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Posted by on Oct 12, 2009 in Politics, Society | 24 comments

Revenge of the Girthers

FatMan.jpgDavid Broder asks an important question in the Washington Post which should cause us all to ask how we evaluate political “figures” on their own merits. Call it, if you will, a result of the law of unintended consequences falling out from the current health care debate. As we focus on exactly how much health care money is spent on treating the negative consequences of obesity (along with whether or not we have a moral imperative to tax soft drinks) this battle seems to be giving cover to those who would tar the campaigns of political aspirants because of their weight. Are we now so obsessed with the Hollyweird version of what is an acceptable body shape that we will judge candidates on what goes into their mouths rather than what comes out of them?

If you believe, as I do, that the beautiful people already have enough of an advantage in this age of television politics and cable trivia, then the last thing we need is a wave of ads highlighting the fact that others are really ugly.

I worry about the many Senate and House incumbents in both parties who have plumped up since they came to Washington. Lobbyists can no longer buy members lunches or dinners, but there still are notable trenchermen among them — including some prominent men and women who always try to be photographed with their coats buttoned.

Broder is speaking specifically of the nasty advertising war going on in the New Jersey governor’s race, where a rather portly Chris Christie is currently threatening to unseat the slim, trim, marathon running Jon Corzine who has presided over the Garden State’s continued slide into financial ruin. Television spots show Christie in extreme slow motion as he gets out of a car and his rather generous mid-section wobbles about like jello. While elected officials can’t help but be seen as role models to a certain extent, is this how we want to judge those who will run for office or how we will battle opponents?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this particular head of the hydra raised up this year. When Barack Obama selected Dr. Regina Benjamin for Surgeon General, critics were quick to point out her weight. Granted, her position is specific to medical issues and obesity is a valid concern, but the speed limit set by her own metabolism shouldn’t inform us about her intellect and the ability to do her job.

Of course, we’ve tended toward the “beautiful people,” as Broder puts it, for quite a while now as much as we don’t want to admit it. When pictures began emerging during the last campaign of a shirtless Obama climbing out of the surf in Hawaii, displaying a surprisingly fit six pack and well toned muscles, do any of you think that really hurt his chances? He was a guy with a killer, fade-away jump shot up against a man in his seventies with a body battling the ravages of time and the results of the cruelty of his Vietnamese captors. We would be foolish to think that this comparison in optics didn’t play into the nation’s impressions of the two men.

But the point is, the campaigns studiously avoided making those comparisons in the open. There were no advertisements from Team Obama about how people shouldn’t vote for the stooped over crippled old man. (Though some of his minions took every opportunity to call McCain “spry” as often as possible.) The treatment of Dr. Benjamin and the advertisements running against Christie are examples of a new, lowest common denominator. If you tend toward the plump side of the scale, don’t run for office. We’ll treat you just like the mean kids did on the playground back in grade school.

And this is exactly where we are headed in upcoming campaigns… even further into grade school tactics and childish taunting. Art continues to imitate life as the Hollywood ideal of beauty translates somehow into qualifications for leadership in government. And hey… who wouldn’t want Britney Speares running the country?

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  • Don Quijote

    who wouldn’t want Britney Speares running the country?

    Given a choice between Britney and Shrub in 2000, I would have taken Britney. There is no way that she could have done a worse job than the previous resident…

    • I don’t know about that, she lost custody of her children to Kevin Federline.

  • tidbits

    The only surprise in this piece is that this is being viewed as something “new”. We haven’t elected a bald president since Eisenhower (Ford was appointed). Hollywood and sports analogies (physical appearance and coordination) have been visited on our elected officials since at least JFK (who was “handsome” and looked better than his rival on tv).

    Ford was skewered for being a fumblebum…tripping off airplanes…couldn’t “walk & chew gum at the same time”. Carter had a great smile; Reagan the movie star; Clinton the seducer; we’d love to have a beer with GWB; Dukakis looked silly in a tank; the energetic BHO v. the dottering (agism) McCain; wooden John Kerry & Al Gore.

    Physical attributes have been with us as a political decision point (for some) for well over half a century. As for obesity, nothing new there either. Someone name the last “fat” president.

  • ksb43

    This is evolutionary, reptilian brain stuff. We, as a species, prefer beauty over the homely. Our brain makes all sorts of neural connections, equating white teeth, lean form, etc with intelligence and breeding potential. Research has even shown that babies have a preference for pretty faces.

    The caveman inside each of us dictates more than we probably know.

    • Hi VeratheGun —
      I wouldn’t so quickly ascribe such a thing to evolution or innate qualities. Each culture has had different beauty standards, including a huge variety of body sizes. Evolutionarily, being able to store extra fat and to convert sugar to fat within the body was most certainly genetically favorable — so favorable, in fact, that one could argue we humans got too good at it, so now that we (in many areas of the world) have as much fatty and sugary and salty food as we could possibly eat, we’re storing that fat to unhealthy degrees.

      • tidbits

        Exccellent point, roro80, about differing standards of beauty in different cultures…and also from generation to generation. It wasn’t that long ago, historically speaking, that an ample girth was considered an indication of prosperity in men and the “beauty standard” for women varies remarkably over time. All it takes to understand is one Art History class.

  • DLS

    Let’s not rush to confuse innate preference for the attractive with contemporary leftist faddism and yet another bogus base of presumed superiority accompanying a desire for social engineering and related motives.

  • JSpencer

    Let’s not rush to confuse incoherent posting with relevant commentary. 😉 As for physical appearances, sure the caveman factor enters in, but that’s what we have these modded out brains for eh? Give me a short, balding president with heart, intellligence and vision any day.

  • DLS

    I’ll reconsider my generosity next time, maybe.

  • Jazz — I don’t know that I’ve ever so completely agreed with one of your posts. Excellent commentary. We’re a culture that is so completely obsessed with weight, so addicted to food and so addicted to feeling of “overcoming” its draw, that we have a hard time seeing someone’s worth as being disconected to their girth. Sad state of affairs.

  • DLS

    “Each culture has had different beauty standards, including a huge variety of body sizes.”

    Cultures themselves can change. “Portliness” was associated with prosperity and material(!) success in an earlier time. Once fitness became a fad and lifestyle with many after the Sixties, things reversed. It’s reached a point where you have not only have the preoccupied self-absorbed, as one example of excess in the other way, but currently the overweight and an “epidemic” or “crisis” of overweight and obseity as a pretext for political extremism (sugar, salt, and fat taxes, “food policy” lunacy, and related matters) and interventionism (and discriminatory behavior).

    • Agreed, DLS. It is interesting, I think, to see this issue catalyze on both sides of the aisle in different ways.

  • DLS

    “It is interesting, I think, to see this issue catalyze […]”

    Note that some lefties, with their PC-slanted “fitness” and appearance-related behaviors and standards, are aping objects they’ve detested in the past, namely many yuppies.

    Meanwhile, I wonder how many re-thought their position when the person who was chosen for Surgeon General was revealed — Regina Benjamin — who is agreed by most to be overweight.

    (Lost in this is the idea that just as no two people are like, also there is no single ideal or “correct” fat or weight-index, etc., level. A good object of federal R&D would be to make progress on learning how it can be determined how much fat is too much, for each individual, and ideally, develop a test for this.)

    • DLS, what I see is both sides using the pop-culture-driven idea that fat = bad/unhealthy/ugly and thin = good/healthy/beautiful to drive their own agendas, and I disagree with it on both counts. The left uses a psuedoscientific/it’s-all-for-health approach, and of course immediately thinks of levying a tax on “bad” foods. Both the “science” and the taxing could be thought of as typical of the left. The right uses the same meme to drive a (also typical) personal-responsibility-ad-absurdium sort of thing. For example, the farm subsidies that mean that hydrogenated oils and corn syrup are cheaper than healthy food are fiercely defended by the primarily right-wing farm lobby, yet say that poor people are more likely to be fat (AND more likely to be poor) because they’re lazy, uneducated, etc. The right is certainly more likely to support the insurance companies in considering a BMI over [pick a number] to be a pre-existing condition, regardless of the actual health of the person; you pointed out yourself that “ideal” for one person is not the same for another, and weight does not necessarily correspond to overall health.

  • casualobserver

    What it really means is that things are so bad in The Garbage State, oops, I mean The Garden State, that both candidates for the highest office in the state are each ethically flawed, such that ethics can’t be used as a typical campaign tool and they have to use things like “the other guy is fat” as a principal campaign tactic.

    I think Dirty Jerzey ought to reelect Corzine. After all, high taxes and corruption is the state motto.

  • DLS

    ” For example, the farm subsidies that mean that hydrogenated oils and corn syrup are cheaper than healthy food”

    Note that not everyone on the Right (which is no more monolithic than the Left necessarily is) defends the subsidies. Defending the objects of anti-business and “anti-Big Food” wrath is something entirely different.

    Incidentally, here in Michigan there’s a television ad that has been playing, against taxes on sweetened beverages, and while I agree with the statement made that there shouldn’t be any such new taxes, the ad itself is amusing because of how quickly and shoddily it was put together. In the ad, the character complaining about the proposed taxes takes sweetened beverages out of her vehicle, after opening the hatch in the rear of her vehicle, and she and the kids take the beverages indoors — and close the front door of their home behind them. Nobody returns to the vehicle to, ahem, close the wide-open hatch.

    • “which is no more monolithic than the Left necessarily is”

      Yeah, neither side is a monolith on this; I find that most people on both sides, plus the media, plus the government, are in general agreement that there is something “wrong” with fat people. Because of the wide acceptance of that premise, either side can take it and use it to their own ends, which was my point.

  • DLS

    “fat = bad/unhealthy/ugly”

    Unless you’re Michael Moore. [grin]

    • “Unless you’re Michael Moore. [grin]”

      Ah, you just couldn’t help it, could you DLS? Something tells me that dems don’t listen to MM’s ideas, nor do reps hate it, due to any effect of his girth. It’s just a nasty little bonus. It definitely bothers me, just like it bothers me greatly when liberals conflate Rush Limbaugh’s fatness with his vitriol.

      Do you remember quite a few years ago when Charles Manson was interviewed in prison by a woman? Do you know what is the only word for word statement I remember from that interview? CM: “You could stand to lose maybe 10 pounds, couldn’t you?” It’s an insult that is so easy to make, and cuts so deep (for women in particular), that out of all the totally bat-sh*t crazy stuff he said, that’s what I remember. He knew exactly what he was doing in making that statement. Perhaps it’s needless to say that it’s not an insult that I consider fair play, nor is it one I use.

  • interesting discussion. tidbit’s and versathegun’s points though actually have some solid research, with respect to our deep psychological biases. We can’t control them, despite what some here think, and that’s a problem. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, points out pretty irrefutable research about how our biases control our first impressions. You can test it yourself by failing repeatedly to overcome your bias about blacks and women. the tests. as many times as you like. TRY to consistently overcome your belief that white is good and men are better in business careers. It’s depressing. With respect to our political and business choices, he points out that the % of tall white male CEOs WAY outstrips the numbers of tall white men in the population. Our worst president (well, before GWB) was Warren Harding, who “looked presidential” and his voice “sounded presidential.” The Harvard tests don’t address “fat” or “ugly” but I have no doubt we would find the same biases there. Can we overcome our biases? Sure. Do we? Apparently not.

  • DLS

    “Ah, you just couldn’t help it, could you DLS?”

    The opportunity for some humor was obvious.

    “liberals conflate Rush Limbaugh’s fatness with his vitriol”

    Actually, he went on a diet (or starved, or used more drugs than just pain-killers). His girth is old history.

    • I guess my point was that I think a humor based on someone being fat and unattractive isn’t funny.

  • elrod

    Jeebus – if folks around here read the political insults hurled around in the 19th century they’d quake with embarrassment. Yes, weightiness was a legit topic for mockery.

    • Ah yes, let’s do go back to the social norms of the 19th century. Or, you know, not.

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