Obesity and unemployment: Few willing to talk about it


The obligatory picture of an overweight person with their head cropped out. (Lucas Jackson/ Reuters)

My story today about the relationship between obesity and unemployment — how each problem can make the other worse — has generated a lot of e-mail and commentary. I just got a note from a woman whose husband lost his job a few years ago: “He initially was extremely angry,” the woman wrote, “then depressed and then the weight gain started … for both of us! I worked full time from home, and with him around, the snacking started. I even noticed my kids gained weight.”

I admire this woman for coming forward. I also admire the three people struggling with these issues who spoke to me for my story. I admire them because talking about weight in this country is not easy. The stigma is real and painful. I know this from my own experience as someone heavier than I should be. I see it every time I fly, the way other passengers see you sitting in the middle seat and the look on their faces says, “I hope I am not next to him.”

In fact, one of the greatest challenges in reporting this story was finding obese and unemployed people willing to speak with me. In reporting stories where subjects interface with counselors or educators or other outreach people, very often those people can connect you with those struggling with whatever issue you’re writing about. In this case, the outreach types were skittish about making those connections. Over and over, people told me they wanted to read the story but they just didn’t think they could help.

Of course, I raise an important tangential issue in my piece — the idea that outreach workers are too uncomfortable to raise the obesity issue with the unemployed, even though obesity can make a job search more difficult or even impossible. “I can’t approach someone with their obesity because that’s so touch and go,” one told me. Another said, “It’s such a sensitive issue for so many people. We’re not Weight Watchers. We don’t require people to weigh in when they come see us.”

I finally resorted to hanging around outside a job resource center in downtown Hagerstown. Over several days I met many unemployed workers, some who fit the demographic I was looking for, others who didn’t, but who still had illuminating things to say about an area still struggling even as other cities recover.

Everyone I met had one thing in common, though: They all desperately wanted to work.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.

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