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Experience Being Obese Gives Rise to New Ventures

Some obese workers, tired of being treated badly for not being able to conform to workplace expectations of what a healthy person looks like, end up leaving the corporate world for niches that turn their weight into an asset.

September 10, 2009
Some obese workers, tired of being treated badly for not being able to conform to workplace expectations of what a healthy person looks like, end up leaving the corporate world for niches that turn their weight into an asset.

Their experience may be instructional for employers that are trying to help workers lose weight.

Lisa Marie Garbo, who weighed 320 pounds at her heaviest, worked for years as a bookkeeper for Boeing, Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer brand and winemakers in California. Like other obese workers, Garbo, who gained weight while taking steroids to treat her asthma, felt she was treated badly because of her size. Even if her job performance was fine, it was hard for her to find permanent employment.

This rejection took a toll on her self-esteem, so she struck out on her own, founding a nightclub for “plus-sized” women called Club Bounce in Long Beach, California. She calls it a place where people who are overweight can dance and socialize without being judged or scrutinized. She says her entrepreneurship has boosted her self-esteem, and that has helped her lose weight and live a healthier life.

“You need to love yourself or you’ll never be able to complete the wellness program,” she says. “That’s the big thing: awareness of yourself. You are the same person, no matter what size you are.”

Aaron Day has always been what he calls a “serial entrepreneur.” As a result, he never had to rely on an employer to hire him. But seven years ago, after ballooning to 350 pounds, he lost 100 pounds and gained a valuable lesson in the psychology behind weight loss. He applied what he had learned to a new company, formed to help employees live healthier lives: Tangerine Wellness, based in Boston.

“Other approaches have been historically to treat weight loss like a disease state, where you go through a process of segregating the employee population,” he says.

Instead, he uses incentives to help people lose weight and focuses on the percentage of weight people lose rather than the absolute number. He also offers team rewards for collective weight loss.

After being told she was borderline diabetic, Adele Todisco, a systems analyst at RHI Entertainment in New York, cut out sweets, ate more vegetables and began working out. She says she was never treated badly in the workplace, but this kind of support helped her slim down.

“Everybody was very supportive, like cheerleaders, and that made a big difference,” she says. “I did have an HR person say something to the effect that you did such a great job and you could teach everyone else how to stay healthy.”

Now that she has dropped from 220 pounds to 135, she has noticed a difference in the way she feels. She says she is happier and is considering translating her weight turnaround into a new career as a personal trainer or the owner of a gym.

Garbo, who started the Club Bounce nightclub, says she wants obese people to be accepted and protected from discrimination in the workplace. Once people accept themselves for who they are, she says, “if losing weight is what they want to do, it would make it an easier path for them.”

Workforce Management, August 17, 2009, p. 24 -- Subscribe Now!