Don’t you call me pudgy, portly, or stout


by Jeff Fecke | July 22, 2009 • By any measure, Dr. Regina Benjamin has had an enormous positive impact on our nation. The first African-American woman and first physician under 40 to serve on the AMA’s board of trustees, Benjamin is the CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in the small gulf coast shrimping village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a practice that she had to rebuild after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. She’s a recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, was listed as one of Time magazine’s “Nation’s 50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under,” and has been awarded the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pope Benedict XVI. She served on the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees as an appointee of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, and was appointed to multiple committees of the Department of Health and Human Services the Clinton administration.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

In short, it’s hard to see anything on Regina Benjamin’s resumé that indicates anything other than a strong work ethic, a keen intellect, a pure soul, and overwhelming qualifications to serve as America’s 18th Surgeon General. Yes, as a Democratic appointee, there are a few things that will cause her to run afoul of the usual suspects on the right, such as her commitment to abortion rights and her support for a radical overhaul of America’s broken health care system. But as a Democratic president is unlikely to appoint an anti-choice, pro-insurance surgeon general, there’s really nothing to suggest that Benjamin would receive anything other than overwhelming support for her confirmation.

Except for one thing.

She’s a bit overweight.

Now, you may think that it’s bizarre to suggest that a MacArthur Genius Grant-winning, papal award-receiving, universally respected physician should be denied the position of Surgeon General because she, like many Americans, is somewhat overweight. You might think it beggars belief that we could even be discussing the idea that someone should be denied a position because of her weight. But if you’ve been paying attention to the overwhelming fat phobia in our society, you can’t be surprised.

The balanced, mainstream concern-troll look at the story comes from ABC News, which is just wondering, you see, whether this could be a problem:

Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, Obama’s pick for the next surgeon general, was hailed as a MacArthur Grant genius who had championed the poor at a medical clinic she set up in Katrina-ravaged Alabama.

But the full-figured African-American nominee is also under fire for being overweight in a nation where 34 percent of all Americans aged 20 and over are obese.

Critics and supporters across the blogsphere have commented on photos of Benjamin’s round cheeks, saying she sends the wrong message as the public face of America’s health initiatives.

Indeed. If Americans see a healthy, hard-working — but overweight — surgeon general, we might get the idea that being fat isn’t horrible, and then we might actually wonder whether fatness is actually equal to health. We might have a discussion about fatness that is honest. Horrors! We can’t have that!

My favorite part of the story, though, is contained in a sub-header:

40 Pounds Over, Size 18, Blogs Speculate

Yes! Blogs speculate! It’s pretty much exactly like truth, especially since, last I checked, sizes weren’t specifically tied to weight!

Yes, there are a few voices of reason. Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist at Cal-Berkeley, says, “Maybe now we will stop making the assumption that all fat people are unhealthy particularly in light of new data coming from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.” And Steven Blair, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina, quite reasonably adds, “The focus should be on Dr. Benjamin’s credentials and accomplishments. What difference does her size make?”

But of course, these questions are buried between people concern-trolling that Benjamin is a bad example to African-Americans, just like Oprah. Because for heaven’s sake, who would want their daughter to grow up to be a multi-billionaire talk show host or a world-renowned physician if she might be a little bit overweight? It boggles the mind!

Still, while ABC’s story is obnoxious, to really do completely unfair character assassination, you need the professionals at Fox News, who brought in Michael Karolchyk to discuss the issue.

Remember Michael Karolchyk? Sure you do! He’s the jerkface owner of The Anti-Gym in Denver, which, if you recall, featured such innovations as cupcake-throwing at people on treadmills, a “ravish room” for the men and women who had acceptably low BMIs, and “live DJs [and] cage dancers,” because, you know, that’s what the gym needs. If you want to feel worse about humanity, go ahead and check out his commercials.

Of course — funny story — in a rare example of divine retribution, Karolchyk is actually now the former owner of The Anti-Gym, because he lost it in January after failing to pay over $180,000 in tax bills. He then subsequently put his clients’ personal info, including credit card numbers and abusive comments about them, in an open dumpster.

You might think that a failed gym owner wouldn’t be the first person you’d turn to for a discussion of whether someone is qualified to serve as surgeon general, but alas, you’d be wrong:

Yes, he is wearing a “No Chubbies” shirt.

Doubtless, there is no shortage of racism and sexism feeding into this discussion. A similarly overweight white male wouldn’t be getting quite this level of opprobrium, and we wouldn’t be talking about what his waist size was. But more than that, it’s a sign of just how hateful attitudes remain about people who weigh more than the “ideal.” The idea that Benjamin could be accomplished, brilliant, and of superlative character is nothing compared to the fact that she’s overweight. It’s damn dispiriting.

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