Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Regina Benjamin's Rebellion against Society's Female Body Obsession

African-American Women: Falling Short of the Breed Standard
By E.N. Jackson
Copyright 2009 E.N. Jackson
Frost Illustrated Newspaper, Inc. Vol. 41, Issue 32

“The Shih Tzu is a sturdy, lively, alert toy dog with long flowing double coat. Befitting his noble Chinese ancestry as a highly valued, prized companion and palace pet, the Shih Tzu is proud of bearing, has a distinctively arrogant carriage with head well up and tail curved over the back. The Shih Tzu must be compact, solid, carrying good weight and substance. Even though a toy dog, the Shih Tzu must be subject to the same requirements of soundness and structure prescribed for all breeds, and any deviation from the ideal described in the standard should be penalized to the extent of the deviation. Structural faults common to all breeds are as undesirable in the Shih Tzu as in any other breed . . .” (source: akc.org).

This is the American Kennel Club’s description of the Shih-Tzu. In the world of show dogs, this description is called the “breed standard.” Go back and read that description again. As you do, take special notice of the phrase “and any deviation from the ideal described in the standard should be penalized to the extent of the deviation. Structural faults common to all breeds are as undesirable in the Shih Tzu as in any other breed.” Now, imagine that you’re a Shih-Tzu, like my adorable little Shih-Tzu, Sunni Boy, and someone somewhere has magically and arbitrarily decided that you somehow fall short of that breed standard. Perhaps your tail does not quite curl over your back, or maybe your coat is short and flat rather than long and flowing, or maybe you’re in a grumpy mood and you’re not as lively and alert as the standard demands. Regardless of what your fault or flaw may be, the fact remains that according to the breed standard, you should be “penalized to the extent of the deviation” because structural faults are “undesirable” in your breed.

If that same method of applying a breed standard to dogs also applied to women, then the breed standard for the “American Woman” would probably go something like this: The quintessential American Woman is the ideal beauty. She is pale, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and so lacking in hips, thighs, buttocks, and breasts that she often appears “boyishly slim,” which we all know is a cute euphemism for skinny as a beanpole.

Women of color are all too aware of the breed standard for the American Woman and the multitude of ways in which we supposedly come up short when measured against it. From J-Lo to Beyonce, we have seen the effects of the dominant culture’s discomfort and disgust with the curvalicious bodies of black and Latina women. And now Dr. Regina Benjamin, President Obama’s pick for Surgeon General, is the latest woman of color to come up against the American Woman breed standard and supposedly fall short. People who do not approve of Benjamin’s apple plump cheeks, shapely hips, and sensuously round belly, want her to know that she falls short, just like the AKC breed standard police want dog owners to know when their dogs fail to measure up. Benjamin’s critics include women like Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center, who stated, "When a teenager listens to this person I want them to listen and respond in a positive way, not say ho-hum and then drive to a fast food place." And women like Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard University Medical School, who said, "Having a surgeon general who is noticeably overweight raises questions in people's minds. Currently there is extensive public concern about the national epidemic of obesity.”

Wait a minute, here. Noticeably overweight? Obese? Questions in people’s minds? Who are they talking about? And what questions does the size of Regina Benjamin’s body raise in people’s minds? Because this is not a woman I look at and think, “Dang! That girl needs to lose a few hundred pounds!” I do not look at her and then suddenly have visions of Big Macs dancing around in my head. I do not shake my head in concern about the nation’s obesity epidemic and worry that Benjamin will only contribute to it. In fact, my reaction is just the opposite, because what goes through my mind when I see Dr. Benjamin is, “Finally! A woman who looks like me!” So exactly who are these people who see Benjamin’s body as a threat? Could they be people – and let’s face it, mostly women – who have internalized the sexually oppressive breed standard of the American Woman and are killing themselves trying to achieve it? Could they be women who are appalled by, and yet envy, the idea of a “fat ‘n sassy” black woman being the point guard for America’s health and well-being? And how does Benjamin’s proud defiance and total rejection of the breed standard make her unqualified to fulfill her role as Surgeon General?

After the announcement of her nomination, Benjamin stated, "My hope, if confirmed as surgeon general, is to be America's doctor, America's family physician, [and] as we work toward a solution to this health care crisis, I promise to communicate directly with the American people to help guide them through whatever changes may come with health care reform." Hmmm. Sounds like she plans to do the job she was hired to do. Good enough for me! Luckily I am not the only rational human being who sees through the insanity of the baseless and ridiculous attacks against Benjamin. Others do as well, including Jenny Backus, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, who said, "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."

Dr. Regina Benjamin is an intelligent, competent, professional, and yes, beautiful African-American woman. She is a past recipient of the highly coveted MacArthur grant, holds advanced degrees in medicine and business administration, is a family practice doctor who runs her own medical practice, the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic that treats predominately poor and rural patients in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, and was the first black woman to be elected to the American Medical Association board of trustees, not to mention the first black woman to be president of a state medical society, the Alabama Medical Association. But to hear her discussed in the media by those who have chosen to focus on her waistline rather than her vast accomplishments and qualifications, you would think that she is an obese, slovenly hack who has no business holding a position of power that will allow her to make reasoned and informed decisions about America's health and well-being based on science and medical expertise.

American society suffers from a crippling illness, and that illness is an unhealthy, bizarre, and destructive obsession with women’s bodies and women's sexuality, especially the bodies and sexuality of black and Latina women. Benjamin’s critics are right about one thing: there is definitely a weight problem in our country. However, it is not Regina Benjamin's weight that is the problem, but the dead weight of the dominant culture’s ignorance, bias, and prejudice against the unique beauty of women of color and their bodies. Come on people, get over it already.


  1. Bee,

    I totally agree with you. It's time to educate the public on body and health issues. Dr. Regina Benjamin is so qualified to be our Surgeon General!

  2. Absolutely! Can you imagine how incredible this country would be if we stopped allowing ourselves to be so easily distracted by things that don't matter and kept our eyes and our critical thought focused on things that DO matter?