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The Surgeon General's Weight

By Mary_RD on Jul 23, 2009 12:00 PM in Dieting & You
Edited By +Rachel Berman

I’ve been following the discussions on the Internet about our new Surgeon General’s weight.  Have you seen this photo of Dr. Regina Benjamin from the White House?  Okay, she is overweight, but is that such a problem?  Frankly, I am appalled.

About the issue

Some people think Dr. Benjamin is too fat to be the surgeon general.  This from a US News reader: “How can an obese person educate the country on health?”  And a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine says, “It tends to undermine her credibility.”  

But is a BMI in the normal range a prerequisite for the job?  After all, African Americans have a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity than Caucasians.  Ethnic minorities were underrepresented in the development and validation of the Body Mass Index (BMI).  Even at their lowest weight, some people are simply in the overweight range.  Dr. Benjamin comes from one of the four fattest states in the US.  Perhaps she is the thin kid on her block.

About Dr. B

Regina Benjamin is a 52 year old black doctor from Alabama who has sacrificed her life to care for the rural poor.  Despite her humble beginnings, she has won prestigious awards and is a leader in the medical profession.  Her credentials as no less than stellar.  The New York Times calls Regina Benjamin “an angel in a white coat.”

About obesity

I don’t think the naysayers realize that obesity doesn’t always have a lifestyle cause.  Physiological mechanisms that are poorly understood may contribute to our weight.  For instance, obesity may have a genetic cause.  The "thrifty genotype" has allowed entire races to survive on little food while laboring from dawn til dusk.  And certain viruses cause obesity in animals. Could that true for humans too?  Lack of sleep, a lifestyle choice, is sometimes to blame.  Sleep must be an issue for a rural doctor on call 24/7 who builds clinics in her spare time.  And don’t forget other reasons like a lack of brown fat.  Surprising theories have some merit.  (Who knew?)

Does being fat even make a person unhealthy?  The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study didn’t find that to be necessarily true.  Nearly one third of obese people and half of overweight folks are free of metabolic abnormalities.  They have a metabolically benign obesity that is not accompanied by insulin resistance or early heart disease.  

And so....

Perhaps Dr. Benjamin’s size is an advantage.  Who but a champion of the most afflicted and a sufferer herself could better understand a nation struggling with obesity?  Doctors struggle with weight issues too.  Is this a case fat discrimination or sexism against women?

Your thoughts….
Is Regina Benjamin’s weight a legitimate concern?

Read more of the brouhaha about the Surgeon General's weight:  


I am also appaulled.  As a person that has struggled with weight for 23 years, I would be infuriated to be denied a public job based on what others think of as "fat."  An ANOREXIC girl believes herself to be "fat" -- kids on the playground tease their "fat" friend -- being fat is always a body-image distortion problem. 

I can understand the argument -- how can you have an overweight woman tell another overweight person that certain items are harmful.  Well, being overweight does NOT mean that the person doesn't know the difference between good for you and bad for you -- sometimes they don't have the available resources: availability, money, time.  I know WHY I am overweight, I know what MAKES me overweight, I even know WHO makes me overweight -- but some people are not keyed into what makes their bodies tick, and there is the difference.

Plus, Dr. Benjamin REALLY isn't that overweight in my eyes.  I would be interested to know her BMI, present health problems, past health problems, daily exercise routine --not just view a badly taken photo. I'm fat but I'm fat because from 12-20 I did not eat and ruined my metabolism, not because I eat way too much.  She is just a large lady, bring on the concrete evidence that she is not capable of being the Surgeoun General OTHER than looks alone. 

While I agree with some of what you say and do think that we can/should look beyond one's physical appearance and not use it as an automatic reason for judgment, I think the article is missing the point that a role model, especially at such a high and esteemed position (and the type of office it is) should be just that: A role model for the health of the nation, particularly an aspect that is almost certainly under one's control.  While it is true and very important that she is of a certain sociological-economic-cultural-ethnic and geographical heritage, and that these things can be a contributing factor, those things are irrelevant to the position she holds or the reason she holds it.  It would be worse, I suppose, if she weighed 400 lbs? Or was an alcoholic?  I guess it is a matter of degree and kind.  Certainly we would not be discussing this if, say, she had leukemia or something that is out of the realm of her control.  Tim

I think it sends the wrong message to everyone. A lot of people that are overweight make excuses as to why they are overweight. Example, "I have a slow metabolism, a bad thyroid, heredity , etc..." This just gives them validity in their minds, "Hey our Surgeon General is overweight just like me, I must not be that bad."

I was talking to a friend the other day discussing excuses people make for being overweight. I said, I have heard bad thyroid, heredity, etc.., and she said well if some no that, then why don't they eat less and exercise more instead of using it as an excuse. I thought she made a great point. If you watch more than 30min of TV per day, then you have enough time to exercise.

Bottom line, she can be a difference maker if she sets the example and gets fit herself.

Let's not sugar coat it.  Dr Benjamin is fat.

No, it's not a concern. I just think it's true that it undermines her credibility, as nowadays, it's hard to walk into a room and not find at least 2 out of 5 people watching what they eat--or trying to. Not that she should stand as a beacon for what the Americans consider health concerns, but a nutritionist yearns to be healthy, as do doctors, and thusly, as should Dr. Benjamin. She may represent a largely obese America, but that doesn't mean she has to be overweight herself.

Wow -- how times evolve.  Now FAT is the new Black, White, Mexican (as all racist see hispanic people), Middle Eastern.....

Yes she is overweight.  What if that was just a bad picture? Sure in any angle she is no size 4, but c'mon.  As someone mentioned before, I would love to hear other reasons why she is not capable of doing this job rather than just her looks.


Okay, she's overweight -- but how many doctors have you been to that were also overweight? Now think back try to remember how many doctors/nurses you have seen outside on smoke breaks. Eating fast food? Doctors are just normal people who live normal, stressful lives. I can't think of a more stressful position to be in than her right now. Stress eating, anyone?

Also, did anyone think this might be.... a publicity stunt? Yes, she's overweight, but how much much of a spotlight does that shine on the issue of obesity in this country? And if she happens to lose weight while in office (which I'm am certain is going to happen because all this discussion about her weight has got to be KILLING her)? Isn't that going to show people how "good old-fashioned diet and exercise" can be a CURE for most overweight people?

Yes, she's big. Does that make a difference on how well she can perform her job? No. Does it knock her down from that angelic pedestal? Eh, maybe a little. But that is the present. Politics is a game of tomorrow.

I think that the SG should be an EXAMPLE of health. I would not feel comfortable going to a obese primary doctor, since it is obvious that health is not a priority for him/her. I have been obese...I lost 92 lbs 11 years ago (ON MY OWN), so I understand the anger some people feel when they say it is discrimination. the same it discrimination when a obese person does not get the job of a super model or a handicapped person does not get a job that he or she obviously can NOT do (not suggesting that HC people can't work, but there are some things that just can't be done)?

America is already in a obesity crisis (to name one!), what message is being sent to the country when the SG feels it is "ok" to be obese? We all know the dangers of obesity, she of ALL people should know the, does she just not care, or what is off kilter on her life that keeps her obese?

Just my opinion!

Frankly I am so fed up with the inclination of people to judge the merit of someone by how they look (Susan Boyle is a case in point)!  One may not agree with the politics of a particular person, but to say that she is incompetent or unable to perform her duties because she is "obese" is utterly ridiculous!  Her abilities have been clearly shown in her previous work - and, as stated above, many overweight people are very healthy.  I absolutely agree that one in her position would be a great advocate for the problem that is so prevelant in America right now.  We definitely have a serious problem with obesity and diabetes that needs to be addressed. Who better than someone who struggles with the problem herself!???

Let's get real---the woman is overweight but definitely not obese-I bet she can bend over and tie her shoes-I think she is well qualified to be surgeon general-was this started by a disgruntled male? Ann

All the folks who are complaining about her size need to clean their glasses.  She's not that overweight!!

We get back to the age old question.

Is it acceptable to be overweight.

Take out all emotions, judgement, job ability etc and the clear answer is no it's not acceptable for anyone.

It is a proven fact that being overweight as indeed being underweight, can seriously damage our health and wellbeing.

We have to stop making so many excuses and being frightened of being judged lacking. We all know in our hearts and heads we need to be healthy and that does not just include weight. Being overweight is bad, but that does not make me a bad person, so I'm dealing with it.

Good luck to everyone out there and keep going, you know it's the right thing.


Sure she is overweight.  Call her fat if you want to.  But can she do her job???  It seems she can or she wouldn't be where she is now. 

After the reading the article I was expecting some enormous giant of a woman to appear before me when i clicked the link to view her picture.  But i was seriously surprised when I saw her - I personally wouldn't be offended if she was a leading health professional in my country (Scotland, UK).

Many opticians wear glasses, many dentists have bad teeth and all women should know that you never get your hair cut by the hairdresser with the best style in the salon (it was one of the others who did her/his hair!).

I don't think she should be there to be seen as a role model (by which I think people really mean a visual role model!), but as someone who knows the field she works in well enough to be able to assist the country in achieving it's goals with health (by which she should be seen as a role model for learning, working hard and striving for the best possible situation for herself/her family).

There could be any number of reasons why she is overweight - maybe she DOES watch what she eats, maybe she does exercise in some of the spare time she may get - I'm only an admin assistant not the surgeon general and I sure do struggle to fit in exercise as often as I'd like to in a week!!! I do not think being 'appalled' is a fair reaction in this case.  She is not THAT overweight in my eyes.  And I don't think someone else would do the job better just because they were thinner!

Media will always use any angle to criticise those in power and seem to think there is nothing which is exempt when it comes to 'fair game'!  Progress or achievement should be the only thing this poor woman is judged on in her role.

I have been exercising for six days a week, an hour a day, cardio, weights, pilates, yoga. I have been eating 1500 to 1600 calories a day, and drinking a gallon of water. I am vegetarian, eat almost no animal fat. I haven't lost a pound in that time, not one. People would look at me and say I am overweight, but I am healthier than many thin people. I know this for a fact. Maybe I'm just a big girl, do I deserve to be judged for that when I am doing all the right things, no, and neither does she. Funny how judgmental people can be.

So what if you think she is fat?!? Her qualifications and work ethic speak for themselves. How many doctors do you know treat patients for free?

Besides we don't know that she does not eat healthy or exercise. 

We also don't know if she is healthy or not. She looks like she is a size 18 which is not obese.

I know plenty of large people who do not have weight related health problems.

It will be interesting to hear this brought up during the confirmation hearings. If this were private industry wouldn't the EEOC get involved if someone was being discrimated against because of their weight?

People aren't saying she "can't perform the job" because she's obsese.  Thats not the point.  Obviously she is qualified.  However, in addition to performing the stated job duties she is also supposed to be a role model for health, and given that she is obsese she simply is not. 

Please don't do this! What does one's 'color' have to do with this? She is overweight meaning it undermines what is necessary to get the world to listen.

A leader must "walk their talk". If you're obese (no matter your race, color or creed) apply for another position. It has nothing to do with qualifications gotten from a 'book'. I doubt that anyone is debating that. She cannot be a role model to others. It's that simple!

Sorry if anyone has brought this up already, but I am sick and tired of the double standard between women and men!  NO ONE QUESTIONED C. EVERETT KOOP'S ABILITY AND HE WAS FAR FROM THIN!  Give me a break!  I disagree that the surgeon general is expected to be a role model of health.  I don't think that was Koop's purpose.  They looked at him for his intelligence and advice, a voice of reason amidst all the conflicting views on many things.  And I doubt many American's even know who or what the surgeon general is or does, aside from put warnings on cigarette labels.  I see no problem with having a REALISTIC human being as the surgeon general.

When I read the article, I couldn't help thinking that this was something that wouldn't be written about a man.  How often is a man's health discussed when he is being for high-ranking, prestigious positions?  We have seen men with known illnesses, illnesses guaranteed to affect their ability to perform their jobs (unlike obesity, which has some tenuous health links and is more about aesthetics) such as cancer, diabetes, and even alzheimer's disease, be given plum positions.  Any discussions about their health has occurred apologetically and subordinated to discussions about their qualifications, their experience, their successes.  I believe that this discussion in the media about Benjamin's weight is an attempt to undermine her credibility rather than a real discussion about the merits of her appointment.  It's unfortunate and sad that a country - especially one in the midst of such a fundamental economic crisis - can continue to undervalue the contributions of approximately half of its population.  I hope Obama pushes forward in the face of this made-up controversy and appoints Benjamin to the post.  He's demonstrated a strong moral fiber in his decision so far, and has proven that he has the courage to make the tough decisions.  I hope that track record persists.

Original Post by: aliar4

I have been exercising for six days a week, an hour a day, cardio, weights, pilates, yoga. I have been eating 1500 to 1600 calories a day, and drinking a gallon of water. I am vegetarian, eat almost no animal fat. I haven't lost a pound in that time, not one. People would look at me and say I am overweight, but I am healthier than many thin people. I know this for a fact. Maybe I'm just a big girl, do I deserve to be judged for that when I am doing all the right things, no, and neither does she. Funny how judgmental people can be.

Bingo! My point exactly!

Would we even be having this discussion if Dr. Benjamin was a man?

C. Everet Kopp was the surgeon general and he is a big man but maybe the operative word here is "man."   She is more than qualified. She is not entering into the olympics or a beauty pageant. She is a doctor.  But because she is a woman, her appearance seems to matter more than her qualifications.   

I think folks need to due a bit of research.   Being overweight IN and OF itself is NOT a risk factor for health.  It is possible to be overweight and healthy.  While it is true that risks factors that tend to be associated with being overweight (diabetes, high blood pressure, inactive lifestyle) reduce longevity there is no proof that being overweight without these risk factors means you are inherently unhealthy.  This is not true of morbid obesity, but being moderately overweight can actually lengthen your life.    

Kind of along the lines of a president taxing cigarettes while he is a smoker?

I've not seen any pictures of her, so I can't tell.  If it is causing an uproar such as this I have a feeling it's more than those pesky 20 to 30 pounds that can stubbornly stick around as humans age?  At least, I really hope so.  People should also note she's most likely post-menopausal, and, of course, a woman in a stressful job.  The odds of healthy eating or whatever are stacked against her, so give her a break.

Something else I'd like to mention, while folks should be a bit more merciful, there is a fine line between excuses and reasons.  I think the blogger was stretching a bit when they said the one third of obese people don't have weight related heart disease or diabetes.  We must remember, that still leaves two thirds of obese people with those problems.  And majority rules!  I don't know about you, but those two thirds is enough to provoke me to take care of myself.

I am appalled.  Did anyone ever question the weight of Dr. C. Everett Koop?  He was not a svelte image of health himself.  I think this is a clear example of sexism and racism combined.  Who said just because a person is thin they are healthy; consider all of the thin women who suffer heart attacks everyday.  I doubt that we would be having this conversation if Dr. Benjamin were a white man.

Come on -- some of the best doctors in the world will tell you all about the hazards of smoking, all the health complications that can result, the shortened life span, reduced quality of life, and then they'll go light up. Her weight should not (indeed, cannot) disqualify her from her job. Knowledge of how to lead a healthy life has little to no bearing in many cases on an individual's desire or drive to live a healthy lifestyle.

SERIOUSLY - what is FAT and WHY does it differ for men and women???? What man is put in front of the camera and torn apart for his weight, hair, clothes, etc.  Women are judged by EVERYTHING - is your hair gray, what size you are, what you are wearing, etc. May this nation realize that what we see in the Movies and in ads - IS NOT WHAT A TRUE WOMAN LOOKS LIKE!!!

Of all of the Surgeon Generals that have been in office for my soon to be 37 years, I don't remember one of them being the "picture" of health. So why start demanding that now?!? Health is not a one size fits all deal...

I would feel its a litte more important that the administration would appoint someone who doesn't pay their taxes as head of the IRS more than this. 

I would so much rather have an "angel in a white coat" who knows how hard it is to struggle with weight issues be my SG then to have some thin white man who thinks I am fat because I am lazy. Exercise more and eat less....if only it were that easy then there would not be an obesity epidemic in this country. More power to Dr. Benjamin, and I am very pleased that a black woman from Alabama can make it to the top of her profession. Oh, and joeb1golf, my thyroid is, in fact "bad" and I don't watch tv (except when I am on the treadmill).

Shame on all of us for judging her.  We are ALL trying to be healthy and do the right thing and I think she is the perfect person to show people that it is hard, you need to stick with it, and that these model thin people we see are not always what the rest of us look like. Perhaps she is much healthier than a lot of "thinner" people...It is not our place to judge but to instead understand that the same struggles that she goes through are the ones we are going through also.


Aww.....come on! that woman is NOT obese! Her appearance obviously has nothing to do with her ability to perform her job. I agree with kidsduff, women are constantly being scrutinized for their appearance, mostly by other women. Granted, men are scrutinized, too, but not to the degree women are. Honestly, I don't think this would be as heated of a discussion if it was a man. Just my opinion.

This is my first posting to any thing, any where, which gives you an idea of my outrage over the reaction to the new Surgeon General's weight!  There have certainly been overweight Sugeon General's in the past.  (Remember C. Everett Koop, who was not exactly slim?)  I suspect all of those were male.  Perhaps this is one more example of gender discrimination; perhaps not.  But I think it is suspect, and that those criticizing this Alabama doctor should look at her record of achievements, what she has accomplished, and think of how her actions in these areas might inspire others.  Although couched in terms of health rather than looks, I also wonder if that old male/female double standard is the underlying root of the criticism.  Regardless, those offering these types of comments should examine their cultural biases and be quiet while doing so.

I can't tell you how disgusted I am that this forum degraded into a political discussion. Is there no where that I can go without politics?

That said...I do have an opinion.

I think a person should not be judged for their physical appearance but rather for the ability to do their job.

Has this issue been brought up for past Surgeon General's (males)? Or are we just desparate to find something, somewhere wrong with this current administration? Is this the real reason for this question?

Fact if the matter is nobody will take a fat doctor serious. There is no way someone who can't control their own weight is gonna tell me how to control mine or what I need to do to get it together. It's the same as this idiot doctor who was telling me I should smoke cause it can give you cancer all the while is's puffing smoke in my face.

If you were about to go into surgery and you had the chocie between a overweight expert and an underweight novice who would you pick - come on its about the credentials for the position not what they look like.

Let's not forget that appointment to a position in government is not necessarily reflective of ones performance, but rather who they know and what political ideology they support.

As the government forces its way further into health care and uses its power to set policy about what is healthy and unhealthy, I can see the role of the surgeon general expanding.  The last thing I want is for a fat, out of shape physician to tell me beef is bad, you don't need more than the FDA recommended allowance of protein, squats are bad for your knees, etc...

If the people didn't mind a smoking, or even the consumption of alcoholic beverages, then fatness shouldn't be a problem, either.  People tend to have 2 standards of health, one for them that allows alot of leeway, and another "standard of health" (usually higher) for everyone else.  I am 45, and 264 pounds of obesity, 40+ waist size.  I will eventually get within 5 pounds of my high school weight of 155.  I did it before, so I know it can be done.  Like last time the naysayers will lecture me about it "not being healthy", then I look at their fatness.

I love this comment about the President taxing cigarettes if he were a smoker! Excellent point.

This has NOTHING to do with whether you're male or female, black or white, christian or jew.......................................nothing except that she is OVERWEIGHT and trying to lead the country in 'health care'.

It just doesn't get my vote.

If she were an old, white, male doctor no one would be questioning how much he weighed.

This is ridiculous.

Overweight does not always equal unhealthy.  Period.


Among the many things President Obama has given this country that it has never had in its entire history is a government of the people that looks like the people. Dr. Benjamin radiates abundant good health in a form I recognize as my own, my neighbors, the folks I see at the checkout line in the store, not the ones I see on the movie theater screen. She is not the Hollywood casted Surgeon General, she is a real woman, with a real life, a real body. With so many Americans battling weight, how about demonstrating to those of us without the runway bodies that we can succeed NOW, not at some point in the future when we have acheived the illusive perfect body.

And, of course, this conversation would not be happening at all if President Obama had chosen a man exactly as over his ideal weight (according to the charts and our unfortunate standard of ideal) as Dr. Benjamin.

Her biggest mistake was in not referencing her own struggle with weight issues when she was introduced at the recent press coference. Had she at least acknowledged she was in the same boat as so many American's and was actively working on getting in shape she would be given some slack and credibility.


Have you noticed that all fat people always have an excuse?  

She's too fat to be Surgeon General.  The Surgeon General should be a example of good health and fitness.  If you eat more calories than you burn you get fat.  It isn't rocket science. 

of course she should do the job, otherwise it's discrimination. Her personal health is personal. Besides, obese does not automatically mean not healthy.

I believe that no matter what the problem is, there isn't an excuse. Being overweight is a choice. Regardless if you have a virus or not!

I used to be overweight, and blamed it on my heredity and my thyroid. BUT... now I am not overweight. What's the difference? I did something about it. I just got my mind right. That's all. It really is just in your head. Trust me.

I have to admit, I have a tendency to lose a little respect for someone who just doesn't have any self-control. How can you "run a country" if you can't control your own self?

I feel the same way about obama not producing a birth certificate, and pictures of him smoking pot in a "previous life" - who was the president that had to use the excuse "I didn't inhale.." ? I thought chemical use was a huge no-no for political figures!

I guess it's ok for SOME people to inhale, and have your photo taken while doing it, and still make the highest office in the country. Just as it must be ok for some people to have low self-control and still hold a high office.

What is our country coming to?

Just my two cents.


your cents aren't worth much. Obama has produced a birth certificate, get over  it.

LET"S JUST KEEP IT REAL. SOME PEOPLE JUST DON"T LIKE OVERWEIGHT PEOPLE AT ALL! You have no respect for them regardless of their education/profession.

So if she had said "hello, I am Dr. Benjamin and I am fat" you all still would not be happy!

It's sad because the same way you judge someone else, you are setting yourself up to be judged. Or maybe your fat children or grandchildren.

And let's fire all of the overweight doctors, nurses, physician assistants, teachers, and "oh yes"  what is your job?  Could you hold a job bases on your present weight?

This is just an excuse to bash a brilliant woman. 

Original Post by: violetflower

of course she should do the job, otherwise it's discrimination. Her personal health is personal. Besides, obese does not automatically mean not healthy.

No but I have noticed that most of the people that are saying Dr. Benjamin is too fat to be the Surgeon General don't have any pictures or height/weight stats about themselves on their profiles.

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