Barbara Walters’ annual “10 Most Fascinating People” special aired last night, featuring politicians, disgraced former CIA officials, and, for some reason, Honey Boo Boo. Among those who sat down for an interview was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s widely viewed as a potential candidate for president in 2016.
Walter asked Christie about his response to Hurricane Sandy, of course, as well as his reputation for an acerbic bluntness. She could have moved to challenge Christie on his appalling record on education, or his decision to refuse funding for transportation projects. Instead, she asked him about something that, sadly, is considered relevant.
WALTERS: Okay, governor, I feel very uncomfortable asking this question when I’m sitting opposite you. But you are a little overweight.
GOV. CHRISTIE: More than a little. Yeah. Yeah.
GOV. CHRISTIE: If I could figure that out, I’d fix it.
WALTERS: Do you try to diet?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Oh, Barbara, I’ve had– I’ve had more diets and lost and gained back more weight in my lifetime than I care to count.
WALTERS: There are people who say that you couldn’t be president because you’re so heavy. What do you say to them?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Well, that’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s ridiculous.
It should be ridiculous; sadly, it isn’t.
Obesity is, as we are constantly reminded, the most horrible problem ever to face the country. It is, we are told, a dangerous problem that will inevitably kill millions.
That’s not why Chris Christie’s weight is an issue.
Far more than the health concerns — concerns which tend to be more than just a little overblown — the problem with the obese is that we, as a country, don’t like ‘em very much. Obesity is not viewed as simply a health concern, it’s viewed as prima facie evidence of sloth and moral turpitude. Fat people aren’t just fat — they’re gluttons, shamefully stuffing their faces with everything they can get their hands on, unwilling to exercise, unwilling to put in the effort that thinner, better people do in order to lose weight.
That is the problem for Chris Christie. Not his health, but bigotry.
The Mortality Myth
First off, let’s get something straight. Being fat is not a death sentence. It isn’t even proof that one is unhealthy.
That doesn’t mean that fat carries no risks, nor that it is necessarily a good thing. If you live a sedentary lifestyle, and eat a poor diet, and smoke and drink more than you should, then being obese is indeed a problem. Your mortality rate will be significantly higher than that of average-weight people and radically higher than skinny people who follow the same behavioral pattern. If you intend to smoke, drink, never exercise and choose not to eat fruit or vegetables, you are better off being skinny than fat.
But what if you take some minor steps toward health? What if you quit smoking? Start exercising? Suddenly, things aren’t as clear.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine followed 12,000 people for 170 months, looking at their willingness to engage in healthy lifestyle choices — exercise, drinking moderately, cutting out smoking, and eating healthfully. The results were simple, and dramatic: obese people who undertook any two of these lifestyle choices had only a slightly higher risk of early death than people who chose similar behaviors, but were of average weight — and their hazard risk was lower than than people who were underweight. And this is just for people who, say, just cut out drinking and smoking. The hazard rate for fat people who undertook a healthful lifestyle was essentially the same as skinny people who did the same. More than that, fat people who had healthy behaviors had a significantly lower hazard rate than that of skinnier people who did not.
Unfortunately for fat people, skinny people who don’t eat their veggies don’t carry around evidence of their moral failings; no matter what a fat person does, they’re fat, and because we have accepted “fat” as a substitute for “unhealthy,” there are plenty of reasonably healthy fat people who are derided for destroying their health.
This is, to be blunt, wrong. Fat people do better when faced with disease than average-weight or skinny people, and what evidence we’ve seen suggests that while being fat and sedentary is bad for you, that’s more because being sedentary is more bad for you than being fat is.
The societal equation of fat with unhealthy does not square with reality. That doesn’t mean that fat people are all healthy, of course, any more than all skinny people are. Still, it’s a perception rooted far more strongly in what “everyone knows” than what science shows us.
The Morality Myth
Even if fat isn’t necessarily awful for one’s health, though, we all know that it’s pretty easy to lose the weight. You just have to buckle down, get to the gym a few times a week, and put away the donuts. That’s how skinny people got skinny, obviously, so all fat people have to do is do what skinny people do, and everything will be fine.
If this was true, Weight Watchers would be out of business long ago. You see, most fat people are well-aware that they are fat. They are constantly reminded of that fact, and of just how awful it is to be fat in our society. If you’re fat, you have almost certainly dieted and exercised, and at some point, you’ve probably lost weight, and lots of it. I’m very familiar with one obese man who’s lost over fifty pounds three different times. Each time, he gained the weight back, and then some. Is it because he’s slothful? Because he quit the gym and started gorging himself? No, it’s because he was on a diet, and diets almost never work.
Oh, they work short-term. If you want to lose thirty pounds by next Christmas, you likely can. The problem is that once you start losing a significant amount of weight, your body and mind turn on you. Mechanisms kick in that were designed to keep us from starving. Your body starts to conserve every calorie, slowing its metabolism radically. It starts to produce more of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger. Your mind literally reacts to food more positively; in order to force you to eat, it over-activates the part of the brain that handles reward, while depressing the part of the brain that exercises control.
This is very useful if you were living a life where food was hard to come by, but in our modern world, it makes it almost impossible to lose weight. In order to lose weight and keep it off, obese people must ignore all these signals, and must ultimately deprive themselves for life; the body changes mean that in order to maintain weight, formerly-obese people must eat about 30 percent fewer calories than people who never lost weight — forever.
It’s no wonder that over 95 percent of diets fail over a five-year period; quite simply, to lose weight requires not just a bit of willpower, but near-superhuman levels of it. Given that we don’t even really know why some people get fat and others don’t, you can’t say for sure that fat people lacked willpower in the past. An obese person might have been overeating for life, or they may have had bad luck in what bacteria colonized their gut when they were kids.
Fat stigma is just that — a stigma. It doesn’t help people get healthier, and it doesn’t help people live happier lives. It just allows people to sit in judgment of others, letting them enjoy their own moral superiority, earned or not.
This is what Chris Christie has to overcome if he wants to be president. For millions of Americans, Christie’s weight is proof that he’s lazy, weak-willed and gluttonous. Any health problem he faces will be tied back to his weight; any sign of his health, like his many hours spent attending to his state in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, will be dismissed as unimportant. We accept that fat is bad, and fat people are worse.
We need to move away from fighting fat, and instead fight the things we know to be harmful to health. We need to encourage people to exercise, not to lose weight, but because when you exercise regularly you feel better. We need to encourage more healthful eating, not because it will cause the pounds to melt away, but because a more balanced diet is better for health. This approach — health at every size — doesn’t make the world slimmer, but it does make the world healthier — and ultimately, it’s easier to keep exercising when your goal is exercise itself than it is when your weight loss has plateaued.
There are plenty of reasons to vote against Chris Christie, of course. From education to unions to health care to gay rights, he’s taken a number of positions that are bad for his state, and bad for the country. I won’t be voting for him for anything anytime soon, despite the generally good job he’s done in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Christie’s weight, however, is not a reason to vote against him. His weight is not a reflection of his character, or his ill health, or anything other than his weight. Vote against him for the positions he takes, or his bellicosity, or his party. Voting against him because of how he looks? That’s bigotry, pure and simple.
Image Credit: Bob Jagendorf