Thursday, July 30, 2009

Regina Benjamin or Why 'You're Ugly' Is Not A Political Argument

Regina Benjamin has been nominated by Barack Obama for Surgeon General. This is going to be a really important role to fill, given the current climate in health care and the expected surgence of the H1N1, or swine flu, virus next fall.

By all accounts, she is highly qualified to hold this post. She is a primary care physician, serving a population with a high poverty rate and little to no insurance that often cannot pay. She has gone without a paycheck in order to keep her health clinic running. A New York Times article states that she is owed about $300,000 in back salary. She is the first black woman to sit on the board of directors of the American Medical Association, and she is the first black woman to lead a state medical society, serving as president of the Alabama Medical Association.

So what's the problem? Regina is a bit heftier than some people would like. The argument against her is that, because she would be the figure head American health care, she needs to be the picture of perfect health. The logic then follows that since she is overweight, she is somehow promoting obesity and that she couldn't possibly do a good job as Surgeon General.

So what we have is a highly qualified primary care physician who also holds an MBA in business administration, has sat on the board of directors of the American Medical Association, has led the medical association for her home state of Alabama, and has dedicated her career to providing care for a low income/no insurance population. And the only thing people can talk about is her weight?

I will admit, as a woman, and especially as a fat woman myself, the attacks on Benjamin hit pretty close to home and I took this story more personally then I would otherwise. Bloggers and mainstream news shows speculated about her weight and dress size. It turned into some kind of carnival guess your weight game.

Here, Fox News interviews a douchebag in a 'No Chubbies' T-shirt about why Benjamin's weight is an issue at all.

Various analyses go on to speculate all kinds of things about overweight people. They're lazy. They have no self control. They don't take responsibility for their actions. They're unhealthy. They're somehow "promoting obesity" and won't someone please think of the children. Following that logic to its conclusion, should fat people be barred from any professional job, lest they be a poor role model for others, or should they only be barred from working in health care? On a similar note, would an overweight waitress be a bad thing, because it might send the message that it's ok to overeat?

It's insane. Yes, being overweight does put one at a higher risk for certain health problems - heart disease and diabetes to name a few. As a medical doctor, Regina Benjamin is well aware of the health risks of being overweight. It's impossible to tell from a picture exactly how healthy a person is. Benjamin is certainly a bit heavy, but I wouldn't call her obese. She looks healthy, but then again, you can't tell the state of her health from a picture. As for rest, with as many accomplishments as Dr. Benjamin has, she clearly isn't lazy.

As for providing a poor example of health, I think that she could be an excellent example. For instance, and this is just speculation, if she were to stand up there and say 'I struggle with my weight, too, but one of the cornerstones of being health is to eat a healthy, balanced diet and get plenty of exercise' I think that would be a wonderful role model. It's not a huge secret that eating less crap and moving around more is healthier for you.

Since these vicious news stories have started swirling around about Regina Benjamin, I have been thinking about the kind of bodily scrutiny female politicians are subject to and it's kind of coalesced some thoughts I've had for a while. Even though I am told that sexism doesn't exist anymore, there is still this intangible feeling that women in power get picked apart based on their physical appearance much, much more so than their male counterparts.

Hilary Clinton? Ice queen, fat ankles, old lady, pant suits. She couldn't win. If she wore a skirt, she had cankles. If she wore a pant suit, she was matronly. When she tried to wear a pant suit that wasn't deemed matronly, she was called vulgar. There was no winning. And let's not forget rumors that she and Bill are together for political reasons only, they have a loveless marriage, and she's really a lesbian. Oh, yeah, and she's a ball buster, too.

Remember this?
Chelsea Clinton, just 13 when her father became president, was constantly called ugly. Rush Limbaugh once quipped on his short lived tv show about the White House dog, holding up a picture of Chelsea.

Janet Reno, another Clinton era public figure, was not spared either. Our first female Attorney General was a large woman, being both taller and broader than the average woman. She was constantly called 'manish'. During her confirmation hearings, rumors started flying about her being a lesbian and using call girls, along with drunk driving. Reno denied the rumors and an FBI investigation found nothing to substantiate them, but the lesbian/transsexual rumors continued.

John McCain famously managed to tie all three of the above together as a tasteless joke he told at 1998 Republican fundraiser. "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno." Just count the many, many ways that joke is wrong, without ever being actually funny. Got your check list out? Good. Let's see...picking on the physical appearance of Chelsea Clinton? Check. Janet Reno is really a man? Check. Hillary Clinton is a lesbian? You got it. Sigh.

It's not just woman on the left. Women on the right haven't fared much better. Ann Coulter, a far right pundit, is often called 'Mann Coulter'. Now, I personally loathe her hate filled work, but calling her 'Mann' is just fighting dirty. First, the insult infers that the most important thing about her is her physical appearance, then it throws in a heaping helping of homophobia. Come on, there are plenty of reasons to not like what Ann Coulter has to say. Her appearance is not one of them.

Being considered attractive leads to the same kind of scrutiny and is just the flip side of the 'you're ugly' coin. 'We still don't want to listen to what you have to say, but we do want to look at you'.

Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State under George W. Bush, was viewed as a strong, sexy, dominatrix. Sarah Palin, a former beauty queen, was often referred to as 'Caribou Barbie'. There was plenty of 'sexy librarian' references and, to top it all off, Hustler released a porno titled "Who's Nailin' Paylin?", featuring a Sarah Palin lookalike (I'm not linking to the porn, you're going to have to find that one yourself). Again, women in high profile political careers reduced to their physical appearance.

I think a good part of my frustration is that so many people refuse to believe that women are treated differently than men. I challenge anyone to find me an example of a male politician that has gone through as much scrutiny of the physical appearance as these women have. And I don't mean an article here or there on the cost of their haircut (although it does say something about our society that men are not supposed to spend money on their appearance). George W. Bush was accused of a lot of things from deception to incompetence, but his physical appearance was never brought into the fray, one way or the other. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinski, but it was Monica's appearance that was talked about.

There is no winning for women in politics. Either you are too ugly or just another pretty face. Women are told one of two things. Either 'shut up, you ugly bitch', or 'shut up and let me ogle you.' To not agree with someone's politics is one thing, but to just throw out 'you're ugly' is not an argument. It's intellectually lazy and it's something I would expect to hear on a grade school playground.


Anonymous said...

Wow that was very well written!
And so true.
(I used to wish, as a kinda pretty, young teen, I would have an accident that would disfigure me, so people would hear what I have to say, rather than what I look like.)

Quartermaster said...

But there's the paradox. If you weren't attractive, would people actually listen to what you have to say, or simply dismiss you as an ugly girl craving attention.

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