Is Chris Christie too fat to win an election in New Jersey?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 19 2009 6:01 PM

Too Big To Win

Fat politics and the race for governor of New Jersey.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

"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."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber
Daniel Engber is a Slate senior editor with a body mass index of 25.4. He can be reached at danengber@yahoo.com.

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.

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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"?

As a matter of fact, a "fat pride" movement does exist in this country. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance was established 40 years ago and continues to serve as a "non-profit civil rights organization dedicated to ending size discrimination in all of its forms." More radical spin-off groups, like the Fat Underground, have come and gone. Now a community of feminists and left-wing academics has sought to formalize the study of body size in its social context. Next month, NYU Press will publish an introduction to this new field, The Fat Studies Reader.

The essays collected in the book make a case for de-escalating the war on obesity. The extraordinary pressure to lose weight does more harm than good, they argue, and it's nearly impossible to change your body size over the long term. Instead, the fat activists propose that we embrace healthy lifestyles for their own sake. Eat wholesome foods and get plenty of exercise, but stop worrying so much about your dress size. (It's better to be fit and fat, they say, than to starve yourself thin.)

Early reviews suggest that the message won't go over so well in the mainstream. It's no surprise that conservatives write off the fat activists as whiny, plus-size hippies. For liberals, all this talk of normalizing obesity sounds like a capitulation and a sop to corporate interests. TheNew Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert, who reviewed the Fat Studies Reader in July, decided that the movement "allies itself with McDonald's and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks." The book's editors, Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay, endured the same criticism when they appeared on a WNYC call-in show a few weeks later. ("Clearly these guests are in the pocket of McDonald's, Kraft, Stouffer's, and the other dealers of disgusting unhealthy food ...")

If Rothblum and Solovay are accused of selling out the poor, they're also charged with being obese. "Don't turn your fat into a civil [rights] issue," wrote one commenter at WNYC.org, "just get on the treadmill." Fat activists must be fat people who don't have enough willpower to go to the gym. When I wrote about weight bias in the film Wall-E last year, almost a thousand Slate readers posted to the site or e-mailed me similar, angry responses. "Was your article translated from whale song?" asked one reader. "How many cheese-dipped chicken nuggets did you scarf while writing this crap?" Someone even found a headshot of me and posted it to the Fray message boards: "Charles Atlas he's not," wrote this user.

A couple of months ago, I asked Rothblum why she thought the fat rights movement aroused so much ire from across the political spectrum. Thin people tend to think they've controlled their weight through hard work and strength of character, she said. That makes the idea of size acceptance seem like a personal affront to anyone who's not severely obese. If we're all OK with being fat, then there's no pride in being thin.

So what does this mean for Chris Christie? Most of the country is overweight or obese, according to government standards, yet there's no constituency for a fat politician. Conservatives see excess weight as a sign of moral failing or a breach of personal responsibility. Liberals sneer at the bloated American lifestyle, even while imagining the war on obesity as a fight for social justice. A size-blind culture is clearly a long way off. Until we get there, it's the thin candidates who will be throwing their weight around.