Too Big To Win
Fat politics and the race for governor of New Jersey.
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm slightly overweight," said Chris Christie on Friday, during his second gubernatorial debate with incumbent Jon Corzine. "Apparently this has become a great case for discussion in the state. I don't know what that has to do with being the governor of New Jersey."
With the election just three weeks away, Christie's physique may be costing him votes. A recent attack ad from the Corzine campaign shows the Republican candidate clambering out of a sport utility vehicle in jiggly slow motion while a voice-over says he "threw his weight around" as U.S. attorney. Meanwhile, the governor has played up his own image as a health nut, embarking on a public 5K run on Tuesday with Newark mayor Cory Booker. Asked the other day whether his opponent was fat, Corzine replied, "Am I bald?"
How will the Garden State respond to this all-out food fight? According to Public Policy Polling, 20 percent of undecided voters say they're less likely to pull the lever for a plus-sized candidate—and that's just the people who were willing to share their bias over the phone. (A New York Times survey conducted last week found similar numbers.) Christie may not be the first candidate to be punished for his flab: Just one-quarter of the nation's governors are visibly plump, says Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, compared with two-thirds of the populace.
This size bias may ultimately play out along party lines. The last presidential election revealed a startling overlap between statewide obesity figures and support for the GOP. Despite losing in a landslide, John McCain carried all nine of the fattest states in the union and 16 of the top 20. (Obama prevailed in 17 of the 20 thinnest states, including New Jersey.) In the race for governor of a very blue state, Christie's girth marks him as an outsider—a member of the chunky-monkey Fox News demographic, the kind of guy who rides around in an SUV and eats Double Down sandwiches. If Christie stands in for America's boorish consumer culture, then Corzine—slender, bearded, and bespectacled—represents the cosmopolitan elite.
There are two fat Americas, though. Excess weight, as liberals know well, is not just a sign of overconsumption but a marker of low social class—or even a symptom of oppression. Across the country, rates of poverty and obesity are closely linked, and there's reason to think that being poor actually makes you fat. Those of modest means inhabit a treacherous food landscape of subsidized calories and super-sized portions; if they're inclined to overeat, it's because corporate food scientists have ensnared them with "hyperpalatable" snacks crammed with fat, sugar, and salt. So when Christie—who presents himself as a "Jersey guy" with a Jersey gut—jokes that he just can't pass up a doughnut, why shouldn't we believe him? It's not as though he hasn't tried to lose weight through exercise and dieting. "It's just part of who I am, unfortunately," he explained to the Times.
Playing the victim isn't likely to boost Christie's poll numbers, though. Even if he could convince New Jersey Democrats that's he's just a working-class schlub and a slave to shopping-mall food courts, he'd just be trading scorn for pity. As a fat man, he'd get none of the deference afforded to women, homosexuals, blacks, Latinos, or any other marginalized group with its own identity politics. Never mind all the evidence of body-size discrimination in employment, education, and health care. Weight bias may be just as prevalent as racial bias, yet we're reluctant to assign any political status to obesity. Corzine can say with a wink that Christie "threw his weight around" as U.S. attorney. Who would dare to suggest that New York governor David Paterson had "turned a blind eye to corruption"?