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(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)
(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)

How fat has become a political issue Add to ...

For Mr. Christie, being flat-out fat has not stopped him from being elected governor of a populous state nor from being courted for the Republican nomination, and hitherto his heft may have proved an advantage. Fat makes him seem more down-to-earth, more a man of the people.

Though the governor is a lawyer whose background is middle-income, being big as a house seems to suggest that he is just a regular guy, an unpretentious Jersey boy with an instinctive grasp of the needs of the struggling. You’d like to have a beer with him. He’d help himself to a handful if you ordered peanuts.

Weight is also entangled with character. A lean physique implies a tendency to discipline, self-control and purposiveness. Culturally, we link slenderness not only to success but also to judgmentalism, joylessness, uptightness and vanity.

Men who are thin can seem prissy or effeminate. Mr. Obama’s narrowness is compensated by a resonant voice and gift for oratory, which lend his presence gravitas. Otherwise, he might seem to lack substance in a metaphorical sense. No one in politics courts a reputation as a “lightweight.”

Fat among the hoi polloi may appear to betray sloth, laziness and self-indulgence, but for male politicians displays of appetite can pay dividends – which is why candidates are often seen bolting down hot dogs and barbecue sandwiches on the campaign trail. Appetite indicates a zest for life, ambition, an appealing allegorical hunger for more than pot stickers – even, subtly, high levels of testosterone.

Being heavy contributes to Mr. Christie’s lunging, aggressively advocative demeanour, and helps to plant him in the popular consciousness as a force to be reckoned with.

Should his surgery produce dramatic results, he will lose more than weight – though having been fat would certainly prove a fabulous feather in his cap for 2016. Americans adore self-reinvention and before-and-after-picture success stories.

Alas, just as in every other realm, the curious advantages of a few extra pounds do not extend to female politicians. They don’t convey a “zest for life” with an expanding girth, but simply look dumpy and plain. Hillary Clinton’s gentle thickening during her stint as secretary of state makes her look older and more conspicuously past her prime. (A wager: Should she indeed take another stab at the presidency, by 2016 she will have starved off that excess.)

Pudgy female candidates may get a little credit for being just folks, but in the main female politicians are better off slim. Of the 17 women in the U.S. Senate, only one is noticeably overweight. Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi borders on emaciated. Michele Bachmann’s fetching figure was a considerable assist in her 2012 presidential bid. And if Sarah Palin ever started hitting the cream buns, her career, even as an inspirational speaker, would be over.

That’s not only because much of Ms. Palin’s appeal is sexual. For women, thinness is associated not only with class but with status.

In either gender, when overeating gets combined with other appetites, it loses all advantages and just looks sad. Amid the current drug allegations, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s puffy features contribute to an image as a dissolute. (Also, during his highly public Cut the Waist Challenge last year, Mr. Ford fell far short of his goal of losing 50 pounds in five months. Nobody loves self-reinvention that didn’t work.)

Mr. Christie is right, of course, that weight is a health issue, but health is political as well. The presidency is a demanding job, and the Governor had grown so large that opponents could have argued that he would be too likely to drop dead in office.

Obesity as a health issue slides insidiously to obesity as a moral issue.

Fat is increasingly stigmatized beyond its medical implications. “It’s not good for you” morphs to “it’s not good.” Conversely, slenderness attaches not only to sound nutritional practice, but to virtue. It’s not a big leap from regarding skinniness as next to godliness to concluding that fat is evil. The dubious expression “obesity epidemic” further

suggests that this depravity is contagious.

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