Yes, it’s a cheap joke line to emphasize the point I want to make: That Gov. Chris Christie’s weight isn’t a joke. Even though it seems like it’s impossible to resist making them when it comes to, well…anyone who’s overweight.
Our national response to obesity is a confusing and dismal mess, and tired fat jokes don’t help. We shouldn’t be concerned whether it’s illegal for someone to jump rope in California…no, stop it.
Predictably, some, like Slate’s Daniel Engber, have argued that Christie’s weight should be a non-issue. But that’s wrong. Gubernatorial girth raises a couple of serious issues:
(1) Being grossly overweight is unhealthy. Chris Christie isn’t just obese, he’s morbidly obese. And that matters. For while a little extra weight isn’t as unhealthy as is popularly (and unfortunately) believed, a large load of freight is unhealthy. And, from the looks of it, Christie’s excess — while distributed generously over his body — is particularly great in his stomach. That’s the worst place for extra weight; as the CDC notes, “abdominal fat is a predictor of risk for obesity-related diseases.) Given the justifiably obsessive interest in Presidential health (as evidenced by the release of their annual medical reports), Christie’s weight is of course an important issue. I just spent a few minutes looking over some images of the Garden State Gov over the past two years, and I can’t see much evidence that he’s gained any weight, which would be even more troubling. But it’s as concerning as a history of heart trouble would be.
(2) Simplifying the issue doesn’t help. The causes of obesity are complex, and their interaction isn’t fully understood. Certainly, personal behavioral choices play a part. Christie’s been candid about that. “I eat too much,” he said in response to the question about why he’s fat. He’s also owned the need to exercise more. In these statements, Christie is following a popular narrative; one that’s even parroted, carelessly, by the usually thoughtful Michael Kinsley:
Controlling what you eat and how much is not easy, and it’s harder for some people than for others. But it’s not as difficult as curing a chemical addiction. With a determined, disciplined effort, Christie could thin down, and he should — because the obesity epidemic is real and dangerous.
Message from both Christie and Kinsley: If you’re overweight, you have only yourself to blame. But that’s much too simple. Again, the CDC:
Body weight is the result of genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, culture, and socioeconomic status.
But the tendency is still to cast weight as a morality play, with those of us who can eat an entire elk without gaining weight tsk-tsking others who, for a variety of poorly understood reasons, have a tougher go of it. Christie doesn’t have to vie with Michelle Obama for the title of exercise ambassador, but he should be sensitive to the effect that his words can have — both on those who struggle with weight gain, and for those who stand in judgment of them. Like Michael Kinsley.
In sum: We shouldn’t be too judgmental. But we shouldn’t ignore the health risks, either.