Having an overweight surgeon general has its upside

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

(AP Photo/The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Bill Starling)

Ever since President Obama nominated Alabama physician Regina Benjamin for the position of surgeon general, the blogosphere has been buzzing about the doctor’s weight. No, they’re not talking about the weight of her accomplished resume, which includes receiving a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation and being the first black woman to be on the American Medical Association’s board of trustees.

Everyone seems to be up in arms about Benjamin’s physical weight. Many question how effective the nation’s next top doctor can be in promoting good health choices if she isn’t leading by example. According to the Centers for Disease Control, which is holding its inaugural conference on obesity prevention and control this week, one-third of Americans – 72 million people – are obese. Another 33 percent are considered overweight. With statistics like these, there is an immediate need to address America’s leading health crisis.

While Benjamin has not spoken publicly about her own weight since nominated, this is clearly an issue that concerns her. Her father struggled with high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which contributed to his death and both which Benjamin says are preventable diseases.

“I cannot change my family’s past,” Benjamin told the Associated Press. “I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s health care and our nation’s health.”

The fact that Benjamin can sympathize with struggling waistlines and the health problems that come along with them makes her a good role model for all Americans. We are consistently bombarded with images of unrealistic body types in popular culture. But in real life, someone’s skinniness doesn’t necessarily prove that he or she makes healthy lifestyle choices.

Unfortunately, Americans have a distorted idea of what “healthy” really means. Many fashion models and Hollywood stars live on a steady diet of cigarettes, alcohol and the occasional purging. For all we know, Benjamin may have sensible eating habits and is physically active to help her maintain sufficient cardiovascular health, and not necessarily a specific dress size. Maybe she doesn’t even consider her weight to be a problem.

I also question if her weight would have come under scrutiny if she weren’t black and female. Benjamin will not be the first not-so-thin surgeon general, and I don’t recall there being such a firestorm over a previous nominee’s body mass index. She would also not be the first black woman to hold this post, but it seems convenient for some to find any reason to criticize a successful woman of color.

Benjamin could not only lead average Americans down the road to better health, but she could also change how the medical profession treats their patients. In a recent BMC Health Services Research survey, 45 percent of doctors said that they have a negative reaction to the appearance of their obese patients, and 66 percent of them said they are very “frustrated” with treating their obese patients. The frustration comes from repeatedly telling their patients that they need to make better lifestyle choices and the patient seemingly isn’t heeding their instructions.

On the flip side of this, I have many plus size friends who genuinely want to lose some weight, but have doctors who literally look at them with disgust and yell at them about their weight. It is hard enough for many plus size people to deal with stares and being made fun of by family, friends and random strangers on the street, but if doctors lack the sensitivity to responsibly deal with their patients, then there is no wonder the obesity rate continues to thrive. Benjamin could take on this issue and act as both an advocate and mediator for both physicians and plus size patients on how the two factions can work better together.

She could also lead a national discussion on the causes of obesity in this country and how to combat it. Instead of criticizing this woman about her own weight, maybe we can use this opportunity to discuss our own collective weight problem.