July 21, 2009— -- Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, Obama's pick for the next surgeon general, was hailed as a MacArthur Grant genius who had championed the poor at a medical clinic she set up in Katrina-ravaged Alabama.
But the full-figured African-American nominee is also under fire for being overweight in a nation where 34 percent of all Americans aged 20 and over are obese.
Critics and supporters across the blogsphere have commented on photos of Benjamin's round cheeks, saying she sends the wrong message as the public face of America's health initiatives.
But others support the 52-year-old founder and CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, citing new research that shows you cannot always judge a book by its cover when it comes to obesity.
Even the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance -- whose slogan is "we come in all sizes" -- has jumped to her defense.
"The job of surgeon general is to make health care and policy decisions for the country -- not to look hot in a pair of skinny jeans," said one blogger on Frisky.com. "Perhaps her size could actually be an advantage -- she's in a better position to understand obesity and contemplate out-of-the-box ways to roll back ever-expanding American waistlines."
Bloggers on Salon.com speculated that Benjamin is 40 pounds overweight, perhaps a size 18. The nominee didn't return calls from ABCNews.com, so there is no information about how much she weighs or her eating and exercise habits.
Spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services Jenny Backus issued this statement: "Dr. Benjamin is a highly qualified physician who has dedicated her life to providing care to her patients. She is a role model for all of us, and will be an outstanding surgeon general."
Even some of the most reputable names in medicine chimed in.
"I think it is an issue, but then the president is said to still smoke cigarettes," said Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard University Medical School. "It tends to undermine her credibility."
"We don't know how much she weighs and just looking at her I would not say she is grotesquely obese or even overweight enough to affect her health," Angell told ABCNews.com.
"But I do think at a time when a lot of public health concern is about the national epidemic of obesity, having a surgeon general who is noticeably overweight raises questions in people's minds," she added.
Obesity Epidemic Plagues U.S.
The potential for hypocrisy bothered others.
"When a teenager listens to this person I want them to listen and respond in a positive way," said Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center. "Not say ho-hum and then drive to a fast food place."
The controversy swirled on the Internet just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans its end-of-month "Weight of the Nation" forum to address strategies to deal with the obesity epidemic.
During the past 20 years obesity has dramatically increased in the United States and is considered a major health risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, costing the nation billions of dollars a year in health care costs.
In 2008, only one state, Colorado, had an obesity rate of less than 20 percent. In states like Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, the prevalence is greater than 30 percent.