Yesterday, President Obama announced his pick for Surgeon General—Regina Benjamin, a primary care physician from Alabama whose resume would dazzle almost anyone in the medical community. Now that it’s been 24 hours, it’s becoming clear how the conversation about Benjamin will be framed. And, very sadly, the discussion seems to be about one thing: her body.
When I saw the headline, “Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?” over at Salon this morning, I choked on my iced coffee. Luckily, writer Frances Kissling says the answer is a big, resounding “no!” But others around the interwebs are coming to a different conclusion. “It is not logical to let this overweight woman be the surgeon general,” wrote one commentator at The Huffington Post.
“The image of a fat Black woman serving as Surgeon General sends a message that it is acceptable to be fat as a lifestyle choice,” read a comment on an article about Benjamin in the Washington Post.
“Dr. Benjamin is a terrible choice for surgeon general!” said another at US News. “Have we become so politically correct that we could have an obese person charged with this highest office. How can an obese person educate a country on health?”
I have just one thing to say to this: How the eff does it matter what size she is? The job of Surgeon General is to make health care and policy decisions for the country—not to look hot in a pair of skinny jeans. And let’s even back up one step further. People are projecting that Benjamin is a size 18. Is she a big girl? Sure. But have we forgotten that the average American woman is a size 12—not the 0s we see on television sets and in tabloid magazines? Perhaps her size could actually be an advantage. She’s in a better position to understand obesity and contemplate out-of-the-box ways to roll back ever-expanding American waistlines.
A part of me just has to ask, If Benjamin were a man, would we be talking about her weight in the first place? I’d put $100 on no.
Here is why these comments bug me so much: they smack of judgment. They basically say, “Step away from the Big Mac and pick up some celery sticks. You are a slob with no self-control.” The truth is that we don’t know why Benjamin is the weight she is. We have no idea about her genetic makeup. For all we know, she could exercise an hour or more a day. She could eat healthier than 95% of the people reading this post. We just don’t know.
Now, I can see the next logical argument someone could make here: If Benjamin smoked, would I still support her for Surgeon General? Absolutely. Why? Because I don’t think personal characteristics have anything to do with a person’s ability to lead, legislate, and problem-solve. I mean, does our secretary of education have to have graduated top-of-their class from an Ivy League college? And can a man be a great gynecologist?
All I’m saying is … the decision on whether to confirm Benjamin should be about one thing, and one thing only — her qualifications. Not the number that pops up when she steps on the scale. To make this about anything else is sexist, size-ist, and probably a few other -ists that I can’t even remember at the moment because I’m so worked up. So let’s stop this discussion right here and get back to what actually matters, Benjamin’s dedication to getting health care for everyone, including those without deep pockets, and her drive to eradicate diseases like HIV, diabetes, and cancer.