There are two lovely posts that cropped up last week defending NJ Governor Chris Christie from attacks on his girth: Jonathan Chait’s Chris Christie is Fat. So What? in New York Magazine and Frank Bruni’s The Round and the Oval in the New York Times (isn’t it almost pitiful how easy it is to make fat jokes?). Both of these pieces are responding to a subset of Christie’s liberal critics who argue that Christie’s great weight betrays a lack of character or discipline that makes him unfit to serve as president (Christie hasn’t even entered the race and probably won’t, but that doesn’t stop some conservatives from hoping).
Both Chait and Bruni point out how ridiculous this conflation of weight and personality traits is. Being fat isn’t just a result of how one chooses to eat but also of genetic and environmental factors over which we don’t have any control. Chait goes so far as to support the views of Paul Campos, who, working against prevalent “fat = unhealthy” attitude, argues that it’s entirely possible to eat well, exercise, and still be fat (it’s a view I personally incline towards, and that we at Consider have published an issue about). Weight is a totally unsound basis for judging someone’s character, and to use it as such unfairly punishes fat people. Christie certainly hasn’t had any trouble governing New Jersey because of his weight; to the contrary, Chait notes that Christie “has undoubtedly enjoyed overwhelming success in moving through his agenda and carrying out a taxing regimen of browbeating and insulting skeptical New Jersey-ites.”
What gets me is that the ideas of Campos and like-minded folks have been circulating for a long time– a decade or two at least. Why are they only getting any kind of sustained public airing right now?
I suspect there are two main reasons. The first is simply that we haven’t had a very fat politician like Christie even considering seeking the presidency in a long time. William Howard Taft was our fattest president to date—he weighed in at 330 pounds—but he was elected over a century ago. Putting Christie in the spotlight has prompted critics of his weight to emerge, which in turn has given folks the opportunity to air the defense of Campos, et al.
But I also suspect there’s a gendered element to all this. It’s painfully obvious that women’s bodies come under much greater scrutiny than men’s, and in some ways it may be easier to defend the weight of a man like Christie. If swapped out Christie for, say, the Debbie Stabenow of a few years ago (she’s since lost weight), I’m not sure high-profile media outlets like NY Mag and the NYT would be willing to defend her weight so quickly (to say nothing of what Chait or Bruni would think personally). That’s pure speculation, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think it may help explain why these size-neutral ideas are finally seeing more daylight.
Don’t get me wrong—I think that finally airing what are called “size acceptance” principles is a wonderful thing and that both men and women will benefit from their greater exposure. It’s just interesting to me to see what it takes for people to seriously consider iconoclastic but plausible ideas.
(Photo by Bob Jagendorf under a Creative Commons license)