think she eventually understood that it wasn't the right environment for me. I trained my replacement, and three weeks later I was out.
My new position is a massive step down from what I was doing before, and the commute is made particularly painful due to the fact that Metro cannot get its shit together, but on the very first day, my new boss called me into his office and told me exactly how things were going to go.
"If I ever say or do anything to make you uncomfortable, you have every right to call me out on it. You may have noticed this office is full of loud, angry men, but I will do everything I can to help you adjust."
New Boss is indeed a loud, angry man who frequently shouts across the floor to the other directors, who are also loud, angry men with colorful vocabularies and strong opinions on the Republican agenda, but not a single one of them has ever made any comment — negative or otherwise — on my physical appearance.
Will I stay here forever? Probably not. Do I have any idea what I'll do after this? No, and quit asking me, Dad.
But I am happy, and in a place where my worth isn't judged by how hard I'm trying to fit the beauty standard.
Not everyone has the luxury of finding a new job to escape a shitty boss, and not all of us would call their job a career (I sure don't). But I think it's important to protect yourself as best you can. When I couldn't take the abuse anymore, I accepted a pay cut and a longer commute for the benefits to my mental health.
How many calories are in a cashew? I don't give a fuck.
But I know I'm going to eat a lot more than five.