by Barbara Kantrowitz
Dr. Regina Benjamin, the new surgeon general, has devoted her career to caring for low-income people with little access to health care in Bayou La Batre, Ala. When her patients couldn’t come up with cash, she accepted payments in baked goods or other bartered items, and even took extra jobs to earn the money to keep her practice open. Nothing stopped her, not even the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked her clinic. Against great odds, the 53-year-old physician fought hard to rebuild. President Obama said he picked her to be the nation’s top doctor because she’s clearly exceptional in almost every way.
Except for one thing: she’s got real curves. And that makes her a lot more like the rest of us than many people would like. Two thirds of adult Americans are overweight or obese, a statistic that constitutes a public-health crisis. Almost immediately after President Obama nominated Benjamin last July, the Body Police took offense. They just didn’t think a fat woman could lead the nation on a badly needed diet. The attacks made it seemed like she should be a contestant on The Biggest Loser rather than a valued member of the administration.
You would think that a woman of Benjamin’s accomplishments would take that critique in stride. You would be wrong.
In an interview Monday with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, Benjamin put her butt and her boobs on the line. The comments about her weight were painful, she said. “I’m a woman just like everyone else, and most women want to be attractive,” she said. “You don’t want to see negative things, people calling you names. So it was very hurtful.”
But Benjamin said she’s ready to do battle with anyone who thinks she’s not up to the job. “Health and being healthy and being fit is not about a dress size,” she told Roberts. “It’s about how fit you are at a moment in time. I’m just like 67 percent of Americans. I struggle with my weight just like they do, so I understand. I want to have them help me and I will help them and we’ll work together to try and become a healthier nation.”
Her honesty is refreshing, but also troubling. If a capable woman like Benjamin feels defined by her quest for a more slender body, what hope is there for the rest of us? We’re bombarded by images of what a so-called perfect woman looks like, from stick-thin models to human Barbies with artificially enhanced breasts. It seems like no matter what your shape, you need improvement─even if you have devoted your career to helping people in need.
Because while Regina Benjamin is being taken to task for having too many curves, other women are encouraged to compensate for having too few. Take, for example, this ad for a product called Booty Pop, which gives an extra something to a part of the anatomy that many women would like to make smaller:
And of course, your breasts can never be too big (as long as the rest of you stays slim)
There's a very narrow ideal in which women's looks are deemed acceptable. And while we all should make health a priority, the criticisms directed at Benjamin have less to do with concern for her longevity than scorn for her figure. No one could argue against the importance of eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. But that’s a lot different from imposing some unrealistic ideal that can only be reached with the help of surgery or oddly placed prosthetics.
Benjamin is as subject to this psychological battering as the rest of us. She admits she doesn’t feel attractive and she was hurt when people pointed out her high BMI and speculated about what size she wears (18-20 seems to be the consensus). In her new job, Benjamin could perform a great public service by teaching Americans that health can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including some in the double digits.
The best doctors see their profession as a calling, not just a job. And Benjamin seems to fall into that category. She loves being a doctor, she told Roberts, because hers are often “the first hands that touch a baby when they’re born and the last hands that touch an elderly person when they die.” A doctor with that emotion in her heart is an asset to all of us─even if she struggles with the scale.
Barbara Kantrowitz is a NEWSWEEK contributing editor