Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?

Actually, having a woman who is above-average weight as America's family doctor is a good thing

By Frances Kissling

Published July 15, 2009 12:16PM (EDT)

By all accounts Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin is an extraordinary woman. She is an African-American family doctor who has spent most of her professional life serving the people of Bayou La Batre, a poor rural Alabama coastal community. She makes house calls, pays for patients' medicines, works for free when there is no money. She's had heaps of honors poured on her head , including a MacArthur genius award. She rebuilt her clinic twice, once following Hurricane Katrina and then a year later when it was destroyed by a fire.

She is an active Catholic and, if her office nurse is to be believed, she is one of the more than 90 percent of Catholics who have no problem with birth control. (I have rarely met a devout Catholic working with poor people who is not an advocate of safe and effective contraception -- from nuns in Chile to priests in the Philippines. They get that having children you cannot afford degrades the soul perhaps even more than the body.) This, then, is a near-perfect public face for a president embarking on a controversial last-ditch effort to fix our health care system and serve the poor.

The only problem seems to be that some people think the face is too fat.

From her photos, it appears that Dr. Benjamin will need a generous size 18 military uniform. The anti-fat brigade has been arguing in various online comments sections about her BMI and whether or not the term obese applies. These chattering masses wonder if a country plagued by obesity should have an above average-weight woman speaking to public health.

For me the answer is a resounding yes. This country is full of above-average weight women and children struggling for dignity as well as to lose weight. Achieving either of these is not easy. (Never mind that none of these criticisms have mentioned any actual health concerns Benjamin might or might not have, instead presuming "obesity" as a catch-all for bad health.) Having a confident, big-bodied and big-spirited woman as America's family doctor could do more to improve their health than skinny HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It's good to know that even doctors struggle with their weight -- and lead full and active lives in spite of adversity.

At the Rose Garden announcement of her nomination Monday, Dr. Benjamin spoke compellingly and personally about the health challenges poor people face. Her own family has been hit hard. Her mother, who worked as a maid, died of lung cancer, the result of a smoking habit begun in childhood; her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure; her only sibling, a brother, died of an HIV/AIDS-related illness. Dr. Benjamin noted: "I cannot change my family's past, but I can be a voice to improve our nation's health for the future."

Watching the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, I've found myself thinking about our president's nominees and how many of them share elements of his background: People who have had hard lives, difficult childhoods and who have achieved amazing things. Some are middle-class like him, but many are working-poor. The idea of bringing into public life those whose experience enhances empathy rather than disdain for ordinary people is a refreshing change.

Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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