Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whatever Happened to Regina Benjamin?

Remember Regina Benjamin?

In 2009, a black woman was nominated as Surgeon General.  She was a highly qualified candidate for the post.  She ran a clinic in a poor town in Alabama and campaigned for health access for the poor.  She's been awarded the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (1998) and was the first person under 40 to be appointed to the board of the AMA (as well as the first black woman!). She's an activist, an environmentalist, and a humanitarian by all accounts. She's a supporter of reproductive rights for women (despite being Catholic) and has reportedly worked to encourage medical schools to include abortion training that helps new doctors understand all the ramifications of the surgery.

She's also the Surgeon General of the United States.  Why don't we ever hear about it? 

When she was first nominated, there was a public freak-storm about the fact that she was a short, heavy black woman.  Even though she was a powerful force for public health equality for the poor, a highly qualified medical candidate, and an extremely active woman who did backpack treks in Costa Rica, women in our country are held to such a strict appearance standard that her nomination was delayed, then quietly slipped through, and we haven't really heard from the office since. 

So now we have a quiet surgeon general.  Is this because the administration wanted to avoid the weight debate?  Did she?  Is the cliche'd "Obesity Crisis" section on the SG website a result of the administration's decision or her own?  Why do we continue to have Newsweek coverage of women like Palin, while a real role-model for women has disappeared into the media abyss? 

Regina Benjamin was taught, by a storm of public opinion, that women in power need to either meet the aesthetic trend of the day, or STFU. No one questioned George W. Bush's BMI when he was campaigning, or whether having an overweight president would set a "bad example." Regina Benjamin, however, is a short black woman, and that makes all the difference when people are looking for an excuse.

We have a woman in a position to be a spokesperson to the U.S. on matters of health.  A woman who was quoted as saying, "You can be healthy and fit at different sizes. The real message is that you don't want to limit yourself by your dress size."

This is a message in need of a spotlight. 

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