Would America Have Been Ready for a Fat President?

Regardless of his decision, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's weight should not be an issue

New Jersey governor Chris Christie yesterday quelled all the speculation, announcing, "New Jersey, whether you like it or not, you're stuck with me," at a press conference where he explained he wasn't ready to trade his current gig for a shot at the White House. Hopefully, this will put an end to the non-stop headlines wondering whether he was just too overweight to win.

Christie has said he isn't bothered by comedians who mock his weight, according to a story in The New York Times. But he also said he was annoyed by pundits who've suggested his weight would be a challenge in a presidential race. "They further stigmatize people in a way that is really irrelevant to people’s ability to do a particular job," he said in the Times article. "Those are the people that we should really look down upon."

I can think of lots of reasons why Christie wouldn't make the best president, but his weight should never have entered into it -- and frankly, even with everything we know about size discrimination, it's stunning to realize how much his size would have been a big, fat problem.

When presidential candidates spend too much time windsurfing or sound like they've had too much book learning, political pundits say they're too elite, too unrelatable, too out of touch with the reality facing the average American. This is why the Republicans have a proud tradition of rallying around candidates -- George Bush, Sarah Palin, and in recent weeks, Rick Perry -- who have a folksy, down home charm and willingness to defend your freedom to drink beer and eat fast food. But what do we think when it comes to a candidate who not only wants to drink beer and eat fast food with us, but actually looks just like two-thirds of Americans? Then we worry he's not going to seem presidential enough.

You can make the health argument: Being president is a pretty important job and, as any West Wing fan knows, you don't want someone with a ton of health complications running the show. Christie does have asthma (a chronic, though manageable, medical condition that also impacts 20 million of his fellow Americans, not all of whom are obese). But we've had presidents with health problems -- like, say, FDR? -- who still managed to get the job done.

Plus, while we like our presidents healthy, we don't want them to get too hot and bothered about health issues. President Obama, like plenty of presidents before him, struggles with a nicotine addiction -- and we all shrug and say, well heck, it's a pretty stressful job. And when Michele Obama pushes for better nutrition in schools, her critics get in a lather about how she's taking away our fundamental freedom to eat doughnuts.

For that matter, Christie wouldn't have been our first fat president: Forbes reports that Taft had a Body Mass Index of 42.3, Cleveland 34.6, McKinley 31.1, Taylor 30.2, Teddy Roosevelt, 30.2, and -- wait for it! -- Bill Clinton, 28.3. (On the BMI scale, anything over 24.9 is overweight; 30 and over counts as obese.)

So this isn't about whether Christie's size would make him unfit to hold executive office. This is about our nation's colossal body image crisis (among many other crises, of course). As much as we want political superstars who are just like us, we don't want to be reminded what we're really like -- because we're so busy buying into the idea that we should be thinner.

Which is a shame. Because body size has absolutely nothing to do with presidential prowess. And the next fat candidate may be someone Americans should really sit up and take notice of -- if we're ready to look beyond our own preconceptions.

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