Presidential scales didn’t tip in Christie’s favor

by Jim Longworth

In the courtyard just outside Konsthallen art gallery in Vaxjo, Sweden stand two bronze statues. One depicts an obese woman; the other, an anorexic woman.

They face each other as if mirror images of one another, and together they make a statement against society’s obsession with physical appearance. It is an obsession that manifests itself in many ways, including cruelty.

Overweight people, for example, are made to endure fat jokes every day of their lves. It begins in elementary school and never abates. But while words and jokes can be hurtful, they are mere “sticks and stones” compared to the real injustice that large people face. Prejudice and discrimination run rampant these days, causing Bradley Greenberg, professor of communication at Michigan State University to conclude,

“The last socially acceptable prejudice is against fat people.”

Greenberg’s research reveals that the media in particular fuels societal prejudices, mainly by excluding overweight people from a proportionate and positive role on screen. For example, fat women on television had one third fewer romantic interactions than women who were thin. Large men had half as many such encounters as thin men. And, fat men portrayed on TV were twice as likely to be seen eating as were men of average weight. Meanwhile, the “Mike and Molly” show almost didn’t make it to a second season because CBS was deluged with protests about the lead characters presenting an unhealthy role model. Some critics even went so far as to say it was disgusting to see two obese people being romantic on television.

But worst of all, our prejudice against overweight folks extends to the workplace, where studies have shown that thinner employees are paid more and promoted at higher rates than fat workers. Like it or not, it is a fact of life that most companies prefer to hire thin people over fat people. And that brings me to the man who almost applied for the No. 1 job in America.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, at 49 years old, stands 5 feet-11 and, according to the New Republic, weighs in at 315 pounds, making him morbidly obese by life-insurance standards. Christie acknowledges his problem, and is candid about it, saying, “I weigh too much because I eat too much.” He also suffers with chronic asthma, and was hospitalized for it back in July. In a recent news conference, Christie said that the decision not to run for president was his alone, saying “It’s just not my time.” He seemed like a man with his ego in check and his priorities in order, but somewhere in that decision making process, (and pardon the puns) his girth had to have weighed on him heavily. Clearly, Christie had a crystal ball, or at least a commanding knowledge of American history. He knows that fat men can get elected mayor, and can even serve in Congress, but odds are stacked against an obese man winning the White House.

In fact, America has only elected two severely overweight men to the presidency. The first was Grover Cleveland who served two nonconsecutive terms in the late 1800s. Cleveland was the same height as Christie, but weighed a mere 250 pounds. He smoked and drank heavily, suffered with gout and was nicknamed “Uncle Jumbo.” Our other rotund commander-in-chief was William Howard Taft who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 332 pounds, making him almost identical in stature to Christie. Following his time in the White House, Taft went on to become the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he lived to the then-ripe old age of 73. Back then, America wasn’t as image conscious as we are now. There was no 24-hour news channel, and no Dr. Sanjay Gupta to remind voters how unhealthy Cleveland and Taft were.

The lessons of history were not lost on Gov. Christie, who knew that if he had won the GOP nomination, the job of president would almost certainly go to the thin guy from Chicago. That’s because America is slow to abdicate its prejudices. Just ask women, blacks and gays. It always seems to take landmark legislation to alleviate blatant discrimination.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for laws against treating fat people as second class citizens. To date, only Washington DC, the state of Michigan and a handful of cities in California, Wisconsin and Illinois have passed legislation that prohibits weight discrimination. For now, we can only hope that all of the average people start looking at fat people from the inside, and realize that deep down, we are really just mirror images of each other.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).