Chris Christie and our prejudice against fat

    This essay is part of the That’s History series, a partnership between NewsWorks and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

    Run, Chris, run!

    For more than a year, GOP insiders have been urging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for president. I’m not a Republican, and I disagree with most of Christie’s political positions. But I still hope he throws his hat into the ring, for one simple reason: Chris Christie is fat. And by nominating him for President, the Republicans could strike a huge blow against one of the most vicious and enduring prejudices in our society.

    As a slew of studies have demonstrated, fat people have a harder time finding work. They receive smaller salaries, and they’re less likely to be promoted than their thinner colleagues. It’s also more difficult to get into college if you’re fat.

    And more women face this prejudice than men, because we expect women to be thinner. In experiments with computer-generated images, viewers call women “overweight” after a 20 percent increase in the size of their figures; men don’t get that label until their images grow by 35 percent.

    It wasn’t always this way. For most of human history, fat has signified power and privilege. It was also sexy. If you think otherwise, go to an art museum and look at a nude by Peter Paul Rubens or any other Renaissance master. The hips, waist and thighs of Rubens’ models marked them as hot in their times; today, they’d simply be fat.

    Most of all, weight showed that you had made it in the world. “A fat bank account tends to make a fat man,” wrote the prominent Philadelphia physician S. Weir Mitchell in 1887, touting the benefits of portly proportions. “Plumpness, roundness, size . . . are rightly believed to indicate well-balanced health.”

    All of this began to change around the turn of the 20th century, as urban Americans gained access to a new cornucopia of foods and other consumer goods. Physical activity declined, too, thanks to transportation innovations and the decline of manual labor. Suddenly, middle-class Americans started to worry that they were going soft in the middle.

    “An excess of flesh is to be looked upon as one of the most objectionable forms of disease,” declared the Philadelphia Cook Book, which sold over 150,000 copies by 1914. Doctors got in on the act, too, warning that fat would harm the heart and other vital organs.

    But the real problem with fat was moral, not scientific. To a growing consensus of Americans, fat people had abandoned the classic virtues that had made the nation great: persistence, determination, and discipline. Hardly a token of hard work and success, fatness became a “character defect” and “an evidence of lack of self control,” as one observer noted in 1929.

    And the censure was stronger for females, always. Fat women were denounced as lazy burdens on their husbands, who did not have to meet the same exacting standards. Although Americans poked gentle fun at William Howard Taft and his 300-pound heft, for example, they also voted him into the White House. “We don’t care how much Mr. Taft weighs,” one magazine declared, following Taft’s election in 1908. “He is a good man and will make as fine a President . . . as the country has ever seen.”

    But Taft also dropped 60 pounds on a pre-campaign diet, reflecting a change in expected male appearance as well. It picked up steam after World War Two, when fatness began to inhibit male opportunities and earnings. “In love or business, the man with a paunch loses his punch,” quipped the 1971 book Secrets for Staying Thin. By the 1990s, humorists were happily skewering Bill Clinton’s eating habits: one cartoon showed a state dinner with four desserts, each labeled “Bill’s favorite.”

    Today, of course, we often justify anti-fat prejudice by appeals to health. And surely, fat is associated with diabetes and a host of other ailments. But it’s simply false—and deeply prejudicial—to say that all fat people are unhealthy.

    According to a 2008 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine, half of people who are overweight—and one-third of those who are obese—have healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The year before that, the Centers for Disease Control found that overweight people have longer life expectancies than so-called normal-weight Americans.

    And that brings us back to Gov. Christie, who has cheerily acknowledged his lifelong struggle to control his weight. To his credit, Christie recently endorsed First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve youth nutrition and fitness. So did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who dropped 110 pounds before his 2008 presidential run.

    Amid news reports that his weight was once again on the rise, Huckabee recently took himself out of contention for the GOP nomination in 2012. So did Haley Barbour, the generously sized Mississippi governor.

    That leaves Chris Christie, whose presidential campaign would remind millions of Americans that fat people can lead healthy, productive, and successful lives. I hope he runs and wins the nomination, challenging the famously svelte Barack Obama. And may the best man—not the thinnest one—win.

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    Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).  This essay orginally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer

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