Earlier this week, Chris Christie went on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and joked about his weight, calling himself “basically the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen in your life.” And this morning, he held a news conference in New Jersey to clarify that he takes the issue seriously. Most pundits are translating the public discussion of his health as a sign that he’s gearing up to run for office in 2016, but others are also discussing what it means for the media to scrutinize a man’s appearance in politics; a treat that’s long been reserved for female politicians.
Christie’s clever comeback on David Letterman was amazing–as the comedian asked how he felt about the jokes he’s made about his weight over the years, he snacked on a donut, paused, and teased: “I didn’t know this was gonna be this long.” He was good-humored about the question, explaining that he didn’t mind the jokes, and explaining that he isn’t worried about his health.
But not everyone saw it as a passing joke; CNN interviewed Connie Mariano, the White House doctor for former president Bill Clinton, who expressed concern over the New Jersey governor’s morbid obesity, and conjectured that he is likely suffering heart disease and chronic stress, and could suffer a heart attack or even death on the job as a result.
Christie clarified in a press conference this morning that he takes the issue seriously, and struggles with being overweight on a daily basis:
And he also attacked Mariano for making unqualified claims:
“I find it fascinating that a doctor in Arizona — who’s never met me, never examined me, never reviewed my medical history or records and knows nothing about my family history — could make a diagnosis from 2,400 miles away,” Christie said Wednesday in Sea Girt. “She must be a genius. She should probably be the surgeon general of the United States, I suspect.”
The media’s focus has largely been on Chris Christie’s health, and whether or not he’s laying the groundwork to run for President in 2016. But ABC brought up another issue: What it means to be scrutinizing a male politician for his looks. Dan Harris explained that the “spectacle of a male politician repeatedly having to address his looks, the way Hillary Clinton dealt with talk of her different hairstyles and pantsuits and Sarah Palin with questions over her post-baby weight loss, strikes some observers as fascinating.”
They even interviewed Nicole Wallace, the former communications chief for George W. Bush, who said:
The fact that a man is having to deal with questions about his appearance is a real sign of the times.
She’s right: It’s a sign that nothing is off-limits in the media’s coverage of politicians–for better or worse. But ABC’s implication that this is somehow equal to the way media outlets bash women like Hillary Clinton for things like failing to wear the right kind of makeup while doing their jobs is just plain misguided.
Don’t get me wrong: Making fun of Chris Christie’s weight and suggesting that he’s a lesser politician because of his size are perfect examples of fat discrimination and fat shaming. And as some media outlets have pointed out, the idea that it’s justified because of legitimate health concerns ignores the fact that, despite what Mariano suggested on CNN, not all research indicates that obesity is tantamount to a premature death sentence.
But I fear that news outlets like ABC are comparing their treatment of male and female politicians mostly to placate critics who think their coverage is sexist. “See,” they’re saying, “we’re just as mean to fat guys as we are to women who don’t look like models.” But two wrongs don’t make a right: We would be upset if someone shamed a woman for being too fat, and we should be upset that the media is shaming Chris Christie for his weight, too. It’s not equality; it’s just bad behavior.
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