As if Newt Gingrich doesn’t have enough problems after his disappointing fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses under a barrage of blistering attack ads, here’s one more to consider: his weight.
Compared to his primary rivals, the erstwhile Republican front-runner is, well, pudgy. If Mitt Romney is a human Ken doll, then Mr. Gingrich is more of a mini-Stay Puff marshmallow man. And in an image-conscious, fat-obsessed nation that hasn’t elected a truly hefty commander-in-chief since President William Howard Taft in 1909, that may be a serious — and seriously underappreciated — political liability.
Call it unfair, call it shallow — but according to obesity experts and a preponderance of sociological research, a powerful current of anti-fat bias runs through American life, influencing everything from cultural attitudes to workplace outcomes.
The ballot box is no exception: Heavyset candidates face a battle of the bulge.
Once upon a time - specifically, before the advent of television, late-night talk show monologues, P90X and “The Biggest Loser” — weight had minimal bearing on politics. Mr. Taft and his size 54 waist could win the White House and subsequently install an extra-large bathtub in the White House to little fanfare; 260-pound President Grover Cleveland could shrug off a tactless visitor remarking, “Well, you’re a whopper!” without enduring a heaping helping of public scorn.
That was then.
When bulky New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie contemplated a presidential run last September, “The View” co-host Joy Behar cracked a Krispy Kreme doughnut joke, then cited Mr. Taft and stated, “I don’t think the country’s ready for a fat president again.”
Impolitic as she was, the daytime gabstress was hardly alone in her sentiment: Dozens of pundits and news articles questioned Mr. Christie’s literal fitness for office, as did a broadcast segment on ABC News.
During a televised MSNBC interview, Republican strategist Ed Rollins said that Mr. Christie needed to get in “some kind of shape” in order to reach the Oval Office. Mr. Rollins also noted that his last advice to friend and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — a man whose campaign Mr. Rollins managed and who famously dropped 110 pounds while serving as governor of Arkansas — was to “get about 40 pounds off if he was going to make the race.”
“Putting together nightly news stuff, taking pictures of Christie waddling off his airplane looking hot and bothered, that would not have been an easy image to sell,” said a Democratic strategist who requested anonymity. “Especially compared to selling a physically disciplined Obama.”
Why the hard sell?
Think of the presidential campaign as the longest, most public job interview in the world. Now consider: According to obesity specialist Rebecca Puhl, several decades of sociological research indicates that obese job applicants are less likely to be hired and more likely to receive lower starting salaries than thinner applicants, particularly for positions that require frequent contact with the public.
On the job, obese individuals are more likely to be fired, less likely to be promoted, and suffer a weight-related wage penalty. A National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that obese men earn up to 3.4 percent less than their more svelte peers, obese women earn up to 6.1 percent less, and severely obese white males earn as much as 19.6 percent less than their normal weight white counterparts.
In a relatively common experiment, Ms. Puhl said, human resources professionals are asked to evaluate a series of job candidate applications. The applications are identical, except for one detail.
“Only body weight is different,” said Ms. Puhl, a research director at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Obese applicants are perceived to be a poor fit for the position they’re applying for, even when they have better qualifications than a thin person. Employers would actually prefer to hire a thinner, less-qualified person.View Entire Story
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Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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