Fat, black and female

She has been called “an angel in a white coat.” She is a doctor and the first black woman and youngest person elected to the board of the American Medical Association. She received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. She’s been honored for her medical work on behalf of the poor by both Nelson Mandela and the Pope. The President has just appointed her to the job of Surgeon General

And around the web from the blogosphere to mainstream publications people are discussing … her weight!

There’s no quicker way to diminish the achievements of a powerful woman than to talk about her body. But don’t worry, it’s okay because prejudice against the overweight is the socially acceptable prejudice. It’s socially acceptable because it masquerades as a health issue although it is really a class, race and gender issue.

Let’s be completely clear on one point first. Those piously declaiming on Dr. Benjamin’s potential influence as a health role model are ignoring the scientific evidence. Decades of scientific evidence have already demonstrated that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, overweight people live longer than people of “ideal” body weight.

The hysteria about weight sweeping contemporary America is just that, hysteria. Of course morbid obesity is a serious health problem with potentially deadly consequences. However, simply being overweight is not only safe, but actually appears to be protective compared to “ideal” weight. That’s what the data really show.

Why is the conventional wisdom about weight completely unhinged from the actual scientific evidence? The answer, I believe, is prejudice. Weight has become a proxy for social class. And, as we all know, it’s always open season when it comes to criticizing the bodies of women, particularly black women.

When poor people were thin because they didn’t have enough to eat, being overweight was a sign of status. That’s changed now. Thin is a sign of wealth. Achieving and maintaining the favored body type requires access to healthy food and special diet foods. It also requires exercise equipment or membership in a gym or, most exclusive of all, a personal trainer. All these things cost money, so weight has come to be viewed, accurately, as a sign of economic class.

Much of this is perceived only on the unconscious level. Nonetheless, it leaves people feeling free to criticize those who are overweight, supposedly on “health” grounds, but in reality as a proxy for social class.

Let’s be brutally honest here: Regina Benjamin looks like the stereotypical fat, black welfare queen and therefore, a socially acceptable target for our class, race and gender prejudices.

The hypocrisy about health concerns is glaring. Did anyone dare to discuss C. Everett Koop’s weight when he was appointed Surgeon General? Has anyone declared President Obama unworthy of being a role model because he smokes? Of course not, but it socially acceptable to muse about the “suitability” of Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General because she is an overweight black woman.

I am so angry I could spit. An extraordinarily brilliant, compassionate, gifted individual has been nominated to take control of an important health organization in disarray and the mainstream media is talking about her body. Salon Magazine ran an article about it yesterday, and MSNBC has Arthur Caplan discussing the “bioethical” implications of Dr. Benjamin’s weight today. Have people lost their minds?

No, of course not. They’re just enjoying the socially acceptable occupation of criticizing black women’s bodies; there are so few politically correct forms of prejudice left that no one can refrain from indulging.