Of Butts and Men

There was a news story from last week that may have been overlooked by many in the rush to Christmas, and I feel compelled to comment on it.

It was reported that Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R. WI) told a group at a church social that Michelle Obama has a “big butt”. He was later overheard recounting the story loudly on his cell phone in the airport. His response, once the media picked up the story, was to claim he simply opposes her healthy eating initiative. Mrs. Obama has been very active in encouraging kids to move more and develop healthier eating habits. But that’s not what he said. He didn’t disagree with her position, he disagreed with her body.

He’s not the first person to level such personal attacks, aimed at her body, at the First Lady. Back in February Rush Limbaugh complained that she had no right to talk about healthy eating and exercise because she didn’t have a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model body.

These stories are wrong on so many levels. Where to even begin?

A good beginning might be the oh-so-obvious pot calling the kettle black. Do either of these men own a mirror? Do either of you really want to go toe to toe in a fitness matchup with the First Lady? – It might be entertaining for us, but it would probably kill you both, so I wouldn’t advise it.

But the more substantive beginning would be to look at reality. Body shape is not the same as weight. People of a healthy body weight can have very different body shapes. And weight is just one component of health. Rail-thin is not necessarily healthy; models are hardly the picture of health.

Michelle Obama looks great! She’s active; she eats well. She looks like a normal, healthy woman. (and I’m totally envious of her fabulous arms!)

And some more reality – obesity costs the U.S. around $150 billion in direct medical costs according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But McKinsey & Co. reports that indirect economic costs are $450 billion annually in the U.S. Of course, those numbers only reflect the economic costs, not the human costs, which are harder to define.

Mrs. Obama is addressing a very real problem. One of the best ways to fight this problem is to give children the tools they need to live a healthier life. Preventing obesity is easier than fighting it, especially once it’s already caused secondary health problems. Get kids moving more and eating healthier, and obesity rates will begin to come down.

Is Michelle Obama perfect? No. Does she sometimes skip a workout? Probably. Does she sometimes eat fries and a plate of ribs? Yes. Does that make her unhealthy? Absolutely not!

No one is perfect – at anything. A healthy lifestyle is not about being perfect. It’s about being consistent. It’s about making better choices more often than not. It’s about the overall balance of how we live – how we act, how we move, what we eat.

But besides the reality of obesity in America, why is it acceptable to speak that way about any woman? We frequently worry about media images and how they affect girls’ self image, and that of the women they become. Far too many of us grow up hating our bodies, or at least some part of it. Girls starve themselves and women spend millions on surgery in an attempt to attain some twisted idea of beauty.

Yet here we have powerful, influential men stooping to personal attacks on a woman’s body. Who needs magazines filled with too thin models whose bones are sticking out? All we have to do is pick up the newspaper to feel bad about our bodies. We’ve got national leaders out in front, leading the charge.

Finally, why is it still acceptable to bring up a woman’s appearance in the political arena? If you want to disagree with her work to try to improve the health of children, go ahead. But why would anyone consider it appropriate to bring up a woman’s body shape? We never hear these sorts of comments about male politicians. No one would ever say, “his economic ideas are stupid because he’s just plain UGLY.” No, they would discuss the merits of his plan. We don’t read about the cut of a man’s suit in politics, but every woman who has run for office has had her wardrobe discussed – “She wore a yellow suit…a navy suit…pumps…a pantsuit.” Why are we still discussing style instead of substance?

And why would anyone wonder why girls and the women they become sometimes have image issues?


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