August 2009 - Weighing in on Dr. Regina Benjamin, Surgeon General Nominee
- Created on July 29th, 2009
- By Dr. Mary Harris
On July 13, 2009, President Obama announced the nomination of Dr. Regina Benjamin for Surgeon General of the United States. Like so many others, I was proud and delighted with her nomination. Here is an African-American woman who has worked selflessly and tirelessly to improve the health of poor people—many of whom are people of color. I applauded her nomination and felt, with a fair degree of certainty, that her nomination would be confirmed.
So, you can imagine my shock and irritation when the dialogue in the press around her nomination began to focus--not on her stellar accomplishments and the unique perspective she can bring to the position of Surgeon General—but rather, on her weight! Her weight??? Surely, I could not have heard the television pundits correctly. But there it was—the conversation was focused on Dr. Benjamin’s weight. This was quickly followed by articles in the press outlining the problems with Dr. Benjamin’s weight and how this is at odds with her “image” as Surgeon General, especially given the nation’s struggle with obesity and obesity related diseases.
Time out. When did weight or BMI qualify (or disqualify) a candidate for this job? Didn’t seem to be an issue for C. Everett Koop who appeared to be slightly overweight, but went on to be one of this country’s most effective and popular Surgeon Generals. What has Dr. Benjamin’s weight got to do with her credentials? Dr. Benjamin appears to be well qualified to be Surgeon General. She’s a hard worker, a clear thinker, dedicated to healing the sick, and an accomplished physician—garnering the coveted McArthur Award and a seat on the board of the American Medical Association. As far as we know, she does not abuse drugs or alcohol or have any other problems that could seriously impair her judgment. So why is the only thing we have to talk about the fact that she, like so many other Americans, appears to be carrying a few extra pounds? Give me a break!
In case you’re wondering, my irritation with the focus on Dr. Benjamin’s weight is not a case of my backing off my mission to see African-Americans get and stay healthy. The CDC reports that approximately 80% of African-American women are overweight and more than 50% are obese. We must do better, and I continue to be a strong proponent of a healthy body weight, healthy eating, and regular exercise. I realize that getting there is a challenge for many of us. I also have the common sense to know that it takes time, focus, and hard work. Sometimes, the best of us—myself included—fall short. However, this does not mean that we’re bad people or incapable of doing our jobs. It just means we have to get busy and re-dedicate our efforts to getting (or getting back) in shape. And when we “fall off the wagon,” we have only to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back on track. It’s that simple. The point is to have more good days, than you have bad.
Perhaps this is a good time to step back and view this entire matter as a teaching moment for all of us. There are at least three lessons that come immediately to mind: (1) none of us is perfect and we all have our personal weaknesses and shortcomings—recognize them and deal with them; (2) life sometimes presents us with an opportunity for self-improvement that has the potential to influence others to also live a better life—its up to us to take advantage of these opportunities; and (3) that while we take care of others, we must also take care of ourselves.
I continue to be delighted with Dr. Benjamin’s nomination, regardless of her weight. It will be wonderful if she is confirmed and can help lead the nation towards a healthier lifestyle. In the meantime, let’s hope that Dr. Benjamin will take the necessary time to take care of her personal health while she’s busy taking care of the nation’s health. We need her talent, her voice, and her commitment.
With you on your journey to wellness….
Dr. Mary S. Harris