Home Health News What Does An Overweight Surgeon General Mean To America?

What Does An Overweight Surgeon General Mean To America?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

This morning, ABC News graced my monitor with this interesting little tidbit of information about how people are responding to President Obama’s nominee for the position of Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin. Namely, the fact that she appears to be overweight in her photographs, assumedly a size 18 or 20 in clothing and guesstimated at 40lbs overweight.

Should you not feel like clicking that link, I’ll pull some of the more interesting quotes from the article to share below:

But the full-figured African-American nominee is also under fire for being overweight in a nation where 34 percent of all Americans aged 20 and over are obese.

Critics and supporters across the blogsphere have commented on photos of Benjamin’s round cheeks, saying she sends the wrong message as the public face of America’s health initiatives.

Here’s another good one:

“I think it is an issue, but then the president is said to still smoke cigarettes,” said Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard University Medical School. “It tends to undermine her credibility.”

“We don’t know how much she weighs and just looking at her I would not say she is grotesquely obese or even overweight enough to affect her health,” Angell told ABCNews.com.

“But I do think at a time when a lot of public health concern is about the national epidemic of obesity, having a surgeon general who is noticeably overweight raises questions in people’s minds,” she added.

I’m overlooking the “sexist” aspect of this situation simply because I don’t buy that. It feels like an excuse to discuss something other than the fact that the woman appears to be physically unfit. My question is… does the physical appearance really make that much of a difference? Do you really pay that much attention to the Surgeon General to define them as or look to them to be a pillar of health? Is it that serious to you?

One last quote for the road:

Dr. Sarah Lester, a pediatrician from Andover, N.H., told ABCNews.com she lost 30 pounds, setting a good example for her patients’ families.

“I do think it makes a big difference,” said the 38-year-old. “Many ask me how I did it and when I tell them more exercise and eating less many are disappointed. However when they hear even for me there isn’t a magic bullet, I think it helps.”

What do you think?

You may also like


Jackie Toye December 27, 2009 - 5:11 PM

Is it just me, or have ALL of the Surgeon Generals been overweight? … Slide show, please.

Erika December 27, 2009 - 5:15 PM

Unfortunately, Jackie, our previous Surgeons General have not been overweight – all have appeared to have moderately healthy weights, with Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona being very outspoken about obesity and the Government’s efforts to keep him from publicly addressing obesity. There’s much more to it than we think, I believe.

At any rate, Wikipedia has a link that might interest you, if you’re up to taking a look at the history of the Office of the Surgeon General. 🙂

CarlaAnn September 7, 2011 - 1:12 PM

A couple years ago I was on a Septa bus (Philadelphia’s public transportation) on my way to a 6:30 am spinning class at the gym. Just as I noticed an ad suggesting that people get off of the bus a block or two early and walk, two fellow sistas saw the same ad.

“Septa’s so damn expensive we should sue them for spending money on the damn ad…”

Septa is expensive and it angers me. So do racism and sexism. However, the ad made a good point.

I have mixed feelings about having an overweight scholar as surgeon general. I love that she’s a scholar. Not so wild about the fact that she’s overweight. If she were Caucasian or male would we be having the same conversation? I would hope so, but it’s unlikely. Yes, there is both sexism and racism involved, and yes Septa is expensive.

The epidemic of obesity and obesity related disease is as much of a threat to the African American community as violence and addiction. Perhaps it’s even a partial result of the violence (let’s stay inside and watch tv because the streets aren’t safe). What will save our community? Education. But what happens when the educated fall to the drug of food addiction? Can they continue to serve as out teachers? Our role models? Doesn’t food addiction mirror drug addiction in cerebral physiology?

As stated. I have mixed views about whether our Surgeon General should be overweight. My views on the ABSOLUTE NEED for the conversation-direct conversation without focusing on the extraneous but oh so important variables of racism and sexism-are clear. The discussions need to happen!

Oh and by the way, about a decade ago, I was turned down for a position with the American Lung Association because I was a smoker. Not because I’m black. Not because I’m a woman. But because I smoke. Fancy that…

Takema January 19, 2010 - 10:03 PM

She happens to be a friend and an EXTREMELY committed professional. I was personally really hurt for her. The comments were racist and sexist. She will do a great job as Surgeon General for communities all across this country especially for communities of color and little means. I know that she will continue to work on her own battles with weight…and that is the beauty…we are all works in progress. Thanks for sticking up for a sista!

asada December 18, 2010 - 5:44 PM

She is surgeon general because she is talented, committed and qualified. Not because she is “fit” to set an example. Granted, many with the right qualifications could DO this work and I’m sure thinner waist lines as well.
Even though I am late to this “issue” even I am offended by it. No one would raise such undignified questions about ability as opposed to image had she been a white male. That is how this is sexist.

Eva May 12, 2011 - 9:52 AM

When I started working in a hospital in 1981, many of the doctors, the surgeons smoked cigarettes and would walk through the halls with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths.

But a lot of them were great doctors including my mom’s OB, who delivered me.

Bannef July 24, 2011 - 8:08 PM

I don’t feel like the surgeon general’s position is typically one of a “role model.” If it isn’t, then it sounds like she is very qualified and dedicated. If it is (or if she chooses to make it so) she could absolutely use her own struggles with health to be a very relatable, very positive role model. It reminds me of an old article of yours I was just rereading, where a woman claimed to be a “size four, who never exercises but looks like she does” and was giving (really crappy) advice to a woman who had struggled with weight loss her entire life. Wouldn’t it be nice to instead hear the advice from someone who personally KNOWS which parts are and aren’t BS? I don’t know her personal story – for all I know she is currently 40 lbs overweight, but has already lost 100 lbs! – but if she chooses to share it it could be very powerful. And if she doesn’t (which is absolutely her right! I hate the assumption that because the media has decided we should all talk about her weight then she needs to feel comfortable sharing also) then I’m sure she could be very competent and effective regardless.

Rooo July 25, 2011 - 12:56 AM

“I’m overlooking the “sexist” aspect of this situation simply because I don’t buy that.”

I’m not sure why you don’t.

Everyone’s entitled to her own opinion, of course, but perhaps a look at C. Everett Koop’s potbelly, that of our earlier male surgeon general (or any other previous male overweight surgeon general, ’cause we’ve had more than one — and a pondering of the *lack* of commentary accompanying his potbelly, ever, especially in comparison to all the flack Dr. Benjamin is getting — and maybe to consider the situation again …?

Additionally, the woman is a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant winner who helped rebuild the area struck by the Katrina disaster. That’s got to have put some stress miles on her — and we all know (at least I hope we do) how much more difficult cortisol, the stress hormone, makes getting rid of that ubiquitous belly fat.

I know I didn’t lose 40 pounds and keep it off — for the past ten years — till I learned to meditate and keep the cray-cray people as far away as I could, but perhaps the surgeon general, genius that she is, hasn’t yet found the time for that in her schedule. I’ll certainly cut her some slack there because I only made one visit to Katrina and one financial contribution to the rebuilding effort; I don’t live there like she does.

Additionally, I’ve heard Dr. Benjamin speak before this, and I appreciate her thoughtful attitude that, like you say, overweight is a American societal problem, not something that can be blamed on the individual without considering the infrastructural factors that contribute to it (though of course she’s constrained by her position about saying much about how Big Ag corporations exacerbate the problem). I appreciate her saying “This is a problem we all have to look at together”, as opposed to her being some sanctimonious size double zero who’s never struggled with a weight problem saying “Well, you all have to do something about your problem.”

Plus, she’s a black woman. I think it’s been discussed here more than once how the concentration of obesity in the African-American female population is no accident — we’re under more stress than anyone else in this country. Why, especially, given her particular environmental circumstances, would that be a burden she’d be more likely to struggle with than to escape?

And she’s climbed to the position of surgeon general on top of all that? I remember all the sitting on my butt I did in grad school, and all the stress.
And the continuing stress — with all that cortisol, remember — of trying to keep accumulating those professional accolades; trying to keep ahead of all the criticism. Not an environment conducive to healthy living, in any way, shape or form.

Personally, in the face of all that, I (and I’m a size 6) give her credit for keeping it at size 18 instead of weighing in around size 24 or so.

(This is the first you’re hearing about her, though, Erika? I’ve heard people — usually thin ones who’ve never experienced a weight problem — barking their supercilious “She’s not qualified because she’s ‘overweight'” diatribes at her starting practically with her nomination and confirmation hearings.)

P.S. Did you see the email I sent you?

Erika Nicole Kendall July 25, 2011 - 1:01 AM

Psst – this article is, actually, almost three years old, mama, actually published in 2009. I ignored the sexist angle because, IMO, this article didn’t provide enough foundation for it.

Yes, I saw your e-mail.

Marion@affectionforfitness September 1, 2011 - 9:43 PM

After all that I have heard about her, I do think that Dr. Benjamin is a very compassionate doctor and a good person. I’d probably love to have her as a friend too. However, I also think that she is not a good role model for an obese society. She is not just a normal person on the street, she is the envisioned body in charge of America’s health. I personally used to be a size 18 about 6 years ago, and as the head of my family, I can truthfully tell you that I regret being such a bad role model for health during my children’s formative years.

🙂 Marion

Cheri September 3, 2011 - 9:56 PM

A few days ago I called my older sister who informed me my younger sister by nine years had been hospitalized and released because of a suspected light stroke. They had also warned her that her cholesterol was too high. My older sister was hurrying to the hospital because that sister was having symptoms again and driving herself to the hospital. Both of my younger sisters (the other is ten years younger) are overweight. I got off the phone, called my younger sister who lives here in town with me and began to yell, “Stop eating damn fast food. Stop drinking soda. Get up, go outside and walk and exercise!” She began to make excuses–“I know—I know. She’s going to do better. It scared her.” Personally, I’m getting tired of folks being offended because people won’t quietly let them kill themselves with food. Once you reach middle age and go through menopause your body does not process in the way it used to. If you’ve managed to escape high blood pressure, heart issues and insulin problems they’ll catch up with you then. I’m not overweight and it’s a struggle some days but I try hard to keep myself healthy. I don’t know when black women became so sedentary, nor do I know when they begin to take solace in food to the degree that they have, but what I do know is that this overeating and eating junk foods and drinking soda is the same as putting a needle in your arm and shooting up. One comment on the page about this doctor said something like, “she’s not trying to look hot.” I’m tired of hearing that too. Eating healthy, regular exercise and weight management is not about trying to look good, it is about making sure you have the highest quality of life that you can. The solution is not really hard, it’s just not particularly fun–at least not at first. I guarantee you nobody wants to roll their behind out of bed early in the morning to walk or work-out before work, we learn to like veggies and fruits and to not eat everything want in large quantities. It’s a matter of discipline. I grew up with black women who took care of their bodies–I think we’ve raised a generation of young women (and men) in some cases who have not learned the importance of that and who are too doggone sensitive. No. I don’t think this woman’s a good role model for the job or black women- unless she’s going to begin to eat healthy and example how to become healthier. I realize folks are going to get mad because I’m saying this but I don’t care. I’ve had to exercise and watch what I eat my entire life. I’ve lost large amounts of weight twice after having children and lately upped my workout because I wanted to increase my health quotient. To all my sisters I say in love, stop eating fast food, exercise, take better care of yourself–and I don’t care of you get angry. By soft-pedaling a serious situation because folks are sensitive about their weight is in essence quietly allowing folks to go to an early grave. I won’t do it.

Kitty September 13, 2011 - 1:24 AM

can we really judge by appearance what someone eats? what about hormonal problems? she could be eating well, but have a thyroid condition or something else. being overweight can be caused by a number of reasons besides overeating.

i know we shouldn’t judge because we’ll be judged by the same measure.

just a thought….

Tremilla October 29, 2011 - 3:36 AM

I know I was quick to judge her when I first saw her. That’s just how we are as people. I actually read an article about her (Essence or Ebony). It’s sad to say, but obesity and diabetes are in her family history. I’m not quick to say that there shouldn’t be an overweight surgeon general, but I do think that she should put into practice the healthy eating and weight loss advice that she’s promoting. Losing weight is a not only a struggle, but a lifestyle. Sorry to say, but in her position she has to set an example for the rest of the country. I wish her luck on her journey.

Tremilla October 29, 2011 - 3:27 AM

On media takeout there was this video of this girl. She wanted to prove disprove the notion that you couldn’t be fit and weigh over 200lbs. The scale showed that she weighed about 205 lbs, but this girl was thick! (no homo). Her body was toned and muscular and she had not an ounce of fat on her body. Now that being said and done, anyone looking at the surgeon general can tell she’s a little overweight. In my opinion that’s a good thing. Being in the public eye this is her time to shine. This is her opportunity to practice what she preaches. While in office she should show us the benfits of exercise and eating healthy (yes she should lose weight). As people we rather take advice from someone who has experienced our struggle. That’s why I applaud that personal trainer whose gaining weight to understand what his clients are going through.

Annette April 17, 2012 - 3:05 PM

Well first thing that came to mind for me is C. Everett Koop. He was not the fittest Surgeon General yet there wasn’t a major issue to my thinking.

Maybe there should have been an issue back then cause now the statistics on how fat America is, is alarming. I know she is qualified but why put someone up in a position that is so visible when you are trying to help American’s to become a more healthy nation.

BMI numbers which is what most go by to determine health and is what she would uphold. Yet I am sure she doesn’t fit the statistic of having healthy numbers for her height or weight. Of course there is sexism yet that is not the only issue.

I feel she is being given an opportunity to set up her own program and to inspire people. This is a great opportunity for it. It’s not just a job but an opportunity to deal with her own health and fitness.

Yeah some people are saying things but is it a reflection of what she is thinking about her own self. I hope she takes a positive spin on this and turn it around into a life changing moment for herself.

KjenNu June 18, 2012 - 11:32 AM

I wonder if we put too much emphasis on how much media role models can inspire individuals to do. In the media, there are far and away more thin people than overweight (and when they do appear, other characters make SURE to comment on their heft), but what are all these thin-spirations doing for Americans’ waist lines? Not helping them shrink is for sure.
Next, while I recognize that obesity is considered the health issue of our time, the actual role of surgeon general encompasses a great deal more including mass public health emergencies.
Judging her by her looks/i.e. weight is too openly embracing the beauty myth for my taste.

Comments are closed.