In My Own Write: On fitness and fatness

The New Jersey governor’s obesity sends a message to us all – but it might not be the one you think.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking)
New Jersey governor Chris Christie 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking)
If you enjoy a laugh, as I do, I recommend the New York Times article headlined “Fitness for office,” reprinted in The Jerusalem Post this week, from which the above quote was taken.
Collins starts off with a former White House physician describing the New Jersey governor’s serious overweight as “almost like a time-bomb waiting to happen... I worry about him dying in office.”
Employing considerable humor, she takes this dramatic declaration as a jumping-off point for assessing the fat and lean among various US chief executives, past and present, weighing popularity and performance.
Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the heavies come out clear winners.
The article, its tongue-incheek( i)ness notwithstanding, has the ring of truth, leading me to recall that Shakespeare, who so well understood human nature, had his chief executive Julius Caesar instinctively wish for “men about me that are fat.”
Beyond the “lean and hungry look” of co-conspirator Cassius, which clearly caused concern, was the bard hinting that, to use a more modern expression, “Fat is beautiful” (33,000 entries on Google)? TO FORESTALL any misapprehension, let me state that I do not consider overweight itself, Chris Christie’s or anyone else’s, to be a laughing matter; on the contrary. We’ve come a long way from the era in which a corpulent body proclaimed wealth and position and was envied, while thinness was the despised lot of the poor, forced to scrape a meager living through hard physical labor.
Modern medical science has proved beyond argument that excess weight of more than a few extra pounds is bad for us, increasing the risk of chronic illness and contributing to overall mortality. One medical laboratory website lists 20 diseases risked or exacerbated by obesity, of which heart disease and cancer are only the first two.
How do you know if you are obese, as opposed to “just” overweight? A classification called the body mass index (BMI) is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters. According to the World Health Organization, a BMI greater than or equal to 25 is considered overweight; a BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obesity.
DESPITE ITS well-publicized dangers, obesity in America is reaching epidemic proportions. In 2011, for example, 24.5 percent of people in the state of New York self-reported as obese. In the southern US, the percentage was much higher: in Alabama, it was a whopping 32 percent. Some sources cite overweight rates doubling among children and tripling among adolescents.
Other western societies aren’t in great shape, either.
In Germany, a 2011 research project showed half the adult population to be overweight or obese. A move several years ago to ban junk food in school kiosks fizzled out, ensuring that fizzy, sugar-laden sodas stayed in.
“One young man we knew had to have his breasts minimized at age 14,” a friend who lives near the Dutch border told me. “But it didn’t minimize the discrimination this poor fat boy suffered in class.”
IN ISRAEL, too many youngsters ingest way too many empty calories while spending too many hours in front of the computer or TV, where advertisers, true to form, seduce them with enticing images of more unhealthy snacks.
A Post item this week cited research showing that one out of four Israeli children is overweight or obese. “Out of 571,000 children checked in grades 1 to 9,” wrote health reporter Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, “16 percent were overweight, while 11% more were obese.”
Experts say fixation on a computer or other screen causes stress, which activates hunger, leading to weight gain. And when you factor in commercial soft drinks – water and sugar laced with chemicals that leach calcium from the bone and cause blood sugar levels to jag up and down – the health picture grows even darker. The aspartame used in “cool” diet drinks can cause headaches and other problems, playing havoc with the body’s natural responses to food.
“Visiting Israeli homes for the first time,” a nutrition-conscious friend from abroad told me, “I was twice offered Coca Cola with an air which seemed to imply something positive and special about those people’s standard of living.”
(Oh, the success of advertising!) “And when I politely refused, there was a tangible air of disappointment, as if I had caused that standard to drop.”
According to some sources, the only remaining region of the world where obesity is not common is sub-Saharan Africa.
IT’S NO secret that as societies living in the consumer age, we face a complex, uphill – some might say hopeless – task in nudging our children (and ourselves) onto the path of enjoyable but healthy eating. Yet that issue isn’t the essential point of this column.
Chris Christie and his obesity send an important message to people everywhere who don’t conform to current standards of attractiveness and social acceptability.
The message is not, of course, that obesity is good – Christie recognizes that now he has turned 50, his thus-far surprisingly good health will fail if he doesn’t lose some serious weight. “Doctors tell me that parts of me are going to start dropping off,” he told talk show host David Letterman.
Christie is an engaging figure despite his obesity. Why? Because he believes in himself. Without showing off, he exudes a self-confidence that svelter individuals might well envy.
“He speaks his mind where other politicians hedge their bets, test the polls before calibrating their responses and are often quite cowardly,” said a friend who follows American politics closely. “He tells people when they’re wrong, bluntly. But he does it in an appealing way.
He’s a Republican in a Democratic state, and very popular.”
That popularity has many hoping Christie will run for president in the next US elections. Indeed, he was entreated to run in 2012, but decided not to.
In a society where “wrapping” counts for almost everything and social judgment is harsh, Christie has bucked the trend and won hearts and minds by simply being himself.
That’s the message, and its importance can hardly be overstated to the millions of us whose appearance differs from what society has deemed its cherished norm.
Here’s another important message: Humor, when neither snide nor malicious, can be an amazing beautifier.
Christie’s sense of humor has surely helped him in manifold ways. Interviewed earlier this month by the practiced Letterman, who has made Christie’s girth the butt of many jokes, Christie deftly took control of the conversation and indisputably walked off with the best lines. At one point, he pulled a doughnut from his pocket and took a large bite.
CHUBBY BRITISH actress and comedian Dawn French has made peace with her size. “If I had been around when Rubens was painting,” she once declared, “I would have been revered as a fabulous model.
“Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush!” Difficult as it is, if we can acquire the courage to believe in what we have to offer as whole human beings beyond just the shape and features of our bodies, great things can transpire.
Commented one woman on an Internet site, “I am fat and men are always chatting me up because I’m confident, pretty and fun to be around.”
Added a male poster: “The simple act of forcing myself to look up and stand up straight instead of staring at the floor and shuffling my feet changed a lot of things in my life.”
A poster calling himself “HARVEYtheDAMNED” posted a message to the entire female sex: “I’m not wise, and not very intelligent. But if there is one thing in life I would love to share with the world, it’s that women are beautiful. All of them. They are all so gorgeous it just drives me crazy.”
Sisters, let us dub this man “Harvey the Blessed.”
FINALLY, a message to Gov. Christie: Take your doctor’s words to heart, and start losing that enormous amount of unhealthy extra weight. But never, ever jettison any of your confidence and belief in yourself – or your delightful sense of humor.
You’re too valuable a role model for those of us who don’t fit the mold.