On Wednesday Broadsheet reporter Francis Kissling posed a question: “Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?” A question I respond to with a raised eyebrow of disapproval and a really Salon, I mean really?
Luckily, despite its irritating headline, the article itself is one I can almost get behind as I agree with its author that, “this country is full of above-average weight women and children struggling for dignity,” and having an above average weight Surgeon General could positively impact that struggle. Unfortunately the article is quite the mixed bag. Here’s a full quote so we can do a breakdown:
“This country is full of above-average weight women and children struggling for dignity as well as to lose weight. Achieving either of these is not easy. (Never mind that none of these criticisms have mentioned any actual health concerns Benjamin might or might not have, instead presuming “obesity” as a catch-all for bad health.) Having a confident, big-bodied and big-spirited woman as America’s family doctor could do more to improve their health than skinny HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It’s good to know that even doctors struggle with their weight — and lead full and active lives in spite of adversity.“
“Never mind that none of these criticisms have mentioned any actual health concerns Benjamin might or might not have, instead presuming “obesity” as a catch-all for bad health” Here, the author points out that Benjamin may not have any health problems, calling out the people making critical assumptions about her simply based on her weight.
“…and lead full and active lives in spite of adversity” Although the rest of the article makes it clear that the adversity the author is referring to is related to money, rather than judgment based on weight, I originally got excited and thought that Kissling was again acknowledging he social stigma that comes with being considered overweight. Regardless, the fact that the author described Benjamin as having an active lifestyle is a great thing because it observes the way she lives her life, rather than the way she looks, and stands in opposition to the idea that fat = lazy/inactive.
“…as well as to lose weight” Here we have to common assumption that all fat people are/should be unhappy with their bodies as they are and actively trying to lose weight.
“…could do more to improve their health than skinny HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “ Some fat people are perfectly healthy and some are unhealthy, some thin people are unhealthy and some are healthy… health comes at a multitude of sizes and is based way more on one’s activity level and diet than it is on a (largely genetically determined) weight or, to be more accurate, the perception of one’s weight due to assumptions that are based upon one’s appearance. I don’t like the assumption here that anyone has a responsibility to improve the health of all fat people…. we should be focused on improving everyone’s health instead and understanding that health and weight have no definitive correlation.
“even doctors struggle with their weight” Not all fat people are struggling with their weight. It is possible to be not skinny, but still happy with your body as it is (just as it is possible to be skinny & unhappy with your body.) Why is the author automatically assuming a struggle on Dr. Benjamin’s part?
This isn’t even about health so much, however, so I’m not going to delve further into the issue of whether or not fat = unhealthy (especially since I’ve covered it already so many times.) If you have any questions about the link between health and weight please take a look at the Junkfood Science blog, or this comprehensive article on Shapely Prose, or watch one of Kelly Bliss’ awesome media apperances.
Instead, I want to get back to that question: “Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?” I want to backtrack to that opening question and raise my own question back in response: Is it right for us to question anyone’s qualifications based on their weight?
As far as I can understand being considered fat will in no way hold Dr. Benjamin back from being, “the leading spokesperson on matters of public health in the federal government.” Her weight does not affect her ability to research, to campaign, to raise awareness about health issues and so on just as her weight has not stopped her from being an exceptional doctor* before this nomination – even if we are operating under the assumption that Dr. Benjamin’s weight is unhealthy, her weight in no way stops her from advising the government on issues related to nutrition because as a doctor she knows what is healthy.
Dr. Benjamin’s weight is irrelevant to her position… so why is it an issue? I feel this speaks to a much larger issue in American society, namely, the concept that women’s bodies are public domain and that there is nothing wrong with commenting on and judging them without the owner of the body’s consent. (Jezebel does a great job of providing examples to illustrate the double standard that exists – men’s weight rarely, if ever, factors into decisions about how qualified they are for a position.)
If you’re a woman** you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re thin people feel the need of offer you food, exclaim their jealously over your frame, or even accuse you of having an eating disorder… even if you’ve done nothing to draw attention to yourself beyond being in their presence. If you’re fat you get the disparaging insults, diet tips, comments on what you’re eating if you choose to eat in public… and again, all you’ve done to “deserve” this treatment is exist within a public place. If you fall somewhere in between fat and thin (the physical place I’ve spent most of my teen years) you get a mixture of both comments – the insults, the jealousy, the diet tips…
Basically, if you’re a woman and you have a body you most likely has a story about an unsolicited bit of advice/commentary regarding that body; be it from a family member, a stranger, or a friend. These comments can range from welcome, to annoying, to psychologically damaging… but they all have one thing in common: we never asked for this.
An example of this phenomena observed in semi-real-life via my facebook feed. Facebook may not be the perfect example, since people can choose not to put a photo up, but its still close enough to what I’m talking about – a public space where socializing occurs – to be considered relevant. The original comment was flattering, if unsolicited, but the follow up? Why does person B assume any right to comment on how much more weight person A would need to loose to be attractive? That makes an awful lot of assumptions (about motivations for losing weight, the personal nature of attraction) and it is a comment that, really, is just more polite to keep to yourself.
However annoying this may be in every day life, the practice of bringing bodies into political debates bothers me more than anywhere else because, almost without exception, it is a practice used to put female politicians body’s on display over their intellect… itherwise known as the facet of their being that is actually relevane to their performance and, by extension, the voters.
We’ve seen it with Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Sonia Sotomayor, and now Regina Benjamin… time and time again. Yet, has anything politically relevant or important ever been expressed through this discourse? Not really.
Not only would I argue that these conversations are a waste of time, I’d go further to say that they’re actually doing harm. This blog post from 2008 provides a good example. It talks about “upskirt” photography which is often allowed to occur with little outrage from those who are not victims, simply because we’ve become so used to women’s bodies being considered public domain.
Another good example of the disrespect that this cultural practice brings about is the existence of “headless fatty” shots in the media: “As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanized as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.” These people’s bodies are put on display, without their permission, and are open to being mocked and criticized in the media without the owners of these body’s having any say, any chance to defend themselves at all.
Its an injustice. A potentially psychologically harmful injustice that can make the public sphere a daunting place for people, especially women, with bodies.
Its an injustice, yes, but its one that we can fight by challenging those that make these unwarranted comments, both in the media and in our communities, starting with Dr. Benjamin and her appointment to Surgeon General.
* Seriously, Dr. Benjamin is an amazing doctor and an amazing person. Just look at this bio:
By all accounts Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin is an extraordinary woman. She is an African-American family doctor who has spent most of her professional life serving the people of Bayou La Batre, a poor rural Alabama coastal community. She makes house calls, pays for patients’ medicines, works for free when there is no money. She’s had heaps of honors poured on her head , including a MacArthur genius award. She rebuilt her clinic twice, once following Hurricane Katrina and then a year later when it was destroyed by a fire.
** Not to say that men never experience this, it just doesn’t seem to be as universal of an experience for men whereas every woman I’ve spoken to about this (and nearly every woman I know) can relate an instance where this has occured in here life.