Fat Stigma and the NJ Governor's Race

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The issue of how America treats the overweight has come up several times on the Food Channel. Today, the subject is on a lot of people's minds after the New York Times ran an article about the role weight is playing the New Jersey gubernatorial race between incumbent Jon Corzine and challenger Christopher J. Christie:

In the ugly New Jersey contest for governor, Mr. Corzine and Mr. Christie have traded all sorts of shots, over mothers and mammograms, loans and lying. But now, Mr. Corzine's campaign is calling attention to his rival's corpulence in increasingly overt ways.

Mr. Corzine's television commercials and Web videos feature unattractive images of Mr. Christie, sometimes shot from the side or backside, highlighting his heft, jowls and double chin.

Most reactions have focused on the political ramifications of Corzine's strategy, with two pundits calling it "desperate" and another predicting what he calls "a (deserved) backlash." Instapundit said Corzine's tactics "just might work"--but only because it's New Jersey.

The most compelling reactions, though, question what Corzine's message says about our culture's attitude toward the overweight.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg quotes from an email he received from David Kessler, former F.D.A. chief and author of The End of Overeating, who called Corzine's tactics cruel:

To be cruel to someone because of this struggle is just unacceptable. It shows a lack of understanding about human nature, and about the environment in which we live.

But fellow Atlantic editor Marc Ambinder warns against blaming Corzine alone. Ambinder points to the fact that voters are buying into the idea that Christie is defined by his weight: the Times article reports that "fat" is one of the first things that comes to people's minds when they think of Christie, according to a recent survey.

And he points out the larger context Kessler alluded to in his letter: the fact that making fun of fat people is still largely acceptable in American society, and continues to damage it:

Fat stigma, incidentally, is a terrifically destructive force, responsible for negative health outcomes, for increasing the rates of obesity, for dividing social groups, and for driving, especially kids, to maladaptive behaviors--and even suicide. It's also linked to social capital, class, and race, in ways that would ought to make any self-respecting politician question the wisdom of making fat jokes. So Corzine, and his skinny minions, don't deserve to be absolved. But the sad fact is that fat stigma is so pervasive that, as Corzine's own focus groups found out, we start to associate fat people with negative stereotypes the moment the person's crosses our gaze.

Will the ad work? Is it worth fighting? Your opinions, please.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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