Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Column Archive |  On Twitter: J Huget and MisFits  |  Fitness & Nutrition News  |  RSS Feeds RSS Feed

Should the Surgeon General be Slender?

Regina Benjamin is President Obama's nominee for surgeon general. (Photo By Marvin Joseph)

By all accounts, Regina Benjamin is a smart, accomplished person, a caring and skilled physician and a real go-getter.

Yet, by all appearances, she also is overweight.

Does that make her a poor choice for the post of surgeon general?

President Obama announced his nomination of Benjamin on July 13. The nomination has stirred little controversy, other than a flap over her abortion views. But as images of Dr. Benjamin have circulated on Internet news sites, some voices have wondered whether a person who is on the heavy side is the best person to lead the nation's health agenda, particularly as we attempt to wage war on obesity.

Some question whether Benjamin sets a strong example for others to follow. As this New York Times article, unrelated to the Benjamin flap, notes, an overweight doctor might lack the authority to counsel patients about their weight.

Others argue that Benjamin's weight has nothing to do with her ability to carry out the duties of the surgeon general. Some even say that her weight may help her better understand other people's struggles to maintain a healthy body size and in turn may help the general public relate to her better. Think Oprah.

(I don't recall these questions' being raised when Joycelyn Elders, another not-skinny woman, was named surgeon general. Nor did C. Everett Koop's non-skinniness seem to stand in his way. But perhaps these are different times; obesity wasn't regarded as our top health issue in the 1980s and early '90s.)

Should the nation's top doctor model the best possible health practices, including maintaining a slim figure? Or do outstanding professional skills and experience, er, outweigh her weight? Please take today's poll, then share your comments below.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health Policy , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Space-Age Snacks
Next: Cure For Childhood Insomnia?


The answer to the question posed in the headline is yes.
Not necessarily slender, just not definitely overweight.
A leader leads by example as well.

Posted by: observer31 | July 22, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

I'm just wondering--have we had this discussion about previous surgeons general and whether they should be smokers, overweight etc?
Their pictures/names are here:

Posted by: ajbouche | July 22, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

She could control weight like Obama. Smoke cigarettes!

Posted by: edgar_sousa | July 22, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Maybe she alone has the ability to lead a dialogue about weight loss, what we can do and why it's so hard. It's clear that being told to loose weight, whether by friends, family, doctors, or anonymous blog comments doesn't work. And that knowing the negative outcomes associated with extra weight doesn't make even very intelligent people shed pounds. She can bring a scientific and epidemiological outlook to solving this issue the way someone who hasn't lived it may not be able to.

Posted by: crunchyfrog | July 22, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

*Should* she be slender? Possibly.

Should we *all* be? Yes, per current medical thinking. (There was a time when carrying an extra 10-15 lbs was considered healthy so that if you got sick you had some weight you could lose, for instance.)

But if we're going to eliminate people for jobs based on their weight (as opposed to their qualifications), you're going to lose out on a *lot* of talented people in this country and a knowledge base that can be mined for the benefit of everyone. While she is overweight, she is not morbidly obese and her weight does not seem to impede her ability to get to and from work and perform her duties as a doctor or presumably in her current position.

Posted by: | July 22, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

if the republicans are so concerned about the imagery of fat spokespersons, then why oh why is the party leadership comprised of soft, piggy old white men?

Posted by: mycomment | July 22, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Overweight doesn't necessarily mean unhealthy.

In an office of 12 people the person who is the heaviest is the person who is the healthiest. They're rarely sick - usually sinus yet the two smallest (healthy) are always sick and at the doctor(flu every year; stomach issues; headaches; swollen ankles; etc.).

Posted by: rlj1 | July 22, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Why the "war on obesity" anyway? We see how well the "war on drugs" went, and many "heavy" people are only "obese" because of the somewhat random, proven-to-be-useless BMI. If we need an open dialogue on the benefits of healty eating and exercise, then maybe we do need a "bigger" person to do it.

Posted by: byte1 | July 22, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

She should be confirmed. She should also announce at her confirmation hearings that she is committed to losing weight. As we watch her on her diet and lifestyle changes, she will set an example. In the same way that Surgeon General Luther Terry quit smoking in the 1960's to set an example and to give himself the standing to put warnings on cigarette packs, she can set an example to counter the obesity epidemic.

Posted by: hapax142 | July 22, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I don't remember this being an issue when Dr. Koop was nominated...

Posted by: patinlaurel | July 22, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Doctors are well known for not following the advice they give to patients. That said, it would set a better example if the candidate for this job lost 10 pounds. It's not an unobtainable goal, and will improve health. If you start with the idea that you have to lose a ton of weight you're more likely to feel overwhelmed and not take better care of yourself. Reduce your portion size (10%) and get a pair of good sneakers -- walk.

Posted by: redd1 | July 22, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the previous poster that -- as the nation's leading health advocate -- she should make a public commitment to fixing her obvious weight problem.

A Surgeon General who smoked would be laughed out of town. Today, obesity causes more premature death than smoking does, so we shouldn't tolerate an obese Surgeon General who isn't committed to losing weight, any more than we would a Surgeon General who smoked.

Posted by: DupontJay | July 22, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Overweight doesn't necessarily mean unhealthy.

Take a look a their arteries and heart and you might see a different story.

Posted by: Axel2 | July 22, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Only WaPo could come up with this as a serious topic

Posted by: pgr88 | July 22, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

60% of the nation is MORBIDLY OBESE.

63% of the respondents in this poll say being obese is fine.


The surgeon general needs to stand before the microphone and announce that her obesity is killing her, adding to the national cost of treating heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and lower productivity in the worlplace and so she is going to lose it.

Then make a national weight-loss campaign and roll it out where it is most needed: IN SCHOOLS.


Posted by: onestring | July 22, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

You're kidding, right?

This isn't about who is most fit. It's about who's most qualified.

Who would be "perfect" for this role? Someone "perfect"? And what's perfect: smart, tall, good-looking, blonde, thin, size 8 shoes with a 33-inch inseam? Oooh, "blonde" is racist. "Tall" is height-ist. Shoe size is shoe-ist. Give me a break.

Posted by: cfow1 | July 22, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: whocares666 | July 22, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Should the President be White?
Should a Supreme Court Justice be a man?

Is the "surgeon" general even a surgeon?

Posted by: RedBird27 | July 22, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

This is probably one of the dumbest thing to ever be printed in the Washington Post..You guys must REALLY be wheezing in the bad air after your publisher sold you out. Keep running this kind of garbage and you'll be in a whole new marketplace!! WaPa = NY Post...then Rupert will get you for nothing!

Posted by: rbaldwin2 | July 22, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

This article is ridiculous. The alleged controversy is that Dr. Benjamin suffers from a treatable medical condition that is among the most prevalent in the country so she's unfit to be a role model. Would she be ineligible if she had another medical condition? Diabedes? Breast cancer?

Being overweight doesn't make Dr. Benjamin ineligible, but she should certainly lead by example once she takes office. She's going to be the nation's biggest chearleader for health, so she should definitely walk the walk, so to speak.

Posted by: Menidia | July 22, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Her credentials, as well as her dedication to her profession and service to others should be all that needs to be discussed. Where is it written that the Surgeon General be slim and trim? We might be waging a war on obesity for our youth and others, but until we "all begin the reduced portions, excerise daily and give back to the community", we should all leave the Sunday afternoon quaterback commentary in the back of our throats.

Posted by: Indygirl2 | July 22, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

what if she has bone one bone of the knee and can not exercise properly?????????? to burn fat????

Posted by: wpmars | July 22, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

"Fat" does NOT equal unhealthy or ignorant, folks. Get over yourselves already and quit absorbing your values from fashion magazines that glorify heroin addicts as some sort of twisted ideal.

Until science figures out the real reason for morbid obesity, the citizens of our country will continue to struggle with this issue.

My Grandmother lived to be a hearty 93 years old, weighed in at about 185 lbs (at 5'4" tall). By today's standards she'd be considered a "major health risk" for all insurances, and yet she never suffered a heart attack, only had a brief and very mild brush with diabetes (type 2, controlled by diet and exercise), and as I said lived until 93. In what way is that not "fit" by anyone's definition? Oh right, she was round - just like me.

I too only weighed about 180 lbs until I tried to lose weight following doctor's instructions, Weight Watchers and other diet paths. After repeated "diets", I now weigh over 300 lbs. I wish I'd ignored the "fashionistas" and just accepted my body type for what it was 30 years ago. I'd be in much better shape had I done so.

BTW, even with all this excess weight I have to lug around??? I still have low cholesterol, perfect blood sugar, excellent Blood pressures, no heart attacks, strokes or other indications of ill-health. I'm just really fat.

Posted by: ktsmom9 | July 22, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

We really can't assume that she is not in good health because looks can always be deceiving. Take for example the BMI, you can be a trim professional athlete with pounds of muscle and 4% body fat but still come up as overweight. Or you can be normal on the BMI and have high blood pressure. There are so many factors involved in determining someone's overall health that it's tough to say this woman must lose weight because she could healthier than someone 40 pounds lighter than herself. Do I think they should turn her away because of her weight? No.

However, I do feel it would set a good example for Americans if she became proactive and tried to trim up then made obesity a priority.

Posted by: CaptainJack1 | July 22, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Of course the Surgeon General should be Caucasion since they are less subject to high blood pressure. The Surgeon General should be male since their physiology is less subject to problems than females. The Surgeon General should be rich because rich people have better overall health. What about a battery of psychological tests and a genetic scan? Please tell me this woman doesn't wear glasses. Let us not forget the morallity screening that everyone is public life must now pass and God forbid that she holds an opinion that is not in line with current political correctness. Truth to tell, they don't actually make humans that can hold public office. We need to use machines and have done with it.

Posted by: buddecj | July 22, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how many people making comments are overweight or even obese.

Have you looked at our politicians?

A lot of overweight white men trying to tell everyone how to live.

Instead of her weight -- how about her abilities, intelligence, etc. Or is that not important?

Oh, I forgot -- people, especially women, are suppose to be eye-candy -- not necessarily intelligent....

By the way -- I'm just over 5' and about 100 pounds -- not beautiful -- just petite.

However, I am definitely not qualified to be the Surgeon General....

Posted by: abby0802 | July 22, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

hey folks. she's fat. and that's a lousy message to send on health care

fat means diabetes, heart attack, and greater chance of stroke.

diabetes means constant care; it means loss of limbs, of sight, etc.

and it means much higher costs to the patient, to the government, and to society.

So, unless she's going to go on a well-publicized diet and encourage others to do the same, get a better role model!!

Posted by: malachhamovess | July 22, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Well I see all of the busybodies have something new to worry about. Too bad she's not a smoker too,then they would be going ballistic.

Posted by: g30rg3544 | July 22, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't hire a poor person as my financial advisor.

I wouldn't hire a couch potato as my personal fitness trainer.

And I wouldn't hire a fat person as the nation's chief proponent for healthy behavior.

Posted by: DupontJay | July 22, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I think that both sides of this argument are quite valid. The truth is, no one can take the advice they dish out. Do we think that all ambulance paramedics are health nuts, or lead the safest lives in the world? Who has seen a firefighter smoking a cigarette while battling a fire? Who has seen a fat doctor? I have been personally told by two doctors during different physicals that I am morbidly obese and will probably die young. The most recent of these doctors that told me this was a woman that was about 5'3" and probably pushing 200 lbs. What did she base her diagnosis on? She measured my weight and my height and turned to a chart that was probably made back in the 70s. PEOPLE ARE BIGGER NOW. If you do a BMI index on a personal trainer at a gym, they will be considered obese as well. Back to the point. While my BMI results may be one that doctors fear (despite my actual build), I am a very healthy person. So, I see that this new SG could possibly (or hopefully) bring a change. Perhaps all of the charts and information that is relied on that is a thing of the past can be researched and replaced! Only time will tell.

Posted by: capsfan55 | July 22, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

The assumption that Dr. Benjamin would need to be lean/thin to "model the best possible health practices" is both disciminatory and scientifically without merit. Body size does not determine a person's health status whether they are fat or thin or inbetween. Dr. Benjamin's medical experience, intelligence, and humanity bring me hope that we might be able to move away from our current costly, ineffective, and abusive "war on obesity" to provide access, policies, and services in healthcare that are non-judgemental in both prevention and treatment for people across the size spectrum.

Posted by: danaschuster | July 22, 2009 11:49 PM | Report abuse

Her being over weight gives her a unique perspective on the burden. Perhaps she should also be a drug user.

Posted by: pmdohio | July 23, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Ummm, does anyone remember what C. Everett Koop looked like? He was not a thin, fit man, and no one questioned his abilities. This is nothing but the typical double standard women have to live up to compared to men. Period.

Posted by: LilithFaerie | July 23, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

This would never be raised as an issue if the Surgeon General was a man. Shame, shame. Will we soon have a weight czar and weight police. Health comes in all sizes and weights just as disease does. I would not say that this person is the right choice or not but it is rude to comment on her size or weight. Did your mother not teach you manners?

Posted by: pennyroyal1 | July 23, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Mentioning or referring to past Surgeon Generals isn't a reason to choose one today. USA's condition today is very different than it ever was before. Our Nation has taken on the greatest weight gain of any nation in the world. America the land of the FAT...

For instance, our government is fighting smokers and banning tobacco advertizing..taxing higher and forcing the tobacco companies to pay up on settlements and fines imposed. Yet, our President is a smoker..which doesn't have anything to do with his poor performance a as President..but he's smart enough to hide his smoking from general public view for his political posturing.

Dr. Benjamin won't be able to hide her FAT like OBAMA can hide his if she standing before millions of Americans calling for efforts to lose weight based on National Surgeons finding what honestly would your reaction be?
1. Laugh?
2 Booo?
3. Say?..." Right on Momma... tellum Baby?
4. Say?.."Oh Dear?? SHE'S SO FAT? HERSELF how can she say that?
5. Simply not notice that she's fat?

So how would you feel if OBAMA said..

"Don't smoke the US Surgeon General says it's bad for you.... !"

More BLAH BLAH ...lies? or the truth?

Interestingly, as encouraged to do so I filled out the survey questionnaire..and was told that

1637 had done so..and 66% were not to worry about being FAT while the other 34% said they though tbeing FAT would be an impartment to holding the job.

It would be interesting to see how many who answered were MALE, FEMALE ,or Republican or Democrat or White or Black ? Would that have had any bearing on their HONEST responces?

Posted by: rpowers2 | July 23, 2009 10:11 AM

Posted by: rpowers2 | July 23, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Yea, well the last president trusted in god and prayed for us while he went over to Iraq and killed a 100,000 innocent people and displaced over a million. Guess you just can't win.

Posted by: nowickedwitch | July 23, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Onestring is obviously pulling his/her 60% morbidly obese statistic out of thin (no pun intended) air.

Let's get real honest. We simply wouldn't be having this discussion over a male with the same BMI as Dr. Benjamin. Women are held to a different standard, and it hasn't a damn thing to do with health considerations.

Posted by: raejeanowl | July 23, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Why can I not say that she's an excellent choice without having to say that I think she's overweight? I don't even like the questions. People should take a minute to familiarize themselves with Covert Bailey and the concept that "fit or fat" is a false dichotomy. Plenty of people who appear to be overweight are actually quite healthy and many are far more fit that "skinny" people. On a more macro level, this entire conversation just annoys me. Let's talk about her qualifications, not her weight. No one would EVER do this with a man. It's 2009, let's get with the program already.

Posted by: gretchen2 | July 23, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Now, i know she is a very good choice for the job and by all means should not be judged strictly on her weight, that is not what makes the surgeon general the surgeon general. She should however strive to lose the weight while in office to set the example for the entire nation.

Posted by: bigmanoncampus93 | July 23, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

The 67% who voted "No" in that poll NEED to experience coronary artery disease and/or diabetes and all its associated ills!
And now our SG can even shake the apathy and sloth of today's status quo to set an example.
What a DEVOLVING society. This is a pathetic mind-set! If health is so unimportant than why botrher with any reform measures? Pay the price for living unhealthy....let the costs shyrocket!

Posted by: InSpiredVentures | July 23, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Janet Napolitano is Homeland Security Chief and no one asks how fast she can run to protect us.

Posted by: MissV | July 24, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Obama appointed a tax cheat as the head of the Treasury Department, so it does make sense that he would appoint a full-figured gal as Surgeon-General.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 25, 2009 12:02 AM | Report abuse

One fashion model died while traveling in Spain. She collapsed in a train station. Anorexia was the final diagnosis. This is the type of body so desired by those who sell clothes and create style. Sick! Sick! Sick! The Surgeon-General (who doesn't do surgery any more than the postmaster-general delivers mail) should be chosen for professional training and ability, not to pose and look cute. That ideology went out with the horse and buggy. Dr.Benjamin's just fine.

Posted by: drzimmern1 | July 27, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

No one would care about her weight if she were a man.

Posted by: Cheryl3 | July 28, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company