Elizabeth Edwards and America’s war on heavy women

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Don’t expect to see much of Elizabeth Edwards on the campaign trail this fall. Oh, she’ll be campaigning alongside her husband, alright. But the TV cameras just might decide to miss her.

After introducing her husband at the Democratic convention in Boston, she has all but disappeared, which is curious given that she is arguably the best thing the Democratic ticket has going for it. An intelligent and accomplished professional woman who exudes genuine, down-to-earth homeyness and warmth, Elizabeth Edwards also earned the respect of traditional-minded Americans by courageously deciding to have two young children in mid-life after losing her eldest child in a car crash. A woman of quiet dignity, refinement and grace, she is the perfect antidote to the arrogant condescension of the opinionated Teresa Heinz Kerry.

So why won’t you see a lot of her on television? Because America doesn’t like heavy women. It hides them away where they won’t be offensive. They are seen as ugly and are endlessly analyzed by armchair psychologists as to why they would have allowed themselves to become repellant. Worse, they are treated as if they have committed some crime.

This is especially true of women who, like Elizabeth Edwards, were once thin. The women who were always heavy elicit the public’s sympathy. “Maybe it’s genetic,” they think inwardly. But women who were once thin and attractive, like Elizabeth Edwards, but who dare to put on weight – even after suffering horrific personal tragedy like the loss of a child – are treated as if they have violated some sacred commandment: Thou shalt always look pleasing for thy men folk. And by men folk, we mean here not only Elizabeth Edward’s husband, but all American men who have a right to look at a young candidate’s wife and see something that pleases the eye – like Jackie Kennedy.

By now, you have no doubt heard the endless political commentary about how handsome and vibrant John Edwards is and how he nicely complements the long-faced taciturnity of John Kerry. Even Kerry himself praised his good-looking vice-presidential candidate for having “great hair.” But those same commentators are utterly silent on the looks of Elizabeth Edwards because to them, as to the rest of America, the fact that she is overweight – itself a pejorative implying extremism – means she is unsightly.

For the longest time America has been waging a holy war against women who dare to be fat. The American tabloids have for months shown us pictures of the “obese” Kirsty Alley. The pictures of her at 300 pounds are invariably contrasted with photos of how she looked when she was thin and pretty. She is a legitimate object of ridicule, depicted as a circus elephant, replete in tent-like clothes. The implication also is that she is possessed of some grave mental illness to have allowed herself to mushroom to such proportions.

Now, I do not deny that shedding extra pounds can make us healthier, improve the quality of our lives, and enhance the self-esteem of both men and women. But do we really want our daughters to be numskulls like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears who have perfect bodies, but rotting brains? Just think about the message American girls get when large women are unjustly treated as repulsive. They learn that personality, education, virtue and motherhood – pregnancy almost always causes women to put on and retain weight – counts for nothing in the eyes of men. Spending all your time in a gym burning off fat, rather than being idle in a library and reading a book, is the only way to get noticed.

Even the TV networks these days seem to hire only thin, beautiful women to read the news, and highly intelligent women like Greta Van Sustren feel pressured to undergo plastic surgery in order to get ratings on their TV shows. Indeed, you are more likely to see a space alien on your rooftop than a heavy-set woman on your TV screen.

This is also part of an ugly double standard. Weight is not an impediment to power and success among men – just look at Michael Moore and Harvey Weinstein. But the only women who are allowed to be heavy in America are funny women, like Starr Jones.

Thinness may have become synonymous with beauty in America, but it is decimating the erotic life of marriage. In multiple sexual surveys, one of the biggest complaints which husbands voice against their wives is they rarely initiate sex and are far too reserved in the bedroom. But can we really expect the American wife to be sexually adventurous when she is permanently self-conscious about her weight? It makes sense that women who feel ugly will choose to hide behind the covers.

Indeed, Dr. James Watson, the Nobel prize-winning geneticist who was jointly responsible for discovering the structure of DNA and who died just last month, maintained that plumper women were more likely to enjoy a better sex life than their thin counterparts. He told an audience at University College London that extra pounds had the biological effect of making a woman well-rounded in character and better in bed. “Thinness is never associated with sexuality.”

He explained that extra fat had the effect of boosting endorphins, the natural mood-enhancing chemical which is also linked to sexual desire. “Kate Moss is probably the most famous thin person in the world and she’s looking particularly sad. Who has ever heard of a happy supermodel?” Watson said. He also argued that leptin, which is made in fat tissue, boosts the chemical MSH, which enhances sexual desire. “Your mood is controlled by endorphins and you make more of these when you are fat, hence nobody has ever drawn Santa Claus thin. Thin people are discontented.”

And the obsessive American war on fat is also decimating the American family because women are afraid to “disfigure” their bodies with pregnancies and post-partum pounds.

Elizabeth Edwards didn’t worry about all that, and she has two young beautiful children who treasure her … even if the superficial American media does not.