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Is Dr. Regina Benjamin Too Fat to Be Surgeon General?

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama nominated Alabama physician Regina Benjamin as the next Surgeon General. In that capacity, Dr. Benjamin will oversee the 6,000 member public health corps and function as America's chief health nanny, ah, health educator. Past Surgeons General included the luxuriantly-bearded Dr. C. Everett Koop who campaigned relentlessly against smoking and Dr. Jocelyn Elders who, in response to a question, suggested that teaching masturbation might be a way to prevent young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.

Despite Dr. Benjamin's distinguished record as a physician, some blogospherean health nannies are objecting to her appointment on the grounds that she is fat. In a nice column on this "controversy," University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan quotes a couple of self-appointed anti-fat crusaders:

“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.”

Caplan goes on to ask:

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

A better question is why does anyone have to be a paragon of health and risk avoidance, but we'll leave that one for now.

Caplan does suggest that Dr. Benjamin might serve as an example for us all (especially those of us with BMI's over 25):

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.

This is very unlikely. If Oprah Winfrey's gigantic audience is unaffected by the daytime star's very public efforts to keep her weight down, I doubt that whatever the new Surgeon General does or does not do about her avoirdupois will have much effect.

Ultimately, the right question is the one my colleauge Jacob Sullum asked in his splendid article "The War On Fat" -- Is the size of your butt the government's business? The answer is, no. Here's hoping that the new Surgeon General thinks so too.


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