David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner and anti-obesity activist, calls a new advertisement by Gov. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) "cruel and intolerant." The ad describes how Republican Chris Christie, who is overweight, "threw his weight around" to get out of getting a ticket. (The New York Times finds this as "subtle as a playground taunt.") Apparently, voters, asked to describe what word comes to mind when they think of Christie, are more likely to say "fat" than any other adjective. Perhaps Corzine's specific ad mentioning "weight" -- called "if" -- is to be blamed. But watch the ad for yourself before you arrive at that conclusion.
Aside from the one phrase, which includes a small, cropped picture of Christie's head, there's no reference to weight. However -- if you take a gander at Corzine's other commercials -- they're replete with unflattering video and pictures of Christie. And the guy, it turns out, happens to be big. Stipulating that it's wrong to mock someone for their weight -- and this is a stipulation I think reasonable people can agree on without hesitation -- what portion of blame should one to assign to Corzine?
On the one hand, Corzine is a fitness and health freak. (Sorry -- he deserves that counter-taunt!) And he's a sarcastic guy. So it's easy to see how quickly Corzine critics could arrive at the conclusion that he or his media team decided to force voters to focus on Christie's weight and then mentally proceed along the thought string that links fat people to a congenital weakness, a laziness. It's a cultural marker. From the days of Thomas Nast's cartoons, "corrupt" pols have been portrayed as greedy and corpulent in satire -- this is where the phrase "to throw one's weight around" comes from. The advertisement is about how Christie used his influence as a prosecutor to avoid paying for traffic tickets -- the intent is to knock Christie, known as an anti-corruption crusader, down a peg.
The truth is, it may well be that voters -- our culture -- deserves the lion's share of the blame for either responding so affirmatively (in the attentive sense) or for refusing to reproach Corzine for his tactics. But that assumes the fat stigma isn't indelible, isn't salient to the point of being automatic, or is easily overcome by an appeal to reason and sympathy. The truth is that all it has taken to make voters respond to Christie's body size is the publicity of a statewide race, plus a few words in an ad, plus the media's obvious interest in Corzine's tactics.
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.