The Politics of Obesity
Posted by Enrique on 11.04.2009
Pride and prejudice...
As you may be aware, there were a number of exciting odd-year election results earlier this week. The GOP got its first good electoral news since 2004, as Republican Bob McDonnell defeated his Democrat opponent Creigh Deeds to succeed outgoing Dem Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia. (Fun fact: Virginia limits its governor to one term. Talk about laboratory of democracy.) More surprisingly, in Democrat stronghold New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie defeated the incumbent governor John Corzine. Corzine had a lot of things going against him, including salacious allegations of endemic corruption among public officials in the Garden State.
Despite his seemingly endless shortcomings, one wonders if any conclusion can be drawn about the effectiveness of Corzine's homestretch strategy of running against Christie's apparent obesity. Corzine certainly isn't the first politician to play the fat card, but it raises questions about fairness and simple decency. In a country where about one fifth of the population is considered obese, is it appropriate to make an issue of a political candidate's raw tonnage?
The story so far…
In the last month of the New Jersey election, the polls indicated a dead heat between Corzine and his Republican rival, even though Jersey is a perpetually blue state and the fabulously wealthy Corzine vastly outspent his opponent. In late September, part of Corzine's incredible campaign budget went toward the production of the following television advertisement:
On one hand, it's doesn't require a great stretch of the imagination to think Christie used his political influence to dodge some traffic tickets. Exploiting one's connections to get back some points on one's driver's license if one causes a car accident is a natural human inclination. Also, Christie is a onetime fundraiser for George W. Bush who became a U.S. attorney in 2001, so he has a track record of exploiting political connections for personal gain. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that the subtext of Corzine's ad was, get a load of this fat fuck. The use of the phrase "he threw his weight around" combined with that unflattering video footage couldn't be happenstance.
In the 1988 Pennsylvania treasurer's race between Democrat Catherine Baker Knoll and former U.S. Rep. Phil English, Knoll's campaign deliberately portrayed English as overweight.
"We were doing focus groups showing negative headlines about Phil," said Neil Oxman, who worked on Knoll's campaign. One woman saw a photo of English and said, "Is that him? Oooooh."
Oxman hired a still photographer and told him: "I want you to take the fattest pictures of this guy you can." […]
Twenty-one years ago, Philadelphia media-market viewers saw a full-length photo of English as an announcer said, "Take a close look at Phil English." Then the camera zoomed in. English, a Republican from Erie County, lost.
If Corzine can be accused of poor taste for making Christie's obesity an issue, he certainly had reason to believe it would be effective. Three weeks out from the election, a survey by Public Policy Polling found some interesting results – 11% of likely Jersey voters said Christie's corpulence was a legitimate election issue (with 8% saying they weren't sure), and 19% said it made them less likely to vote for him. Granted, that's still a minority, but almost one-fifth of respondents came right out and said being fat would dissuade them from supporting a candidate.
Widespread opposition to gay marriage indicates prejudice against homosexuals is still a relatively acceptable form of bigotry in many parts of the U.S. But prejudice against fat people also falls within the realm of socially permissible contempt. Along with cigarette smokers and prison inmates, obese Americans by and large (ahem) attract relatively little public sympathy. If we're honest, most of us could admit to having a laugh at the expense of a fat person. In the UK, the BBC reports that prejudice against the fat includes actual physical assaults. Why do we treat overweight people like second class citizens?
Why are many folk so intolerant of fat people? Discrimination on other grounds is widely frowned upon, so why is weight different?
It all comes down to control, says Susie Orbach, psychologist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. She believes the prejudice runs through our society.
Often the assumption is that overweight people have lost their self-control. That frightens society because there is so much emphasis on being slim, she says.
"Often it's not the larger person's excess weight that is the problem, it's the other people's obsession with being thin.
"Most people want to be slim, but this perceived physical perfection is difficult to hold on to and they fear losing control of it. Women and men can be on diets their whole lives and it's utterly miserable.
"They project that fear and unhappiness on to people who are bigger and that often translates into abuse and attacks. It's a way of people disassociating themselves from what they fear the most - getting fat."
That "projection" explanation rings true – we resent overweight people because of what they symbolize to our own sense of self-worth. In addition, we find overweight people to be aesthetically displeasing, and to the extent we blame the obese for having no control, we're willing to tolerate prejudice against them while we don't tolerate, say, racial prejudice. In Britain, the prejudice takes on another dimension in that they have socialized healthcare, and any overweight person can be perceived as placing a burden on taxpayers. Incidentally, that's another reason Americans should be wary of allowing our federal government to further interfere with our healthcare choices. A government that's responsible for our medical costs will want to have input into our dietary habits. But I digress…
Some of my dear readers might disagree with the suggestion in the previous paragraph that bigotry directed toward the fat is comparable to racism. After all, you can't control your race, but you can control your weight. Or can you? I'm sure many women (who, if you hadn't noticed, tend to devote more attention to their figures than men) would argue controlling one's weight is easier said than done. Personally, I've never had a weight problem, but I do smoke cigarettes, and I can't tell you how irritating it is to hear non-smokers say quitting smoking can't be very difficult. I imagine overweight people feel similarly when faced with snotty insinuations made by others who have never been in their position and can't possibly know what it's like.
At this point, I think we're all grown up enough to understand some people are truly big-boned. Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and some people's frames are naturally larger than others. While surely there are many overweight individuals who could shed the excess pounds if they devoted all their energy to it, there are probably just as many who can't because of reasons beyond their control. And since it's impossible at first glance to distinguish between someone who is overweight because they lack self-control and someone who is overweight because that's the way they are, it would just be more polite to withhold judgment.
Of course, it's common knowledge political campaigns are frequently impolite, and most Americans wouldn't have it any other way. Even though most people will say when asked that they don't approve of negative campaigning, politicians wouldn't do it if they didn't think it worked. Still, there are some tactics that decent people should shame out of public discourse and political campaigns, and I would suggest targeting a candidate's weight falls into that category. Although it probably wasn't a deciding factor in Corzine's loss, it's nice to know playing the fat card didn't contribute to a victory.