Weight of the World
Focus on Obesity In The Workplace, CONDUIT Spring 2015
By Jodi Krah
I have had obesity my entire life. I was always described as the “chubby” child, the “hefty” teen and the “fat” adult. I have endured a lifetime of criticism from many and self-degradation from within. During my unhealthiest period, I was 125 pounds over a reasonable weight. For over 42 years I gave a concerted effort to become that thin person others—as well as myself—would accept and love. I was the classic, textbook case of a yo-yo dieter.
On the other hand, my education and career successes were exemplary by everyday standards. I was a college and university graduate, vice-president of a large company, director of operations and an accomplished artist. With so many achievements, you would think I could have been successful at weight management, but I am not—or, at least I wasn’t for a long time.
There are many complex and lengthy explanations I have surmised as the “why” of it all, but this article will focus on my experiences of working with obesity. From my perspective, the careers I had and the nature of positions I have held had a negative impact on my weight. There are several reasons for this: long commutes, stress, work conditions and, most significantly for me, social networking through food.
Every day, I try to limit my exposure to food. Normally, the more exposure I have to food the more I eat. Avoiding it takes immense focus, effort and mental strategizing. Think for a moment about how food in your workplace affects someone like me. For example, the candies on your desk, that birthday cake for a coworker, pizza from today’s business lunch, the business meeting at Wings & Burgers chosen by the client, the monthly potluck, the vending machine with chips and so on.
Somehow, I am seen as a little less fun for not accepting a piece of that birthday cake, a little less involved or downright uncaring for not attending the monthly potluck, a little bit odd for requesting the vending machine be removed or quite unreasonable when I need salad instead of pizza for today’s business lunch. How do I know this? I see it in the expressions on peoples’ faces. That cheerful smile that accompanied the offering fades; sometimes, the cajoling to get me to change my mind results in an argument about why “just this once” won’t hurt. Past employers have asked me outright why I am not participating in potluck lunches to better connect with my team—after all, it is part of my role to do so to get them working hard. At times, my refusal to try their homemade cookie was viewed as showing a lack of appreciation for their efforts.
I think I am a nice person. I care about people and their feelings. I have always respected my employers and I have worked hard for them. However, decisions I have made in the past to manage my weight have impacted the way people interpret my personality, my work ethic and my effectiveness as a leader. It is no wonder that, over the years, I have eaten that slice of pizza, that piece of birthday cake and that cookie. I just wanted to be one of the team. How is it that food sharing carries so much underlying meaning?
Ironically, my past employers wanted healthy employees; however, they also knew that food offerings could be used to their advantage when it came to employee enjoyment and external networking opportunities. In addition, companies want to save money, and pizza is affordable, easy and a well-liked food to accomplish that goal. I have requested healthy alternatives and, reluctantly on the part of my employers, I was accommodated. The fallout, however, was sometimes not worth making the effort.
Once the food arrives, coworkers sometimes want what I have—sometimes I share, and sometimes I leave the room. After all, I still like pizza. In fact, I feel overwhelmed by its presence—sadly, sometimes I stay and eat my salad and some pizza. Please understand I have a lifetime of poor food choices when such opportunities are placed before me: it requires a great deal of effort to manage my disease. So, my message to all employers is to create a healthy food environment for your employees.
Over the years, my personal appearance, my “size,” if you will, attracted discriminatory behaviour from my employers and coworkers. During this time, I have seen people in work environments become extremely adept at hiding such behaviour. Discrimination happens in subtle ways, through casual comments and innuendo—the subtle suggestions of the best new diet, the general chatter and lack of understanding about obesity and its causes and the lack of compassion for people living with obesity (who are viewed as doing it to themselves, and who should simply eat less and exercise more). I specifically remember a previous employer wanting me to fire a heavier employee because she did not fit the company image. I was heavier at the time, so what did that say about his attitude toward me?
There can, however, be light at the end of that dark tunnel.
At age 44, I lost over 100 pounds with the help of the Wharton Medical Clinic, which operates in several locations in Southern Ontario. Eight years later, I have maintained my healthy weight through the advice I learned at the clinic, as well as a fundamental reinvention of who I am—the very essence of my being, down to my soul. My current weight is certainly not what I felt my entire life was acceptable, but it is one that is acceptable to me now.
I left two jobs during this time to manage my obesity. Recently, I have embarked on an extremely fulfilling career. It requires a great deal of daily physical effort, and it is close to my home. I work for a non-profit organization that boasts a healthy culture of positive-minded individuals. Perhaps it’s my age and the wisdom of years that makes me feel this way, but for whatever reason I am in a good place now—a healthy, happy place.
Jodi Krah is currently working in management at Habitat for Humanity in Fonthill, Ontario. She has a degree in visual art from Brock University and a diploma in broadcasting from Niagara College. Her past careers were focused on senior executive roles in the retail sector. She is an advocate for people living with obesity across Canada and speaks publically to improve the lives of those individuals.