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Image: Barack Obama shakes hands with new Surgeon General Regina Benjamin
Larry Downing  /  Reuters
President Barack Obama introduces his new Surgeon General Regina Benjamin at a Rose Garden ceremony earlier this week.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/16/2009 8:44:05 AM ET 2009-07-16T12:44:05
Commentary

Since President Obama announced his pick for the nation’s Top Doc, Internet message boards have been atwitter with the observation that Dr. Regina Benjamin is fat.

Critics seem to believe it’s ironic that the nation’s top doctor would be overweight, and it’s led the most nattering of nags to conclude that she should not be picked for prom queen, er, I mean, surgeon general. 

You would think the entire population of the blogosphere had suddenly reverted to the seventh grade.

“I refuse to let fat be socially acceptable …  The President should have known better and picked a doctor who could kick start the debate on fat not perpetuate it,” commented one reader on a national news site.

Another has some mighty specific requirements for the post:  “Rather than select a fat Black woman Obama should have chose a Black woman with a body mass index of 25 or less.”

But amid the fat-bashing tirades resides a point worth addressing. One more restrained discussion board poster poses: “How can Dr. Benjamin promote healthy eating if she herself is obese?”

As a man who is constantly trying to trim down, let’s talk some turkey — lean, of course — about Benjamin, the office of surgeon general and body lard.

No, you do not have to be thin to be fit to be a great doctor or even thenation’s No. 1 doctor. 

Just as in sports, the best coaches are rarely those who were the best players. 


And who said the surgeon general or doctors in general or anyone working in health care must be paragons of health and risk avoidance? 

C’mon now. Sure, Benjamin could lose some weight. Other doctors smoke or drink too much. Others ski or pilot small planes. Most don’t exercise enough and nearly all work way too much.

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I have even heard tell of a certain skinny president who smokes once in awhile.

I am not saying we give an inch on the war on blubber. Obesity is an epidemic in the U.S. and growing quickly around the globe.

But people need to relate to the surgeon general, and if she can battle her weight on the job, she will do more to curb obesity then all the salads added to the menus of burger joints everywhere.

In fact, if this Alabama physician can connect with fat Americans of all ethnic groups because of her own weight, she stands a very good chance of reaching them about the problem.

Besides, weight aside, Benjamin does bring some rather impressive bona fides to the job. She was awarded the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, was the first person younger than 40 to be appointed to the board of the American Medical Association, is the immediate past chair of the Federation of State Medical Boards (meaning other doctors think highly of her) and won a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

Most remarkably, she chose to practice among the rural poor at the clinic she built herself in Bayou La Batre, Ala., charging her poorest patients nothing. 

I don’t know about you, but a doctor who chooses to care selflessly for the poor and who has the respect of her peers as a good clinician is a doctor whom I am willing to listen to — even if she wears a plus-size lab coat.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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