Is Dr. Regina Benjamin Too Fat to Be Surgeon General

America wants a smoking hot surgeon general. Who knew?

Apparently (based on reports from media outlets like FoxNews and ABC News), the new surgeon general nominee — Dr. Regina Benjamin — is not a good candidate for the job because she is slightly overweight. Really. It’s a good thing that people weren’t thinking about that when her “not-so-hot” predecessors were in office. I suspect that we would not have had any surgeon generals if that were the case. I liked the guy, but Dr. C. Everett Koop? Come on.

Benjamin, a 52-year-old family practice doctor who has dedicated her life to the poor by working in rural and impoverished areas, is seemingly not fit to be surgeon general because she is supposedly “unfit.”

Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990 in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Ala., where she also serves as CEO. Many of the patients lack health insurance, and about a third are immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The clinic was heavily damaged by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It also burned to the ground several years ago. Benjamin rebuilt the clinic after each setback and has continued to offer medical care to the village’s 2,500 residents. This is a woman who still makes house calls. This is a woman who mortgaged her house twice to rebuild clinics and drove around in a pickup truck treating patients. She’s not fit to be surgeon general because she’s “unfit”?

Benjamin received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for treating patients in the Gulf Coast region regardless of their ability to pay. She is the first African-American woman to serve on the board of the American Medical Association, former associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine and former president of the State of Alabama Medical Association. She was tapped because of her focus on prevention in her treatment of patients.

In her acceptance of the nomination, according to a CNN report this month, Benjamin spoke about the toll of preventable illness as the reason why her family was not with her at the announcement. “Her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure; her older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of an HIV-related illness; her mother died of lung cancer after taking up smoking as a girl; her mother’s twin brother could not attend because he is at home ‘struggling for each breath’ after a lifetime of smoking.”

This is a woman who is going it alone, tending to the needs of everyone, except herself, which is something that many women face in general and black women face specifically. Maybe this is why she’s “slightly overweight”?

Black women are the caretakers of the world and while we are taking care of everyone, no one is taking care of us. Dr. Regina Benjamin is an example of this common experience in the lives of black women.

That’s why it is so interesting that people are actually pretending to give a damn about her health. Since when did the health of black women become important? Breast cancer. Diabetes. Heart disease. You name it and we’re more likely to die from it.

Why do we care about Dr. Benjamin’s health now? In spite of all of her accomplishments and service to the community, at the end of the day, she is not supposed to have a position like this. She can take care of the world, but she cannot be the chief caretaker of the world. How ironic.

I find it interesting that people are not asking why she’s overweight. Poor health is tied to economics and the availability of healthy food items that are affordable. Dr. Benjamin did not grow up with money, so perhaps that is a contributing factor to her being plump. Heck, we all know what we need to do, but very few of us are doing it, which is why the average size of an American woman is 14. Most of us are not nearly as productive as Dr. Benjamin, but we’re still chunky. Instead of condemning Dr. Benjamin, perhaps people should support her and encourage her to make time for herself.

But that can’t happen. She’s a black woman. She’s supposed to give every ounce of her being to others, sacrifice her entire life, personal and otherwise, have the privilege of spending her life without a partner/spouse (she is unmarried like many dynamic, professional black women) and be rewarded with an early death. On top of that, she’s supposed to look like Halle Berry? Give me a break.

I think it’s interesting that some find this round, black woman to be scary. I guess fat, black women are only acceptable when making others laugh, or when we’re the butt of the joke. I thought America loved plump, black women — with all of the films and television shows that include them. I guess it’s OK to be fat and black when you’re pumping millions of dollars into a perverted media industry. Hell, movie studios even pay black men millions of dollars to dress up as fat black women in order to make the world laugh.

The way that Dr. Regina Benjamin is being treated — pun intended — is no laughing matter.

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing where Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. serves as cultural critic. She is also managing editor of and Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College.


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