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Job Discrimination Over Weight-Loss Surgery?

A new report infuriates this man who recently had the surgery

By Kevin McGrath

Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in an ongoing Next Avenue series about one Minnesota man’s lifelong struggle with obesity and what he’s learned since deciding to confront it through weight-loss surgery. Find earlier posts here.

“Why are you writing about your weight-loss surgery?” is the most frequent question I get about my blog for Next Avenue

My answers include:

  • I hope that exploring this journey will help me resolve some of my issues and — at the same time — create some self-accountability for staying on track with my doctor's plan.
  • I hope that a public discussion will help reduce the stigma many people associate with weight-loss surgery.
  • I hope that a few people read this and gain confidence to explore all of their options.

I have now heard from a handful of friends and acquaintances who have either had weight-loss surgery, are planning on it or are thinking about it. Without my blog, we would have never connected to discuss our common struggles. This, in itself, is worth it for me.

(MORE: Writing for Self-Discovery and Healing)

But my motivation to share this experience grew when my Next Avenue editor sent me a link to a recent study regarding weight-loss surgery and job discrimination. Conducted by Robert Carels of East Carolina University and published in the journal Obesity Surgery, the study concludes that those surveyed were less willing to hire a person who had lost weight through bariatric surgery than from diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes.

Mad And Sad

When I posited that blogging might help reduce the stigma associated with weight-loss surgery, Carels’ study had not been released. I must have suspected the results. I — of course — had worries about what people would think, but knew that for me the surgery was the best chance I had for improved health. 

I’m at the beginning of my journey, but already I have lost nearly 100 pounds, received comprehensive medical test results showing significant health improvements, completed four 5K runs, reduced the medications I take and increased my energy level exponentially. There is no question I would be a better employee today than I was before surgery. So the research results related to employability following weight-loss surgery came as a surprise to me. 

The results of Carels’ study are simultaneously infuriating and saddening. The survey results highlight the two most common misperceptions of weight-loss surgery: that the surgery is the easy path for people who have it and that the surgery is a cure for obesity.

(MORE: Weight-Loss Surgery Is Not the 'Easy Way')

I can assure you that weight-loss surgery is neither easy nor a cure. What weight-loss surgery offers people who have been unsuccessful using traditional diet and exercise is a tool that helps them limit their eating and, therefore, have the ability to increase their activity levels. None of the successful weight-loss surgery veterans I now rely on for advice could have achieved their goals without a combination of healthier eating and increased exercise.

In truth, following the post-surgery progression from liquid diets, to pureed foods, to soft foods, I am able to eat the same foods as I did prior to surgery; however, I have chosen to significantly reduce refined carbohydrates from my diet together with the artificial sweeteners found in diet soda.

What my gastric sleeve does for me is help me feel full sooner. My new stomach, 75 percent smaller than before, also harshly reminds me when I ignore the signs of being full, in a simple yet effective way: I feel like I want to puke.

Even with the physical revisions to my body, if I wanted to find a way around the physical restrictions, I could. Further proof that weight-loss surgery itself is not a cure comes from people who “graze” their way to weight gain by eating small quantities of high-calorie foods throughout the day, avoiding the restrictions caused by the surgery but not reducing caloric intake. 

The physical tool that was given to me as part of my surgery, my smaller stomach, is only part of the tool box for changing long-standing unhealthy behaviors. For me, the mental part of a new way of living is more challenging than the physical. Head hunger, which is the belief that I am hungry, is as powerful a temptation as real hunger, maybe more powerful. Rewiring my brain to accept the notion that being a little bit hungry is a normal human condition is a major obstacle. Weight-loss surgery did not change the brain that allowed me to make unhealthy choices for 30 years.


Unfair Stigma And Judgment

Carels’ study points out that those surveyed viewed people who were overweight as lacking personal discipline and responsibility. The stigma against weight-loss surgery affected both obese and formerly-obese people, Carels found.

(MORE: Why Your Friends Can Be Bad for Your Weight)

“While bariatric surgery often results in sustained long-term weight loss, increased efforts are needed to reduce stigma associated with bariatric surgery to ensure that people who may benefit from this procedure are not deterred owing to continued stigma in various settings,” the article said.

Not All Have The Freedom To Speak Out

I work every day to take responsibility for my poor health habits. I don’t seek anyone’s absolution for my choices. However, my concerns are real.

The harsh judgments of those in positions of authority over hiring and firing could cause a person who’s had this surgery to be condemned as a lesser employee, or not be hired in the first place. The idea that someone would be fired because they chose weight-loss surgery to help solve their health problems is unthinkable.

When I was approached for this blog, I ran the idea by my family and a few friends. Those I asked endorsed my writing, and I’ve been blessed with support every step of the way. One friend, however, expressed reservations and wondered if I could blog anonymously. This concern was made in a very real and sincere way and focused on the possibility of my being judged by professional colleagues and potential clients. 

As a middle-aged, white, professional male with a college degree and law degree, I have not suffered discrimination. As a self-employed person, I did not have concerns about what an employer or co-workers would do with information I chose to share. As a person with a steady dispute-resolution practice, losing clients because I shared my story was not a fear. In the end, while I paused over the question of how others would react, I concluded that if someone didn’t hire me because they knew I had bariatric surgery, I didn’t need that person as a client.

Others may not have as much freedom. The research demonstrating bias against overweight people in the workplace is considerable. It is also unjustifiable. That the same bias would continue after a person successfully improves his or her health through weight-loss surgery truly is mind-boggling.

More than 100,000 people turn to weight-loss surgery each year, and it has helped millions of people restore their lives. It is not a cure. It is not the easy way out. It is often the last choice and last chance for many patients. To those who would discriminate — whether at work or personally — against anyone who has turned to weight-loss surgery, I say simply: get a life. I like my new one just fine.

Kevin McGrath is a Twin Cities lawyer who operates a family law dispute resolution practice.  His family enjoys raising and showing American Quarter Horses. Read More
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