SINCE WHEN IS WEIGHT A QUALIFICATION?…. This item, from TPM’s David Kurtz, was completely serious.

In what has to be among Fox News’ all-time lowlights, Neil Cavuto had a segment a short while ago on whether the new surgeon general nominee, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, is “too fat” for the post. Seriously. In support of this argument, they had on as a guest some guy wearing a “No Chubbies” T-shirt. Again, I’m serious. Watch.

While the Fox News “discussion” on this was predictably ridiculous, there’s apparently widespread discussion over Benjamin’s weight. I can’t recall ever hearing a comparable “debate” over the physical characteristics of another recent presidential nominee, but the surgeon general nominee’s weight has somehow, at least according to some, managed to become a legitimate area of interest.

This ABC News report ran yesterday about whether Benjamin, despite her obvious qualifications, “gives the wrong message” to the country.

[T]he full-figured African-American nominee is … under fire for being overweight in a nation where 34 percent of all Americans aged 20 and over are obese.

Critics and supporters across the blogsphere have commented on photos of Benjamin’s round cheeks, saying she sends the wrong message as the public face of America’s health initiatives.

This seems to go well beyond online commentary. Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard University Medical School, told ABC that Benjamin’s weight “tends to undermine her credibility.” Angell added, “We don’t know how much she weighs and just looking at her I would not say she is grotesquely obese or even overweight enough to affect her health. But I do think at a time when a lot of public health concern is about the national epidemic of obesity, having a surgeon general who is noticeably overweight raises questions in people’s minds.”

I tend to think all of this is overwrought, and not just because I’m uncomfortable with the idea that it’s an African-American woman generating this kind of unprecedented scrutiny (remind me, did anyone question whether C. Everett Koop’s jowls “sent the wrong message” to the public?).

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, had an item on this last week (thanks to K.Z. for the tip), which seemed to strike largely the right note.

“Obesity is an epidemic in the U.S. and growing quickly around the globe,” Caplan said. “But people need to relate to the surgeon general, and if she can battle her weight on the job, she will do more to curb obesity then all the salads added to the menus of burger joints everywhere. In fact, if this Alabama physician can connect with fat Americans of all ethnic groups because of her own weight, she stands a very good chance of reaching them about the problem.”

“Besides, weight aside, Benjamin does bring some rather impressive bona fides to the job,” Caplan added. “I don’t know about you, but a doctor who chooses to care selflessly for the poor and who has the respect of her peers as a good clinician is a doctor whom I am willing to listen to — even if she wears a plus-size lab coat.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.