A friend called me the other day and challenged me to use my powers for good. I’m a writer; it’s what I do. He asked me to say something about the chatter in the blogoshpere and around the Web suggesting that Dr. Regina Benjamin, President Obama’s choice to become the next U.S. surgeon general, is too overweight for the job. In other words, her size or appearance might send the wrong message to the country.
Dr. Benjamin is a doctor — a very good one. She is a MacArthur Grant fellow and the president of the Medical Association of the state of Alabama, where she launched a clinic to serve poor residents affected by Hurricane Katrina. She was the first African American woman to sit on the board of trustees for the American Medical Association, and the U.S. recepient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.
Oh, and she’s a doctor — a very good one.
The criticisms being leveled against Dr. Benjamin should probably not come as a surprise in our current political climate, where every move President Obama makes is found suspect by some group of haters. At times, the opposition has been rooted in suspicions about Obama’s racial loyalties. So, when he nominates an eminently qualified judge like Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, questions arise about whether she’ll favor Latinos and other minorities over white males. And when he speaks out (yeah, perhaps too honestly) about the Henry Louis Gates incident, according to some, it proves that he’s a racist. Then there are those who worry that Dr. Francis Collins, Obama’s choice as director of the National Institutes of Health, is “too Christian” to head the nation’s premier medical research agency.
This latest drama seems to be subtly fueled by biases on various fronts. First, though it may be a fair question to ask whether Dr. Benjamin, as the nation’s principal champion of good health, should look the part, it’s also fair to ask whether our culture’s perception of what “healthy” looks like is a bit skewed. For instance, does the American standard of beauty look more like a size 2 runway model or the size 14 of the average American woman? Popular culture would have us believe that any woman who has a little meat on her bones is unattractive.
A better question would be, is Dr. Benjamin healthy? Yes, obesity is a problem in our nation. But unrealistic notions of the ideal female body may be an even bigger problem. If a woman is eating right and getting the proper daily exercise,, not whether she looks stick thin.
A second bias in play regarding the criticism of Dr. Benjamin’s weight involves the racial and gender stereotypes that have long circulated about African American women — that they are large and loud. Whether intentional or not (and I’m betting some of the critics know exactly what they’re doing), questioning Dr. Benjamin’s qualifications based on her size conjures the old sexist fears of the “too-aggressive, unfeminine black woman.” That kind of prejudice must stop.
If we judged all potential leaders primarily by their physical appearance, rather than their character, talent, and credentials, many exceptional individuals would never be given a chance to lead. In fact, the denial of opportunity to qualified individuals because of race, gender, or physical difference has been one of the shameful tragedies of American history. By now, we should know better.
By all accounts, Regina Benjamin is an excellent doctor who will bring vision, wisdom, and compassion to the role of surgeon general. We should all be outraged that some people would want to deny a highly educated African American woman this opportunity not because she isn’t smart enough, but because she isn’t skinny enough.