Fit for the job?

The Obama Administration, it seems, has finally gotten around to picking itself a Surgeon General in the name of Dr. Regina Benjamin. A good chunk of the coverage about her nomination, after Pretty Boy Sanjay Gupta turned the job down, is not about her credentials, or how she runs a non-profit rural family health clinic that was destroyed twice (twice!) by hurricanes. Some mention was made of her as-yet-unclear views on abortion, but a lot of the articles focused on Dr. Benjamin's weight. Dr. Benjamin ain't thin, and people wonder if this "Big Lady" can handle the "Big Job" of scaring people about obesity.

The Surgeon General is the head of the US Public Health Service, and besides putting warning labels on cigarettes and liquor bottles, the Surgeon General plays more of a symbolic role than anything with teeth, and is generally thought to be a spokesperson to advise America on health issues. And you can't mention "health" without mentioning obesity. The general consensus is that Dr. Benjamin had better concern herself with the size of our thighs, and fast, lest our lard take over the world.

Some have responded that President Obama was irresponsible to pick a fat woman to be Surgeon General, that Dr. Benjamin can't give advice on losing weight if she so clearly can't take it herself. One commenter opined that s/he "refuses to let fat become socially acceptable," and believes that Dr. Benjamin's appointment is doing just that.

I wonder if this commenter ever thought about the parallels between refusing to accept Dr. Benjamin's weight and accepting her skin color. Many people would be (rightly) appalled if someone said they were going to refuse to let black become socially acceptable, but they feel absolutely just fine to say it about weight. But they're not prejudiced, you see. Oh no. They're concerned about "health." Well-meaning? Maybe. Prejudiced anyway? You betcha.

One blogger from MSNBC tried to take a swing in support of Dr. Benjamin, but kind of clubbed himself over the head instead. Maybe, he writes, Dr. Benjamin would be really good to get us to Shape Up and Lose Weight because she's fat just like us! Wouldn't more people take her seriously that way? Her size, however, is no excuse for us to declare a truce in the War on Obesity. He writes:

I am not saying we give an inch on the war on blubber. Obesity is an epidemic in the U.S. and growing quickly around the globe.

But people need to relate to the surgeon general, and if she can battle her weight on the job, she will do more to curb obesity then all the salads added to the menus of burger joints everywhere.


Why the need to "battle her weight"? I mean, if you're fighting yourself, you're pretty much bound to lose one way or another. Maybe she will bring some insights to issues such as size prejudice- I hope so. Our culture sure could use it.

To be fair, the MSNBC blogger ends wonderfully:

I don’t know about you, but a doctor who chooses to care selflessly for the poor and who has the respect of her peers as a good clinician is a doctor whom I am willing to listen to — even if she wears a plus-size lab coat.

The NY Times addressed this in a story this week called "When Weight Is the Issue, Doctors Struggle Too," in which a pediatrician muses over how to discuss obesity with children when she isn't exactly svelte herself and finds it hard to take her own advice. I'm not saying that encouraging moderate exercise and fruits and veggies is bad, but maybe the problem is with the advice and not the taking of it. When a diet fails, we blame ourselves. The problem, however, is the diet itself.

I'm fairly certain that Dr. Benjamin will have seen failed diets, and will have seen the connection between socioeconomic class and obesity. Will her own personal experiences give her a unique insight on this? Probably. But this woman is so much more than her size. Positive or negative, it's time to take size out of the picture.

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13 comments:

Sarah said...

Carrie,

Thoughtful commentary as always. I was reading this thinking, "yes, yes, and yes." I could not agree more with you. I wish you would submit THIS to op-ed pages, seriously. It is time our society got out of the 1st grade. I honestly cannot believe that we consider her weight appropriate fodder for discussion if she herself hasn't opened the discussion.

Sarah

Carrie Arnold said...

You raise a great point in your last sentence because I have not seen Dr. Benjamin bringing up her weight specifically. That's us. We did that.

Sigh...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Carrie, for this.

I live not far from Dr. Regina Benjamin's clinic. We are on opposite sides of a metropolitan area.

She first came to my attention right after hurricane Katrina. She and her destroyed clinic were in the local news. She gave interviews, etc. and there were several stories about her and her work in the paper.

I remember being so impressed with this doctor who I'd never heard of before. Here she was, running this clinic in a very poor area, a tiny fishing village with a large immigrant population. Most of that village was destroyed by Katrina, and pretty much the entire fishing fleet, too. She wasn't on TV hand-ringing or whining or begging, she was just patiently answering questions and was otherwise hustling for grants to rebuild ASAP. Her patients needed her and her clinic right then. She promptly rustled up the needed funds and got right back to work. I wasn't the only one who was impressed, either. I gather she got some pretty nice private donations, too.

Never *once* did anyone in our local news coverage say anything about her physical appearance that I recall. In fact, it did't register with me that she was "overweight" until the recent national stories about it.

We live in the South. Down here at least, there are lots of women with this same build. And I do mean BUILD. It's the way they're made. And I'm sick to death of hearing smack about it. Are we really so dense as to think that even though we come in all colors, have different hair and eye color, different heights, different-shaped noses, that we still should (or even could) be all the same shape, or BMI, or whatever? That's just not logical, especially as the empirical evidence parades back and forth right before our eyes in real life all the time. And how on earth is Dr. Benjamin's body weight in any case as important as the work she gets up every morning and does?

I think it's time we judged people on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin, their body type, or any other trait won in the genetic crap shoot. MY biggest worry is who's going to run her clinic in the Bayou if she's in Washington?! (I trust she's thought of that and will make the necessary arrangements. I think I'll call and ask if I can help.)

Malia

Samantha said...

Mostly, I just love your point about the "battling your weight". It's ridiculous that this is what we encourage people to do, to wage a war on their own body. I remember being told at 11 or 12, by my DOCTOR, that I would "need" to struggle with my weight for the rest of my life, because the only way to get thin and stay thin was to never go off a diet....It's only been hitting me in the last few months since discovering blogs like this and Junk Food Science that this advice is BS! If it takes that much effort and that much fighting and misery to be thin, doesn't it logically follow that this is the weight my body WANTS to be at?

I just wish we could get to a point as a country where we could look at science, and actual health, and otherwise mind our own beeswax about what other people look like.

ja said...

I wonder if her gender also has something to do with it. If she was a white dude with a beer gut I doubt people would be so harsh about her weight.

On a happier note, I'm really proud that someone with ties to New Orleans was nominated for the positon.

I Hate to Weight said...

let's just give this woman a Nobel Peace Prize for her work and get on with it. i wish that the topic was brought up. as sarah said, the doctor hasn't opened the discussion.

plus-size women can be very healthy. look at all Dr. Benjamin has tirelessy accomplished -- she seems to have lots of energy and some to spare.

there is such prejudice against overweight. such anger. i don't get it.

Anonymous said...

I am not a praying person but I'm concerned enough to be on the verge of praying that she does not succumb to the hype and even SAY something about trying to lose weight or that she "could be thinner" or anything of the kind. Maybe if she sets an example by talking about her accomplishments and aspirations, the rest of us can learn from her.

Wishful thinking.

Carrie Arnold said...

Malia,

I'm adding her list of clinics to my "really cool non-profits" list for when it comes time to make donations later in the year.

Anon #2,

I'm not a praying person, either, but I will give you an "Amen!" on that!

I was thinking about this a little bit more and I think what really irritated me was that people automatically assumed that she ate junk all day and never got any exercise just because she was fat. That's what bugs me. No one ever inquired as to what she ate or if/how much she exercised. They just assumed she had bad habits.

Anonymous said...

Not on the subject but I was eating my yogurt and noticed that it was "Hungry Girl Approved". I just saw the website. It was enough to want to make me start a blog. What a joke! DIET = HUNGRY and of course books and diet stuff. I have been at war with my body so long now I'm hungry, went from Binge Eating to Ana and now it suck's to eat. I listened to them and dieted that didn't work.

ambivalence said...

Malia, I love what you said. Some people are BUILT differently. We can trace this in different cultures, and, yes, in different places of the same county. The point is to be healthy for your personal build. Weight is just a small part of health.

Anonymous said...

Anon #3: Hungry Girl... AAARRGH. There was an article recently on my local newspaper web site (www.philly.com) about her appearing somewhere, and about how popular she is, blah blah. I posted a comment about how all she does is promote faux food but I noticed, sadly, that most of the other comments were along the lines of: "I LUV Hungry Girl!!!!".
Blech.

Carrie Arnold said...

Anon,

All I can think is "no wonder she's always hungry- she doesn't eat real food!"

And the cartoonish nature of her website makes me gag.

Crimson Wife said...

From what I recall of C. Everett Koop, he was a pretty hefty guy and nobody ever made a fuss about HIS weight.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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