Body Fat and American Presidents

On last night’s episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert interviewed Amy Farrell, Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dickinson College, and author of the newly published book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. Here is an excerpt from the summary of the book on Amazon:

“Tracing the cultural denigration of fatness to the mid 19th century, Amy Farrell argues that the stigma associated with a fat body preceded any health concerns about a large body size. Firmly in place by the time the diet industry began to flourish in the 1920s, the development of fat stigma was related not only to cultural anxieties that emerged during the modern period related to consumer excess, but, even more profoundly, to prevailing ideas about race, civilization and evolution. For 19th and early 20th century thinkers, fatness was a key marker of inferiority, of an uncivilized, barbaric, and primitive body. This idea—that fatness is a sign of a primitive person—endures today, fueling both our $60 billion “war on fat” and our cultural distress over the “obesity epidemic.””

During Farrell’s interview, she discussed the fat stigma in the context of the American presidency. She suggested that nowadays the fat stigma makes it difficult for an overweight person to win the US Presidency. So I was curious if body weight has influenced Presidential elections in the last hundred years. To see if this is the case, I decided to compare the bodyweights of successful Presidential candidates to the bodyweights of unsuccessful candidates, and assess whether there is a systematic bias against larger candidates. However, I was concerned about whether this was a good way to assess body weight’s influence. If parties are strategic, they will both choose candidates that appear healthy and thin, eliminating the effect of body weight. Hence I decided to also compare the body weights of candidates overtime to see whether candidates have gotten thinner, assuming that if body weight mattered, parties would choose thinner candidates.

In order to measure a Presidential candidate’s weight, I used the body mass index (BMI). BMI is a measure of body fat based on height. High values indicate someone is overweight for their height, while low values indicate someone is underweight for their height. I used data collected by the New York Times to calculate every Presidential candidate’s BMI from 1896 to 2008. I post the data below. Yellow boxes in the table indicate who the heavier candidate was.

First, although there seemed to be a systematic bias against heavier Presidential candidates from 1912 to 1984, that bias seems to have disappeared. The heavier Presidential candidate has won five out of the last six elections. Second, Presidential candidates on average did get thinner after the 1920s. However, ever since, the average BMI has seems to have held steady, fluctuating around the 25 mark. These observations suggest that weight may have played a role in Presidential elections throughout the 20th century, as Presidential candidates became thinner and thinner candidates usually won elections. Furthermore, nowadays weight may still play a role in elections, as Presidential candidates remain to be relatively thin. However, weight’s role may have diminished as heavier candidates have been able to win in the last 20 years. (Obviously these differences are based on observation only- it would be interesting to see if the observed effect of weight on winning office held up in a large N statistical analysis).



About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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