America's Weight Obsession Goes Both Ways

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Just as Americans worry that too many of our citizens are overweight, we also worry that pop culture pushes young people, especially girls, to be too skinny. Are we too fat, or too thin?


Okay, issues of weight have actress Annabelle Gurwitch confused. Are we, she wonders, too fat? Or maybe too thin?

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Ms. ANNABELLE GURWITCH (Actress): As I drive around my city of Los Angeles, I cannot escape the ads warning me that childhood obesity is a big problem, accompanied by photographs of smiling but chunky youngsters who I can only imagine will one day sue their parents for the mental distress caused by appearing in childhood obesity warning ads.

While on the other side of the country, along with declaring war on trans fats, New York has declared war on skinny models. Yes, the outrage against thin has been growing larger for some time. Still, not to minimize the real dangers of eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, it's not the United States of skin and bones. It's America the bountiful. Dr. Evelyn Attia is a Columbia University psychiatrist specializing in eating disorders.

Dr. EVELYN ATTIA (Psychiatry, Columbia University): Clearly, the largest public health issue when it comes to eating is the issue of overeating and overweight and obesity.

Ms. GURWITCH: That's right. On the whole, we are a nation of fatties who obsessively follow the poundage of both our public figures and our neighbors. Not only that, according to Doctor Attia, we attribute negative qualities like laziness to people who are overweight.

Dr. ATTIA: As unfair as it may be, we will judge a book by its cover.

Ms. GURWITCH: Which brings us to the upcoming presidential election. Could bodyweight rather than the traditional height advantage become the deciding factor in the upcoming campaign? I spoke with NPR's senior political editor, Ken Rudin, for some historical perspective.

KEN RUDIN: Very few people know this, but it started with James Madison. James Madison was known as the father of the constitution. He only weighed 98 pounds. He used to tell people, you know, does this constitution make me look fat?

Ms. GURWITCH: So what about someone like President William, Big Bill Taft? Could he be elected today?

RUDIN: Well, no, because he's dead. But more importantly, I mean, William Howard - I mean, he was like 335 pounds. I think, honestly, that's the reason he never did TV.

Ms. GURWITCH: All right, what about the current field? For instance, Newt Gingrich.

RUDIN: Newt Gingrich saying he's not going to get in the race this year until September or October. Now my guess is that if he's serious, he'll need that amount of time to lose that weight he's put on since he left the speakership.

Ms. GURWITCH: But wait - weight is a bipartisan issue, isn't it?

RUDIN: Given the fact that Barack Obama is only about 78 pounds and nobody will dare ask Hillary Clinton what her weight is, so I think it's going to be a key issue in 2008 without a doubt.

Ms. GURWITCH: This premise may be thin, but I'm going to make some of my own big prognostications. John Edwards: he looks to me like he's got a little too much junk in the trunk. Though no one will cite this as the reason, his candidacy will sink.

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Ms. GURWITCH: Mike Huckabee: Sure, he recently lost 110 pounds - the equivalent of a whole person - but he'd have to gain a person in order to win. A person with some name recognition.

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Ms. GURWITCH: Barack Obama: I am certainly not the first to note that with so few years of experience, he needs to add some heft to his campaign, but I mean that literally. Hillary Clinton: Let's just say that between some of her vague sounding talking points and those boxy suits, I'd advise streamlining on all fronts. And sides. Joe Biden: Bad hair transplant, foot in the mouth, weight is a non-issue.

Mitt Romney: Do we really want a president named Mitt? John McCain and Rudy Giuliani: according to Newsday, they are buddies who often hold court over plates of pasta during Manhattan Chat'n'Chew. My prediction: Those chat and chews will soon consist of cottage cheese and dry Melba toast. It might be wise to remember the aphorism you can never be too rich or too thin. So candidates, time to get serious about the campaign, and may the best candidate lose.

CHADWICK: Annabelle Gurwitch - her documentary film "Fired" premiers next month on Showtime.

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