America: Not Ready for a Plus-Size President
Plus-size New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced today that he will not run for president in 2012, and thus he will be spared the slander and weight jokes that surely would have accompanied more time in the national political limelight.
Of course, the governor, who for reasons of personal sanity has not publicly disclosed his weight, didn’t put it in exactly those words. He just said he won’t run because he loves being governor of New Jersey.
The governor's withdrawal from the race does raise a question of whether Americans would elect a plus-size president. Rumors of a Christie candidacy in the past few weeks have been accompanied by a barrage of media coverage either stigmatizing the governor for his size or questioning whether an obese candidate is healthy enough to serve as a U.S. president.
“He’s just too fat” to be president,” opined Michael Kinsley of Bloomberg News, who added that Christie should get his appetite “under control” before making a run.
“Elected officials perform best when they are in optimal health,” wrote the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson. “Christie obviously is not.” He urged Christie to show leadership on obesity by losing weight: “Eat a salad and take a walk.”
“The stigma of obesity” would be an even bigger problem “than any health issues caused by Christie's weight,” concluded Reuters’ Bill Berkrot.
Late Show Host David Letterman saw a Christie candidacy as a boon for, well, late-night TV: "You talk about tons of fun," he joked. Alluding to Christie’s size, he said, “ Take a look. . . . Go to Google Earth.”
Yikes. Get your appetite under control? Eat a salad and take a walk? You’re so fat you need to be viewed on Google Earth? These comments even make me feel bad. They make me think: Man, fat prejudice is a whole lot worse than I thought. Is this the sort of thing people think about me? That all I need is a little more self-control?
If only it were that easy. If I were Christie, I’d say that such jibes make the price of running for office too high to pay.
To be fair, let’s admit that a presidential run, not to mention a term in office, would probably take a toll on Christie’s weight and health. William Howard Taft, a U.S. president of Christie-esque proportions, weighed close to 300 pounds when he took office in 1908; it had soared to nearly 350 pounds by the time he left office four years later. That would have given him a score of 41 on the Body Mass Index—a full 11 points over the 30 needed to be classified as obese.
Doctors considering the ample health records and contemporary accounts on Taft note that he had several health problems related to obesity. His systolic blood pressure was a scary 210 (anything over 130 is risky). Taft also suffered from gall stones and such severe sleep apnea and fatigue that he frequently fell asleep during important meetings.
This past summer Christie was hospitalized for asthma, another breathing condition, which, like apnea, is worsened by obesity.
However, are these health problems any worse than those suffered by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who suffered several mild heart attacks while in office, or 2008 Republican candidate John McCain, then age 70, who survived a bout with cancer? I would say not.
Furthermore, if Christie were elected president, it’s safe to predict that he’d receive the same top-of-the-line weight care as the famously weight-challenged Oprah Winfrey, whose health, meals, and workouts are supervised by doctors, a personal trainer, and a personal dietitian.
I asked my weight-conscious Facebook followers whether they thought the Christie weight debate represented weight stigma or a well-founded concern about the health needed to be president. They all said “stigma.”
“Why is OK for the current president to be a smoker, but it's not OK for a potential president to be overweight?” writes Twylla-Dawn Davis. “That's not fair.”
“Weight should not be an issue nor a concern in a political race,” adds Judi Taylor.
“It’s definitely a stigma,” says Joyce Vander Knijff. “A fat person is as capable of being president as much as a thin one.”
“Stigma!” declares Anne Mayer Welch. “Cheney's heart almost crapped out on him several times while he was in office. No one told Taft he was too fat to be president, but people seemed to be a lot nicer back then.”
What's your opinion? Weigh in on Facebook.
The Obesity Society, a medical group, puts it even more strongly. “A person's body weight provides no indication of an individual's character, credentials, talents, leadership, or contributions to society,” the group wrote in a statement. “To suggest that Governor Christie's body weight discounts and discredits his ability to be an effective political candidate is inappropriate, unjust, and wrong.”
I think I’ve been in denial. Weight stigma wields a lot more power than I have wanted to admit. It’s prejudice, more than health concerns, that prevent America from being ready to elect a plus-sized president.