A working class girl in a capitalist world
Lisette May Monroe
Hi Candice – A Quick Study of Temping As A Fat Person
Something essential about temping is doing enough. I have worked with some terrible temps and fair play to them – I respect it, but as I was relying on the income so much and I didn’t really have another monetizable skill set I was stuck. The whole economy of temping is being rehired by either the agency you’re working through or the company the agency has booked you into. This involves some fawning, the ability to look busy, and crucially under-promising and over-delivering. There is no career progression in temping apart from getting hired on a permanent contract, there are pluses and minuses to this and that is for another time.
You must also always be friendly. It sounds easy but it is not. If you have ever worked in hospitality you must exercise the same muscles, smile, flirt a bit, give people drinks and talk about things you would never usually choose to talk about unless you are getting paid for it.
Dress to make yourself look older and be completely nondescript. Doing this for me made people assume I was more responsible but also it meant at the end of the day I could de-work myself pretty quickly and step into my normal life.
Always say you have a partner, even if you don’t or even if you have multiple. You have one, you are settled, you stay in with a pet – even if you don’t have a pet.
The main reason behind both of these things is that they give you more space. If you had a big night and come in tired or you pull a sicky, putting the things above into play on day one will make any lies more palatable. Also, top tip: if you are thinking about pulling a sicky – which we all love and deserve – wait until there is something going round that at least two people in the office has had – norovirus, flu etc etc – especially if you are the receptionist because this means you have facetime with everybody so it’s just a matter of time before you come down with it.
Being fat in temping is a blessing and a curse – a blessing in the sense that people presume fat people don’t have a social life as when else would they make the time for all the eating? This is great as you have to do less social life-orientated chat – which means you get to keep a whole part of yourself to yourself. However this works against you, as people presume fat people are lazy and, in a way that is hard to understand, also presume they are bad at timekeeping. This means you have to ensure you are always on time and that if you are asked to do something you do it (how fast you are at doing these things is your own concern).
The other huge issue for temping as a fat person is clothing. You don’t want to invest in a temping wardrobe but as previously stated you need to disappear a little. Being bland is the goal but buying something for a job which you’re going to in order to live is often impossible. Office workwear in plus sizes is made in the worst fabric; non-breathable, non-natural. Everything will have a boat neck and have butterflies on it. My advice would be to imagine your wardrobe for work as 5 outfits (temping is often part time or you will be going to different places in one week – this means you can recycle outfits easily). If you are starting from scratch, first of all see if anyone has any appropriate clothes you can borrow – if you are the only plus-sizer in your friend group this can be hard, I know. However thankfully the oversized trend can really help you out here, or making a fake Facebook (or maybe you have a real Facebook account – I don’t know what you get up to) quite often on bartering pages or on Marketplace people will be giving away clothes bundles either to swap or, if you explain your situation, people can be open to giving you some items from the bundle.
Next if you have any funds – I mean if you did, why would you be temping? – I know I know – charity shops. Charity shops are a desert at the moment given the straight size trend for buying plus sized things and then chopping them up but I would head to the mens section, look for cotton shirts which you can wear with a vest underneath (also you can rotate vests etc), smart jumpers, some mens trousers can work really well and often the material is much kinder, particularly in stuffy offices. Lastly, eBay – again this requires funds, but I have found that searching by size and auction-only you can pull up a lot of staples by old brands like Damart and Bonmarche. These are loaded by the idea of nan’s but actually much of their stuff is cotton and plain and comes in an extended range of sizing – also there is no competition for these pieces so you can make an offer or go for their initial price. These things can convert to office wear really easily without the need to be stuck in itchy, non-breathable bootcut black trousers and a blouse made of that sad type of material that snags on the lanyard that you will inevitably be wearing.
Something I saw my mum do from early on which I think makes amazing sense and I should have done but never did – every Friday she would wash all her work clothes from the week, hang them up to dry on the hanger (no need to iron) and in the order and pairings she would wear them the following week. This sounds time consuming but actually took about 10 mins (not including the washing cycle). As a fat person leaving the house is a fucking nightmare, and having to put clothes on my highly contested body is the worst, particularly to go into an environment that I 1) dont want to be in and 2) won’t know anybody there – all while being in a position which involves everybody looking at you. Being in front of some of these things really will help, especially knowing that you can move about and go to the photocopier or go do some filing without having to tug and pull the shit out of all your clothes as you walk along.
It’s not all about monetary returns – as a working-class person who decided to try having an art career, having multiple jobs is my reality. I work alot. But also I try as much as possible to make the jobs I work also work for me. I don’t mean that in the sense that they work within my lifestyle or are in my main field of interest. I mean that as much as I get a monetary reward for being there I actively need it to also have it facilitate my practice or my life in other ways.
For example in one temp job I managed to make a whole publication by sneaking single pages to the photocopier up my jumper then hiding the copied sheets in files at the back of a filing cabinet. I would then sneak these out weekly inside paper recycling bags and in the lift I would remove the sheets and put them in my bag before I went home. I also once posted 100 exhibition flyers and posters to different galleries in the UK by convincing the guy in the mail room to give me blank stamped envelopes by running with the narrative of, I don’t know why I have to get these, I’m just the temp but it seems really important.
The best way to get away with anything like this when temping is to say, ‘oh god I don’t know what I’m doing, its my first day’ – even if you have been there 3 weeks, as long as you have never met that person before they are likely to be much more helpful if they think you have been thrown in at the deep end. I used to feel guilty about doing this until I realised that everyone is actually getting paid to be in the building, so by helping you they aren’t doing you a favour they are just doing their job.
I also spent a long time at temp jobs doing something I called Parallel Processing, where I would fill in endless market research surveys online whilst at work – technically this means you’re getting paid to get paid. I would also sometimes pick up freelance temp work such as small project management roles, some marketing for galleries or copy writing – these are all really easy things to do at a temp job as you can type out whatever you need to do in a word document (just make sure you have the logo of the company you are working for logo at the top of your document) then copy and paste these into emails/online when you are on your lunch.
A quick thing on lunch – if you do have other stuff you need to be getting on with and it is possible to take your lunch at your desk, you can probably wrangle yourself a two hour lunch/internet window. Because people will leave/go to the staff room – it’s unlikely anyone will know when you started lunch so as long as you have something food like in front of you and maybe a hot drink you can usually get on with your own stuff for two hours you unbothered.
Speaking of food, temping/office work is quite good at providing free food options. I was temping at some points in my life when I was in the most poverty. I would eat the same meal 3 times a day, which was 2 slices of wholemeal bread with a thick spread of tomato puree on it. This was a deeply stressful time and I managed to survive hopping from job to job.
Quite often I would have to order catering for the meetings or would be in charge of receiving it – I would always over order by one (or two) people knowing there would be some left over. I would take tupperware to work with me and when I was tasked with taking the catering away I would take the leftover food home so I could have some dinner.
Another summer that I spent on the poverty tightrope I worked as a receptionist at a halls of residence, basically letting workmen and cleaners in and out and sorting post. This was the season of the Graze boxes craze and a lot of students had signed up, probably with some kind of discount and hadn’t got round to changing their address, so me and another women I worked with would take 5 or so Graze boxes home a day and I spent 2 months living off nuts and those hard peas. This job was also great as outside they had a large metal unit where the cleaners would put all the good quality things the rich students would leave behind when they moved out. Anything still sealed (you wouldn’t believe, pan sets, expensive bedding, electrical goods) would go straight to charity but anything open or used but still great quality would be put into the metal unit for staff to take. That summer I got quite into selling 2nd hand electrical goods and pan sets on Gumtree.
The past few offices I have worked in have also had communal snack drawers/tables – I don’t know how this craze started. It feels like one of those things that implies generosity but actually is more disguised capitalism intent to keep you in the building and focused as it stops you from taking that 10 min mid morning and mid afternoon break to go buy yourself a banana or a Kinder Bueno. Someone somewhere will have a spreadsheet which works out the loss lead on buying the snacks vs the return / uptick in labour, you can tell alot about a company’s aspirations by what it provides in these spaces. Again I would basically feed myself through these tables for weeks at a time. If you want to take food from work (or anything else) always only take small amounts little and often. Always (as in everyday) take a bigger bag than you have stuff for, don’t suddenly bring a massive bag unannounced. I actually used to take a big bag with hardly anything in but with trainers sticking out the top which worked in two ways, firstly it made people more amenable to my fat body as they presumed that I was going to the gym before or after work so at least I was trying to make it not fat and that for them was a blessing. Secondly they take up a bit of space but actually I could hide quite big things under them like a 22 sheet hole punch or a laminator.
Lastly (v important) – Never ever take an extra bag to put stuff in, only leave with the same bag you arrived with.
I also made sure I did all personal admin on work time (see also personal admin phone calls). This included things like my tax return, updating my CV, applying for opportunities, ordering all family birthday presents, budgeting, shopping around for the best pet insurance – these things are all easy to get away with if you know how to do it right. Some temp friends and I also used to play multiple games, we would all write down various amounts of money and put these in a hat/bowl/cup, then someone would give you a task like, plan a stag do with an abroad element and a buffet and then the amount of money you picked out was the budget and you had 30 minutes of condensed internet time to find the options – which had to be emailed to everyone in a PDF format before the timer ran out. It is incredible how this game actually gave me the tools to do many jobs later in life. We also wrote a collective 3-act play which we then performed in a lecturer theatre with visuals while the students were away in the summer, this hasn’t been as practically useful but was good team building.
With regards to stealing time back rather than things of monetary value, like completing all your personal admin as previously mentioned – you need to be good at hiding the fact you are on the internet – my tip for this is as follows – always have a large and complex looking spreadsheet or rota looking document open – something you can put numbers into quickly but its too abstract for anyone to be able to fully quiz you on what it is, there will be one in a file somewhere (you can open most files, or I do – but never move anything, unless you are a chaos person in which case I can’t advise). There is a diffusion of responsibility with temps as every office thinks they need them but when they arrive no one really has capacity to be fully in charge of them, so in an office that has upwards of ten staff (small offices have a different politics) no one will fully know what you should be doing, so if you always have a ‘working’ document up it will likely go unquestioned. You then make a smaller internet window, this is a short but wide window, probably about a quarter of the size of the screen. Put this web browning screen at the bottom of the screen so it will be covered by your back and shoulders then, for the weird spreadsheet, have this full screen but underneath the browser window. So from behind people can only see the back of your head and the work document. It also means when they come closer you can click that screen to the front without minimising any windows. Everyone knows minimising windows means there is funny business happening.
As with anything like this – don’t get caught, especially on internet stuff.
One of my last pieces of advice, and it might sound contrary to the above – be good at your job and be curious about what the company does. It’s much easier to get away with things if you actually do the amount of things you need to do and if you pretend to care about the college/the telecoms company/the jewellers/the car showroom/the halls/the window company/the van hire/the college again (x 4)/the IT user experience/the garden maintenance/the insurance/the credit checkers/the unmemorable company receptions (x6) etc etc etc. In addition to this when your recruitment consultants asks, and they will – even though they don’t care about the answer – tell them it’s great, it’s the best job you have ever had, you’re so grateful. Your consultant gets paid a commission for every job they get you in, and so this helps them feel reassured that they are going to make more money from you and are more likely to put you up for other positions.
Finally to close, I know the thought of approaching a recruitment agency is absolutely terrifying, especially if you come from a marginalised background. I took to approaching first with a CV, and I made my CV impeccable – like I was world record breakingly good at admin. I also made most of it up, I then made up the companies that my references work for and put my references phone numbers as some of my best friends. Ideally also make these companies based in another country. Then I would make the last year of my CV blank and say I was studying for a PHD – I have never done a PHD and probably never will, but much like when you go to the job centre, if you say you are doing a PHD people are automatically much nicer to you and give you much more respect, it carries a status. They also can’t check up on this because you haven’t finished the fictional PHD yet.
You then email your prospective agency with your fake CV, in the body of the email you say – I have just finished my first year of a PHD, and I am waiting for funding to come through for my 2nd year, this is great because it automatically answer the questions of why you wouldn’t be looking for permanent work if you have such an incredible CV and admin is your life passion. This period of temping is a stop gap before you carry on with your studies next year – also the PHD narrative is ideal as it is an ageless qualification. Once you have set all this up, then call 2 days later to chase up the CV, once all this has been processed only then go in for a face to face meeting, I invented this framework because I am fat and I am working class (with an accompanying accent) so I wanted to give them a picture to make assumptions on before they met me. People are really not keen on having fat people in their organisations, especially in front-facing roles which ment going in cold was often very unsuccessful for me, so I created a situation where I was such a good investment that it would make terrible business sense not to hire me. If they only think in business and investment then you must too. And if you don’t have an admin CV just email me and I will send you mine.
There is much more to the nuance of these prejudices and aggressions that occur with corporate office work and I only speak about them as a white person. There is a lot to talk about, in particular around feelings of value and worth especially when you are accessing these positions from spaces of intense poverty. I hope that some of the above suggested strategies demonstrate spaces where some autonomy can remain in these working environments heaving with both extreme invisibility and overt visibility.
In a very basic sense capitalism isn’t for us, we all know this. But we are forced to participate in order to survive. This survival turns some people into workers, some into managers and some into bosses, and like all landlords, you can never be a good boss (in fact you can never be a good manager). To be clear the word good in this context does not mean good at achieving the successes within those roles. By disrupting this framework even slightly we can start to agitate some of the hierarchies inherent in the corporate workplace.
It is essential to remember that by working through a temping agency you are earning money for the company you are working for AND the company that got you the work just by showing up, while you receive just over minimum wage. So every skive, steal and laugh you have during the day is one small rejection and reclamation of both your time and your personal capital. Which, lets be honest, when you have absolutely fuck all you need to do in order to hold on to any power you have.
I would like to dedicate this text to Candice, my recruitment consultant for 3 years on and off. I am grateful you never questioned why I never restarted my imaginary PHD or why you never asked to see photos of my non-existent pets. (Though she did eventually fire me for going on a holiday that she had signed off and authorised.)
Also special thanks to my dear friend Sally who was an understanding ear through the trailing temp years, it meant alot to speak to someone who knew.
Writer: Lisette May Monroe. More info HERE
Visuals: Jason Kerley. More info HERE
This programme is supported by Create, Arts Council of Wales