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Did Elizabeth Edwards’ Zaftig Figure Play Into Her Saintly Image?

Elizabeth Edwards’ appearance, specifically her zaftig figure, may have played into her saintly reputation, which is only now taking a beating in the wake of the publication of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change.” In this delicious excerpt, published in New York magazine, Heilemann and Halperin write:

Even before the cancer, she was among her husband’s greatest political assets. In one focus group conducted by Hickman in Edwards’s Senate race, voters trashed him as a pretty-boy shyster until they saw pictures of Elizabeth, four years his senior. “I like that he’s got a fat wife,” one woman said. “I thought he’d be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader.”

Which makes me wonder: If Elizabeth Edwards looked more like a trophy wife, would it have taken so long for what the “Game Change” authors call the “lie of Saint Elizabeth” to be exposed? And would reports that she is arrogant, selfish and prone to angry outbursts be so surprising? Does a Barbie look-alike or a former cheerleader or a size-0 beer heiress — even one who, like Elizabeth, has experienced great loss and is facing a terminal illness — make a more believable villain than a chubby woman who looks most of her 60 years?

In this Sisterhood post, Elana Sztokman writes about a recent Israeli beauty pageant for women weighing more than 176 pounds, and addresses the persistent pernicious stereotypes that overweight people are lazy, uncontrolled and even less mentally agile. I think Western society has many other received ideas about women, based on their weight — that heavier women are kinder, more easy-going, self-effacing and approachable, that thin women are harder-edged, and more judgmental, vain and (sigh) “bitchy.”

In the case of the Edwardes, such reductive, destructive notions seem to have worked in their favor: They made John seem less like an empty suit, and they strengthened Elizabeth’s “mother earth” image, despite the apparent bad behavior behind the scenes.

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