Fat Politics

Jonathan Chait and I don't agree on much.  But we do agree on this:  the argument that Chris Christie is somehow unqualified to be president because he is fat is absolutely ridiculous:

Robinson edges toward what I suspect is the deeper belief at work, urging Christie to follow the example of others who have lost weight. The premise here is that weight is a marker of personal discipline, and anybody who's fat must simply be too lazy to take care of themselves. This conveniently fulfills the desire to categorize obesity as a character flaw, but ignores the extreme difficulty of sustained weight loss. Robinson cites, as an example of somebody who has "lost weight and kept it off for extended periods," Mike Huckabee. Has he seen Huckabee lately? . . . .

Kinsley more explicitly casts Christie's weight as a moral failing, arguing, "a presidential candidate should be judged on behavior and character, not just on policies." It's pretty jarring to see somebody openly make the case that being fat is a sign of poor character. It certainly helps make Campos's case that there's a moral panic afoot.

Kinsley is certainly quite slender.  So it's not surprising that his piece had all the hallmarks of the weigh snob: the folks who believe that their committment to keeping off that last ten pounds by eating less dessert and cheese than they'd really like, is somehow akin to what Chris Christie would have to do to get his weight to "normal".  Naturally, they think this makes them qualified to judge Chris Christie's weight.

As Chait notes, there's no evidence that being thin makes you a better leader.  The only seeming bit of evidence--the tendency of thin people to be richer and more successful--is as easily explained by the fact that America discriminates against heavy people.

How does the idea that weight is somehow a reliable proxy for discipline and self control survive contact with the existence of people like Michael Huckabee, Oprah Winfrey, and yes, Chris Christie?  Do we think that Oprah became the most successful television personality of all time by being lazy and out of control?  She's lost loads of weight what, a half dozen times?  Yet despite her personal trainers, her private chef, and what is by all accounts a work ethic that would be the envy of an entire busload of Puritan slave-drivers all hopped up on IV Adderall, the weight always comes back.

Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin makes a pretty compelling case that almost everyone's weight fluctuates within a band of 20-30 pounds.  Some peoples' band is higher than others, (and perhaps, slowly increasing over time). When you get nearer to the bottom of your body's weight tolerance, your hunger increases; drop below it, and your body reacts as if you're starving, slowing your metabolism and focusing more and more of your mental attention on food.  I'm near the top of my weight band right now, and am nearly revolted by the idea of eating much besides vegetables and clear liquids.  If Chris Christie was at a similar BMI, he'd probably be continually, distractingly ravenous.

Almost no one manages to stay outside of that band for very long, and those who do need to devote almost their entire energy to doing so, because the hunger is a biological signal on par with pain or the urge to drink.  As Paul Campos notes in his excellent book, the idea that we can permanently reduce our weight through diet and/or exercise is one that has been experimentally tested about 500 million times over the last several decades, and fairly resoundingly refuted.

The band that your body wants to occupy is no more a sign of virtue than the color of your eyes.  Yet people who would be ashamed to argue that Barack Obama should be excluded from the presidency because of the amount of melanin his skin contains, feel no compunction at all in declaring that your genetic predisposition towards adiposity is an intolerable fault.