ABC The Drum Online

By John Barron

It was back in 1999 that NSW Liberal Party MP Barry O'Farrell said, "When I lose weight and shave off the beard then you'll know I am after the Liberal leadership".

Eight years later, beardless and 40 kilograms lighter, the erstwhile 'Fatty O'Barrell' was elected Liberal leader and in 2011 won a landslide election victory to become Premier.

Would O'Farrell have been entrusted with the Liberal leadership or the NSW Premiership at his old girth and level of hirsuteness?

We will never know for sure, but his own words are telling: the assumption was that a fat man (let alone one with a beard) just does not fit the image of a leader.

Would federal ALP leader Kim Beazley have won the closely contested 1998 'GST and Hanson' election if he had been lighter? Did Beazley's weight feed into a negative perception that he was a bit self-indulgent, ill-disciplined, soft and ultimately "didn't have the ticker"? Again, unknowable, but I suspect so.

Beazley himself told the ABC in 2005, when he returned, somewhat slimmed-down to the Labor leadership, that his size mattered politically: "Oh I'd like to be lighter… the cameras are unkind to those who are carrying a bit... one of the intriguing things as I go around and… bump into people in shopping centres and they say, 'oh, you're thinner than you look on TV'".

In the same interview, Beazley ruefully observed that weight wasn't an issue for the portly Sir Robert Menzies. But of course 'Pig Iron Bob' came to power in the years before television in Australia and was usually encased in a dapper double-breasted suit, whereas Beazley often looked like a pile of laundry with a tie tossed on top.

Earlier this year, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey revealed he'd had gastric sleeve surgery, returning from his Christmas break 20 kilograms lighter, shaping up, he said, to take Wayne Swan's job.

Hockey has long been the target of weight-related barbs from Labor rivals, including the nickname "Sloppy Joe", which like the attacks on "Big Kim" Beazley seemed to be about tying his weight to wider ill discipline.

Hockey's weight was certainly discussed by the pundits when he was frontrunner to take the opposition leadership from Malcolm Turnbull in late 2009, a prize that went to the super-lean Tony Abbott instead.

In the United States, Chris Christie is one of the leading potential presidential contenders to move into the White House when Barack Obama is constitutionally required to clear out in January 2017.

Christie is the popular Republican governor of a Democratic-leaning state of New Jersey, and won approval ratings above 70 per cent in the wake of last October's devastating Hurricane Sandy.

In recent years, Chris Christie has weighed in at an estimated 320 pounds (145 kgs) making him a full 45 kilograms heavier than the heaviest president in the past century - Bill Clinton.

Weight became an issue for then-governor Clinton in 1992 when he packed on an extra 18kgs during the campaign and was famously filmed out jogging and making a detour into a McDonalds.

Then, after a woman named Gennifer Flowers alleged she'd had a decade-long affair with Clinton, his flab was viewed as yet more evidence of his excessive appetites.

And 101 years ago US president William Howard Taft was even bigger than Christie, at 332 pounds (150kgs) but that was before television, radio and paparazzi-style unofficial news photographers.

Taft tended to be seen in overcoats making speeches from the back of trains, and was certainly never snapped eating a big tray of lasagne in a restaurant like governor Christie.

Even so, there were plenty of contemporary (and potentially apocryphal) stories of Taft getting stuck in chairs and even the White House bathtub - an ex-aide claimed butter was used to dislodge the Commander-in-Chief from his ablutions.

Taft wasn't re-elected to a second term in 1912, although he did lose around 30 kilograms by cutting out potatoes and alcohol and went on to become a rather more svelte and successful Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

Which brings us back to Chris Christie. Instead of cutting out the potatoes or lasagne, Governor Christie has taken the Joe Hockey route and opted for gastric-band surgery, shedding a similar 20 kilograms in three months.

This has been huge news in America. It may be the world's fattest nation, but it is still very image conscious - especially when it comes to its celebrities (think of the soap opera that was Oprah Winfrey's yo-yo-ing battle with the bulge).

So, what (if any) impact will Chris Christie's weight have on his presidential hopes?

He has already increased his chances of living long enough to serve eight gruelling years in the Oval Office, but just how slim does he need to be to get elected these days?

A significant part of Barack Obama's success in 2008 and 2012 was put down to the fact that he looks like an increasing number of Americans - he's bi-racial with his mother being a white woman from Kansas and his father a black man from Africa.

But Obama is unusually trim for an American man at 180lbs (81kgs) and 6'2' (187cms) he is 14lbs (6.3kgs) lighter and around three inches (7.6cms) taller.

The fact is, a whopping 67 per cent of American adults are over their ideal weight, and are tending to look more like Chris Christie than Barack Obama.

Christie's effort to lose weight is now being taken as a sure sign he's running in 2016.

A poll earlier this year found just 21 per cent of New Jersey voters think a candidate's weight is an issue, while other polls have found that more than 70 per cent think either making jokes or a political issue out of Christie's size is "ignorant".

Could it be that Americans could soon elect their first fat president in the modern era (or at least one who has struggled to slim down) for the same reasons they elected their first black president in 2008?

They see themselves in him.

And if Chris Christie does win the presidency in 2016, will he dispel negative views of obesity just as Obama helped redefine perceptions of race?

John Barron is co-host of Planet America on ABCTV and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

This piece originally appeared on ABC The Drum Online.