Continuing its pattern of covers that "totally don't bait readers on purpose, we promise," TIME has placed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's silhouette on its most recent cover with the headline "The Elephant in the Room." LOL, we get it, TIME. He's a Republican, but he's also really fat! Let's make a joke that the average 12-year-old could have thought of and put it on the cover of a national magazine.
Of course, as much as I'd like to squarely put the blame on TIME for its tasteless and unfunny cover, the magazine knows it's targeting a condition that has already been accepted as fair grounds for mocking: Being overweight. It's not just late night comedians like David Letterman who make fun of Christie's girth. Respected, nationally syndicated columnists like Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post feel plenty comfortable telling him to "eat a salad and take a walk."
Even the debut of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down this week revealed that part of the reason Mitt Romney didn't choose Christie as his running mate was his weight. Apparently, while "watching a video of Christie without his suit jacket on, Romney cackled to his aides, 'Guys! Look at that!'" And both of Christie's two most recent opponents for governor, Jon Corzine and Barbara Buono, made jokes about his weight during their campaigns.
I understand if no one is exactly crying a river for Christie's hurt feelings. For one, there's no denying Christie's weight is a health risk, though I'd say it's silly to speculate about his health as a national concern until he's flat-out running for president. Moreover, I don't recall Barack Obama's smoking ever being considered a disqualifying health condition for the presidency.
There's also the fact that Christie is known as one of the most pugnacious politicians in the country, who regularly doles out insults and brash, completely unsolicited advice. Clearly, part of being a politician is to handle a lot of insults and jokes, even if they are low blows.
But usually the backlash is fiercer. Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic Wire writes that female politicians like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton are more often targeted for their appearance. "But it's taboo to be this explicit about it," she says, meaning you don't explicitly call them fat or busty or slutty. And when commentators go for a dirty jab about their looks, "the people who makes those jokes are shamed by everyone else."
The TIME cover was met with a universal groan. But everyone expects Christie to run with the fat jokes and laugh along. That's because although it is not socially acceptable to publicly mock people for their gender, race, sexual orientation, or even the clothes they wear (see: The female politicians above), being overweight is still fair game.
In fact, it's been proven that Americans are biased against fat people, especially in professional situations. "Overweight people have much less of a chance of getting a job, they have much less of a chance of keeping a job...they are paid less than those who are thin," David Burdell, Dean of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs, told ABC. "In this era of exercise, we impute moral failings to people who don't rein in their weight."
And the jokes about Christie get to the heart of another major problem in this country. Everyone knows we have an obesity epidemic. Many people who have never been fat think the key is tough love and shaming people in dieting (see the lady who refused to give overweight children candy and sent their parents disapproving letters). It's why Eugene Robinson may genuinely believe he's doing good by goading Christie.
But anyone who is or has been overweight knows that won't work. Fat jokes only reinforce the discrimination and stigma. As someone who has struggled with her weight from a young age, I have seen first-hand how comfortable people are commenting on your weight, even (and especially) when it's not from a well-intentioned place of concern. But we're expected not to take offense because it is supposed to go without saying that being fat means it's open season for jokes and harassment.
Christie himself knows this, telling ABC, "I have struggled with my weight for the last 30 years on and off, and that's the way it is, and so I think there are a lot of people out in New Jersey who have the same kind of struggle." Not just New Jersey; try the nation.
In fact, what the people making fun of Christie didn't expect is for a twenty-something, socially liberal millennial like myself to find something remotely relatable about him. And I didn't until I became increasingly aware of all the fat-shaming thrown at him.
In other words, political opponents should probably lay off the fat jokes for their sake, not just Christie's.