Feature

Surgeon general: Is she too fat?

After President Obama nominated Dr. Regina Benjamin for the position of surgeon general, “the anti-fat brigade” started arguing that a hefty surgeon general “sends the wrong message” to an overweight na

“By all accounts, surgeon general nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin
is an extraordinary woman,” said Frances Kissling in Salon.com. An acclaimed family practitioner who has devoted herself to serving a poor rural Alabama community, Benjamin, 52, actually makes house calls and works for free when her patients can’t pay. In 1995, she became the first black woman and the youngest doctor elected to the board of the American Medical Association, and last year she was awarded a coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. But apparently, there’s a problem: Benjamin happens to be noticeably overweight. After President Obama named her to the post last week, “the anti-fat brigade” took to the blogosphere to argue that a hefty surgeon general “sends the wrong message” to our overweight nation. It’s an absurd complaint, said Maggie Downs in the Palm Springs, Calif., Desert Sun. “Weight is only one factor of health,” and more important, it is “absolutely no measure of a person’s talent, skill, and heart.”

But this is not just any person, said David Frum in NewMajority.com. The surgeon general’s principal role is to use that bully pulpit to prod citizens and policymakers on matters of public health. Some 34 percent of Americans over age 20 are now obese, and problems associated with obesity, from heart disease to diabetes, cost the nation billions of dollars a year. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to select for the most visible public-health job somebody who has overcome this problem, rather than failed to do so?” It’s no different than if the president had picked a “visible smoker” for this post. Can Benjamin really promote healthy eating if she herself is obese?

Of course she can, said Arthur Caplan in MSNBC.com. Just as a great coach need not have been a great player, a surgeon general need not be a paragon of health. Indeed, Benjamin could use her weight problem to address a struggle that millions of Americans can relate to. “If she can battle her weight on the job,” she could do more to curb obesity “than all the salads added to the menus of burger joints everywhere.” And if we’re really lucky, said Ronald Bailey in Reason.com, Benjamin’s own weight issues will make her less of a scold than some past surgeons general. Ultimately, the real question is this: “Is the size of your butt the government’s business? The answer is, no. Here’s hoping that the new surgeon general thinks so, too.”

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