Chris Christie: Expectations of a Public Figure with Obesity

The Fiscal Times has a prescription for NJ Governor Chris Christie: lose weight and in the process lead the millions of Americans who have obesity down a healthier path. Christie has been the focus of a lot of obesity and health-related media attention since he was elected governor in 2010. Some commentators, including Dr. Connie Mariano, former physician to President Bill Clinton, have said his weight would be a political liability for someone with presidential aspirations, as Christie appears to have, putting him at risk for heart attack or stroke. Though Christie has joked about his own weight on talk shows and in other places, he has sharply criticized others who have commented on it. He told Mariano unless she were willing to hop a plane, take a family history, and do a complete physical on him, she should “shut the hell up.”

The Fiscal Times suggests Christie could help the U.S., where two-thirds of adults have excess weight or obesity, by setting himself up as a role model for how to live a healthier life and losing weight. Not only would Christie benefit by a rise in popularity as his weight fell, but the country would begin to save some of the estimated $390-580 billion a year obesity costs the country.

When criticism of Christie’s weight surfaced a little over a year ago, experts on obesity put forward a different view in a statement from The Obesity Society:

A person’s body weight provides no indication of an individual’s character, credentials, talents, leadership, or contributions to society. To suggest that Governor Christie’s body weight discounts and discredits his ability to be an effective political candidate is inappropriate, unjust, and wrong.

Caution should be taken in making assumptions about a person’s lifestyle behaviors based on physical appearance alone. Individuals who are not struggling with their weight are not necessarily healthy. A lean body does not reveal whether or not a person smokes cigarettes, drinks excessive alcohol, eats a balanced diet, exercises regularly, or wears a seat belt. To single out a political candidate on the basis of body weight is discriminatory.

But expecting public figures to be models of fitness and public health is nothing new. When Regina Benjamin was nominated to be U.S. Surgeon General, some commentators labeled her unfit for the office because of her body size, ignoring her impeccable personal and professional credentials.

Mike Huckabee got lots of mileage from his successful weight loss ten years ago. He wrote a book (Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork) and made health a signature issue for himself. And then, he gained much of it back, leading to snide remarks by the press about him “tucking into a breakfast of eggs and butter-slathered pancakes.” Looking at it through a different lens, Barbara Berkeley, an obesity medicine doctor, said, “I wouldn’t call him irresponsible. I’d say he’s acting like someone with an addiction. An addiction that has re-established itself.”

Christie, who is riding a wave of popularity as New Jersey Governor, is obviously a talented public official. And he may be destined to play a role in our public dialogue about obesity. But it’s certainly not clear what that role will be. His messaging has been all over the place, saying at one point, “I’m basically the healthiest fat person you’ve ever seen in your life,” and making a lame joke by eating a doughnut on the Letterman Show. But he has also said, “My doctor continues to warn me that my luck is going to run out relatively soon, so believe me, it’s something that I’m very conscious of.”

One thing is certain. If his political fortunes continue to rise, he will be compelled to find an effective messaging strategy for obesity.

Click here to read more in the Fiscal Times, here to read the position of The Obesity Society, and here to read more in Politico.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie image © Walter Burns / Wikimedia

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