Monday, July 13, 2009

Obama names Surgeon General

Obama has named Alabama family doctor Dr. Regina Benjamin for Surgeon General.

This is a long-awaited-with-baited-breath for those of us who have been anticipating a fight against the obesity scare and its various trumped-up statistics. Dr. Benjamin is a family doctor from a high-poverty region of Alabama that was hard-hit by Katrina. It will be a HUGELY positive step if she can serve as an advocate for the most overlooked and underrepresented "interested parties" in the health care debate. It seems like the first thing on the chopping block when the budget gets tight is health care for the poor. Michigan, for example, has cut both dental and vision services to adults on public assistance for this fiscal year, and is talking about eliminating them altogether. There's some kind of freakish cognitive dissonance going on when the government cuts services when they're most in demand. It will be very interesting to see what happens when they have someone in a powerful position that has seen, first-hand, how health and poverty interact.

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.

Link to her clinic

Of course, news agencies are already stirring up a whirlwind of objections. Not to her medical experience, knowledge, or practice.....but to the fact that she's fat. Actually she's what the fatosphere would call an "in-between", meaning that she looks pretty average, but reporters inudated with the body dysmorphia of celebrities assume she's about to drop dead of a heart attack. Depending, of course, on which photo you're looking at. Isn't it funny how you can't really tell how much someone weighs by looking at them? Doesn't stop them from guessing...badly.

Somehow, of course, a fat surgeon general (or rock star, or politician, or actress) will somehow magically make everyone else in the country fat. Of course that's what they say they mean. What they might actually mean could be more along the lines of "how dare this fat chick be successful, powerful and visible!?"

Just as Sotomayor has been attacked for not apologising for her strong Latina-ness, Benjamin will be attacked if she doesn't apologise for how her body is shaped. She's already being attacked for being black; the comment streams on some articles are complaining that her appointment is due to her race instead of her qualifications. Come to think of it, Sotomayor had to deal with some douchehound reporters commenting on the relative weight of the canditates instead of their qualifications as well. Paul Campos's response was my particular favorite:

"For some men, the only thing more intolerable than the sight of a powerful woman is the sight of a powerful woman they don’t want to sleep with." - Paul Campos

Her position on obesity isn't readily found, which means it's probably not her
top priority. Smoking definitely is, however, since she's lost at least one
family member to it. HIV prevention is another possible point of emphasis because another family member died of aids-related illness. She mentions that her father died of "diabetes and hypertension," which since those conditions are so often blamed on fat (rather than genetics, inactivity, poor diet and weight-cycling) raises a red flag for me that she might make the obesity panic (ooga booga!) worse. The flag waves a little harder when she refers to them as "preventable diseases," since "prevention" usually focuses on (ineffective and short term) weight loss.

Having an advocate for the poor, a pro-choice doctor, an environmentalist, a woman willing to re-build a clinic twice destroyed in order to bring health care to a small town in need, a woman who understands the disparity of medical access not only between the rich and poor, but the urban and rural, a strong WOC, in this highly visible position is going to be hugely positive for this country. She'd have to hate on fat pretty severely for me to admire her any less.


Unknown said...

I mean. Of course she's going to make everyone fat! I haven't been able to get rid of this stupid beard I grew out of nowhere since C. Everett Coop was the SGEN.

By all accounts, she sounds awesome. I hope she's on "our side" in the fat panic, too.

Monica said...

You make valid points with respect to Dr. Benjamin and the "obesity crisis booga booga" panic. My first instinct was "... and she's fat! Awesome!" because I think a fat woman understands how difficult it is to try to lose weight and is the most likely to support the HAES/FA stance. I think it's somewhat ironic that everyone is jumping from "diabetes and hypertension" to "obesity," considering that nothing I've read has mentioned her father's weight. (And that "everyone" does include me, btw.) I think this appointment has the potential to be anywhere form really good to really bad for the HAES movement-- unlike Obama's previous nominee.

Lillian said...

Not all lifestyle changes are weight related. The choice to eat more fruits and vegetables and to exercise regularly can make a difference in the way one feels and doesn't necessarily have an effect on weight. There are many other things like stress management, regular sleep that have been shown to have positive effect on health. She can believe lifestyle makes a difference and not be telling people that they need to lose weight to be healthy.

BamaGal said...

She is from Alabama and her clinic is here not Louisiana.

Staci said...

I agree that Dr Benjamin;s weight has little or nothing to do with how effectively she can perform her job, but I have to take issue with your statement that 'people with a healthy body image would look at her and think she looks pretty average, while reporters inundated with the body dysmorphia of celebrities think she's fat'.

Huh? Does that mean if I think she's fat I must have an unhealthy body image?

Zen Trekkie said...

I found some pictures of her on google images and she doesn't look fat. She looks healthy.
I remember when I was younger (late teens)and my mother would go nuts telling me that I looked fat and that I had to watch what I ate and exercise a lot. Then I would go to my grandma's for a visit, and she would say something like " My goodness, what are they feeding you down there? You better eat, or you'll never get a husband."
(I am size 18, and have been married since I was 20...5 1/2 years ago)
Confusing situation for a teenage girl!

JoGeek said...

@BamaGal: My bad! I corrected the post to reflect that she's from Alabama. Thanks for catching it.

@Staci: She's pretty average, as far as build. I've re-worded it slightly, but I stand by the fact that the public and reporters freaking out over her weight are responding to an unrealistic idea of what constitutes an average body.

Erin said...

While you're on the subject of Sotomayor and her "unapologetic Latina Pride" ...
What about if a white person kept bringing up how proud they were of their Caucasian heritage? They would basically be categorised as being either:
A. Racist
B. Stupid
C. Both

But more importantly, it's quite obvious her "Latina pride" will be guiding her judgement. She will, in fact, be biased. A large part of her getting this far is due to her pushing her Latina image and gaining the sympathies and support of the large population of Mexicans, South Americans immigrants, feminists, and so on.
As for the Surgeon General, just because she's fat doesn't mean she's going to care about HAES.

Boozy Tooth said...

Brilliant post. I don't agree with Benjamin's political platform necessarily, but do admire her success, status and position. Let's hope she shines a light on obesity with fairness and is seen as a role model, not a bone of contention.

JoGeek said...

@Erin: I'm sorry, but that argument holds no water with me at all. The paradigm of a group in an oppressed or threatened position is NOT the same as for a group in a dominating position. Think about it. Until the positions are equal they cannot be considered in the same light. While the ideology of your argument sounds good on the surface, it is dependent on a misunderstanding of the reality of inequality. The charge of bias is the same argument that was made against the first black and female judges. It didn't turn out to be true then, either.

By the way, people who front this argument also have no problem with someone who is proudly and professedly Christian, despite the risk that their ideology could very easily bias their decisions against those whose religious ethics do not agree with the Christian dogma.

Liza Kate said...

Erin, I'm not buying that. I may not have a sweeping sense of "white pride" but I am proud of many things that are associated with being white. I'm proud to be a redhead, for example. I'm proud of my Italian heritage. I am proud of having extremely pale skin and safely keeping it that way. I'm proud to have freckles. And I'm not racist or stupid, *thankyouverymuch*.

barbara said...

I think you shouldn't worry too much about diabetes prevention meaning weight control. As someone with a family history of thin people having diabetes, as well as BMI-overweight and BMI-obese persons having no health concern whatever, I can imagine that if you're a scientist you know how to distinguish the two.

Also, if prevention means affordable fruits and vegetables and healthy, tasty, cheap meals for schoolchildren, I can't see how that would be bad. Oh, and don't forget affordable sports for everyone, and free or subsidized regular health checks.

Otherwise, I really appreciated your post (I came via Shapely Prose). I hope you don't mind my comment. Full disclosure: I'm naturally thin (almost on the brink of BMI-underweight) and I can't put on weight any more than many other people I know can lose it.

Nowax said...

I don't think we should cheer just yet that she's overweight, and therefore a "comrade".

I chose a new doctor because her photo showed that she wasn't a member of the "adipose-free set" because I was tired of doctors who didn't seem to "get it" about being fat. But she's almost worse than the thin doctors.

She talks to me about weight-loss as if it's something easy to do. Apparently she can't take her own advice...