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Linda Bergthold Headshot

Too Fat to Be a Surgeon General?

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The latest idiocy to come out of the media is the accusation that President Obama's nominee for Surgeon General is "too fat". She may be a size 18 or even 20, opines the not so skinny themselves broadcasters and commenters on Fox News.

Hold on a moment, folks! Obama's nominee, Dr. Regina Benjamin, holds a MacArthur Genius Award, is the first African American woman to be elected to the Board of the AMA and the Alabama Medical Association and has served a rural community in Alabama with unselfish dedication. And she might be a little overweight?

What do we want in a Surgeon General? Some have noted that no one called out Surgeon General Everett Koop for being fat, although he was certainly overweight. Jocelyn Elders was not exactly skinny. So why have the purists surfaced now with this kind of attack?

I am calling out these self-righteous (and you can finish this phrase) on this one. Who among you can really cast the first stone here? Who among you is so pure (especially you C Street hypocrites) that you have no vices at all? Never eaten too much. Smoked. Drank. Coveted your neighbor's wife or a woman in Argentina. Lied. Cheated on your income tax?

They cannot attack Dr. Benjamin for her academic or clinical credentials. They are impeccable. They cannot attack her for her service to her clinic, the Bayou LaBatre Clinic in rural Alabama. Her clinic has burned down and been drowned out by hurricanes, but Dr. Benjamin kept it going, often with her own money. They cannot attack her because of her race. To do that overtly would be way too obvious. So how can they attack her? For not being perfectly skinny.

"I thank God that Dr. Regina Benjamin is a fat woman," said Joanne Ikeda, a nutrition specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. "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."

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance has taken up the cause of defending Surgeon General Nominee Benjamin. The discrimination against people of "weight" is real, in employment and in civil society. It is not something to joke about. In fact, there is a whole decades-old literature about fat discrimination.

We do not always know why someone is overweight. It could be glandular or genetic. We know that African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of obesity, and it is not always about calorie consumption. Nevertheless, the key issue here is this -- do we require that our public officials be the perfect embodiments of their duties and their message? Frankly, I would much rather have a Surgeon General who talks about obesity because she has struggled with her own weight, than someone for whom it is only a theoretical issue. The same for a President who struggles with smoking but still exhorts himself and all of us to try to quit.

If you believe that imperfection is human and that life experience and academic credentials are more important than dress size, please write your Senator and Congress person and ask them to confirm Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. We are SO lucky to have a doctor who makes house calls helping us understand what we all need to do to lead healthier lives.