Chris Christie's Struggle and the Politics of Weight

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie openly struggles with his weight.

February 06, 2013, 6:32 PM

Feb. 7, 2013— -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's weight is back in the spotlight this week. On Monday he joined in on the fat jokes with David Letterman, even munching on a doughnut; on Tuesday he seriously addressed his struggles at a press conference.

The usually tough-talking 50-year-old Republican openly acknowledged that he may have good health right now, but his "doctor continues to warn me that my luck is going to run out relatively soon, so believe me, it's something I'm very conscious of."

"If you talk to anybody in this room who has struggled with their weight, what they will tell you is that every month, every year there's a plan … and so the idea that somehow I don't care about this, of course I care about it, and I'm making the best effort I can and sometimes I'm successful and other times I'm not," Christie said at a firehouse Tuesday in Union Beach, N.J.

And with those honest words, an issue that was in the public eye as he contemplated a presidential run in 2012 came roaring back into the spotlight. His communications office even tweeted out the clip from his official @GovChristie Twitter account.

Despite what he claims is good health, he did spend several hours in the hospital in July 2011 after an asthma attack, which he blamed on humidity and high temperatures.

Christie is far from the only politician who's dealt with a weight issue. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, now-Fox News host Mike Huckabee lost over 100 pounds before he ran for president, talking openly and even writing a book about how he went from "zero exercise" to running marathons. President Bill Clinton lost weight in office, but dramatically slimmed down after his heart surgery in 2004, even becoming vegan before his daughter Chelsea's 2010 wedding. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour once said that it would be clear he was running for president if he lost 40 pounds. Even Dr. Regina Benjamin, President Obama's pick for surgeon general, had to endure criticism that, despite her experience and credentials, she was too overweight for the job.

This past week is hardly the first time Christie has addressed the issue. Last December, in her "10 Most Fascinating People of 2012? ABC News' Barbara Walters, the governor defended his health when he told Walters, "Well, I've done this job pretty well and I think people watched me for the last couple weeks and during Hurricane Sandy doing 18-hour days and getting right back up the next day and still being just as effective, so I don't really think that would be a problem."

Even during his 2009 run for the New Jersey governorship he had to endure his opponent's trying to use his weight against him. Then Gov. Jon Corzine ran an ad that ended with Christie stepping out of a car in slow-motion. The ad also accused him of "throwing his weight around" to get out of a traffic ticket. It was widely panned and political observers, as well as polling, thought it contributed to Corzine's loss.

But politically speaking, the issue may not be as bad as is widely assumed. Two thirds of Americans struggle with their weight and one third are obese. Also, in 2010 political scientist Beth J. Miller and psychologist Jennifer D. Lundgren, of the University of Missouri in Kansas City, published research showing that being overweight did hurt political candidates, but only female ones.

Obese women were evaluated most negatively, but obese men came out well, doing even better than thinner men.

"These findings suggest that weight bias exists for obese female political candidates, but that larger body size may be an asset for male candidates," the authors wrote in the study, published in the journal Obesity in April 2010. "The ability of candidates to be successful may depend less on their policy positions or even party affiliation and more on their physical attributes than has been previously assumed."

Kenlie Tiggeman does public relations, as well as working as a Republican analyst. She says she loves Chris Christie, but knows personally the struggle of obesity. She describes herself as a "food addict" but has lost 100 pounds so far -- at one point she weighed about 400 pounds -- and still has another 100 pounds to go. She lives in New Orleans and happened to run into Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, at a restaurant this weekend when they were in town for the Super Bowl.

She said she doesn't want to "make excuses" for Christie, but the struggle with weight loss when you are obese is like "climbing Mount Everest and climbing Mount Everest again."

"I can you tell you right now it's the hardest thing to battle with and no one can understand it unless you've been through it," Tiggeman said.

In 2011, she was told by Southwest Airlines she was "too fat to fly" twice, even being asked what size clothing she wore and how much she weighed. She sued the airline in 2011, but the case was dismissed recently. She is considering suing the airline again.

"Anyone wondering if Gov. Christie has what it takes to be the next president of the United States should look at what he did during [superstorm] Sandy," Tiggeman said. "There's no question whether Obama is ready to be the president of the United States, but they question Chris Christie, and I think that's crazy. America doesn't fit one mold and that's the beauty of our country."

For Christie, said Tiggeman, "New Jersey is number one."

Weight, she added, seems to be the last prejudice that people can tease someone about, even cruelly.

Doctors agree. Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University said that, like many other people "struggling with their weight" people should not make assumptions about Christie on issues such as "personal discipline, will power, ability, success, or a person's contributions to society."

"There seems to be this public perception that shaming, intimidating, making fun of people with obesity ... will motivate people to lose weight, when we actually see the opposite is true," Puhl said. "Public scrutiny, fat jokes lead people to engage in unhealthy eating, increase consumption of calories, avoidance of physical exercise, and impairs their efforts to lose weight."

Dr. Jennifer Thomas, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and assistant director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program, agreed, saying that while racist and sexist jokes are "not appropriate," people still feel like obesity is only about "personal control, personal responsibility" and it's "O.K. to be judgmental or make assumptions."

Puhl also pointed out that it's important to make the distinction that "health risk comes in different sizes…. There are certainly many people who are overweight by BMI [body mass index], but they maintain a balanced diet and exercise regularly, while many thin people smoke cigarettes, drink too much alcohol, eat poorly, and don't exercise. Being thin is not an automatic indicator of health," Puhl said. "Chris Christie has really been scrutinized, but we need to be careful of singling him out because the health status of his political peers may not be what it seems either."

Being overweight "is a very complex condition," Puhl said. "If this were easy to fix we wouldn't have the epidemic we have right now. Chris Christie has been very honest that his body weight is a struggle, and I think a lot of Americans identify with that."

Dr. Connie Mariano was President Bill Clinton's doctor in the White House, and helped him in his weight loss struggle. She was also the White House physician during President George H.W. Bush's final year in office as well as for a few months of George W. Bush's first term. She says she is a Republican and likes Christie, but sees his weight as a problem blocking him from higher office.

"It's something we worry about at the White House constantly," Mariano said. "He is at risk of a heart attack at that size, he could have sleep apnea, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes. And coming to the White House, which is a pressure cooker and there is more stress involved, long hours, lots of travel which makes those things worse unless they were healthier."

Mariano, who now has a private practice treating executives in Scottsdale, Ariz., said if Christie does want to run for president the issues will "constantly haunt him during the presidency and the rest of his life."

"When you see somebody like that who may have a shortened life span because of their obesity," Mariano said. "We are all compassionate towards him…there is no magic pill."

Mariano said if she were his doctor she would work "closely with an eating disorder expert" who works with "emotional eaters who eat when they are happy, eat when they are stressed," as well as whoever feeds the governor, including staff, family and a trainer to make sure he has a "daily exercise regiment in the gym" and is doing "a lot of walking.""I've always liked him," Mariano said. "I like that he's forthright, feisty, he connects with people ... he's down to earth, humble, he's the American story we love ... he makes fun of himself, but we don't want him to die young."

Mariano said Christie could be the "poster child for all the other people in this country that are obese."

"If he can do it, I can do it too," Mariano said, referring to Americans' reaction if Christie were to lose weight. "You could save a lot of lives that way."

Mariano also went on CNN and said she was "worried about this man dying in office" and in another press conference Wednesday, Christie actually lashed out at her, calling her a "hack."

"I find it fascinating that a doctor in Arizona who has never met me, never examined me, never reviewed my medical history or records, knows nothing about my family history, could make a diagnosis from 2,400 miles away," the traditionally tough talking governor said. "She must be a genius. She should probably be the surgeon general of the United States, I suspect, because she must be a genius."

Christie said his children actually watched the CNN segment and his 12-year-old son asked him, "Dad, are you going to die?"

Mariano responded to Christie's comments, calling them unfortunate.

"It doesn't take a physician to look at him and observe he is overweight," Mariano said in a statement. "It is sad that he can not take my advice about his weight and risk factors for people who are overweight/obese for diabetes, heart disease, stroke constructively and instead, he chose to attack me personally."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events