Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Chris Christie's weight: Why it matters

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
May 13, 2013 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become a well-known face for the Republican party, but in his home state he's still the second-best-known Boss, next to Bruce Springsteen. Pictured above, Christie speaks at a news conference on October 4, 2011, in Trenton, the capital. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become a well-known face for the Republican party, but in his home state he's still the second-best-known Boss, next to Bruce Springsteen. Pictured above, Christie speaks at a news conference on October 4, 2011, in Trenton, the capital.
HIDE CAPTION
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
Chris Christie: New Jersey's other Boss
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Christie, a potential presidential candidate, had weight-loss surgery
  • Julian Zelizer says candidates shouldn't be judged on appearances
  • But Americans will inevitably take weight and fitness into account, he says
  • Zelizer: Job of presidency is constantly in public eye, and extremely demanding

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made headlines last week when one of his aides admitted that he had surgery to lose weight. Christie said that the surgery had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with his health and his family. Christie said: "It's not a career issue for me. It is a long-term health issue for me and that's the basis on which I made this decision. It's not about anything other than that."

It is impossible to know whether we should take Christie at face value. Given that there has been ongoing speculation about his presidential aspirations for 2016, often coupled with discussions of his struggle with weight, it is certainly not unreasonable to wonder whether these are related.

Why do Americans care about the weight of a candidate and why is appearance an issue in presidential elections? There is very little chance that the issue will go away. Certainly, old-fashioned bias has something to do with this concern.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The willingness to ridicule obesity and make fun of appearances based on weight remains more acceptable than other kinds of biased comments that are no longer tolerated. One study by Yale University recently showed that male jurors were biased against heavy women, and more likely to find them guilty than leaner women. Some have called obesity the last acceptable bias in American life.

Opinion: Congrats Gov. Christie - You saved your life

We are also in a political era when politicians are more in the public eye than ever before. Like it or not, appearance matters. When William Howard Taft -- weighing in at over 300 pounds -- was president, most Americans rarely saw him, though jokes about his weight still circulated. But it was still a very different world. In the early 20th century, there was no television or Internet broadcasting constant footage of the president in action. Other than the occasional still image in the newspaper, or the footage in the newsreels before movies until the 1940s, politics was still a medium of words and print.

Since the emergence of television, however, we live in a visual political culture where appearances have become much more important. We vote based on what we see, or at least that is part of the calculation. It has become more important for presidents to convey the charisma of a John F. Kennedy and harder for those who are not as easy on the eye.

Weighing in on Christie's surgery

Shallow visual preferences are not the only dynamic at work, however. The last half century has witnessed massive improvements in personal health. Americans are living longer and living better as a result of great advances in our understanding of nutrition and physical care. It is no longer uncommon for Americans to use a gym on a regular basis and to be much more cautious about what they eat. We expect politicians to live by the same standards. Indeed, we want our leaders to set examples for the rest of the nation.

Christie is certainly not the only candidate to face these kinds of questions. When Bill Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, the media covered his tendency to eat junk food on the campaign trail and his weight gains were treated as problematic. After Clinton gained 30 pounds during the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton noted, "The good news is, my husband loves to eat and enjoys it. The bad news is, he loves to eat, even when things are not always right for him."

Another reason that weight and other physical health concerns have become more important is that the job of the presidency has become much more demanding. As the role of the federal government has expanded at home and the presence of the United States overseas has intensified, there is much more for a president to handle on a daily basis. The massive size of the executive branch and intense 24-hour news cycle makes the presidency a physically brutal job.

We often watch as presidents enter the White House looking young and spry, then exit with gray hair, tired and visibly worn down.

As with many other high-powered jobs, physical health is important to the ability of a person to handle these kinds of tasks, so it is logical that these considerations enter into the conversation.

All of this is to say that there are many reasons why voters and reporters will talk about Christie's weight, and why Christie's weight could become a major issue if he runs for president in 2016.

It's important to note that there is some social science evidence that in certain cases voters may not be swayed by weight. In fact, according to one study, voters in certain cases can prefer obese to non-obese candidates. The studies showing this finding are still limited and, from the evidence of the presidential races of the past century, the signs still point to voters preferring candidates who are leaner.

There is clearly a huge risk in making our decisions about leaders based on appearances, which really do tell us little about what a person would do when faced with the big challenges of the day. Regardless, the conversation is unlikely to subside, given the times in which we live.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT