Donald Trump knows how to talk. While there is perhaps no more polarizing figure in U.S. political history (and while I am still horrified to find myself using his name in the same sentence as the word “political”), there is one thing we can all agree on: He knows how to use his words.
Specifically, he knows how to use them to incite either rage or rabid agreement, no matter what the topic. Last week, his weight-shaming statements on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado resurfaced thanks to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who pointed out that this was just one highlight in Trump’s rich history of female degradation.
This time, though, no great divide emerged. Our response was fairly unanimous in saying this was cruel. At least, I saw no Trump-leaning journalists or outlets arguing the opposite — only offering a virtual shrug. And while I’m heartened to see so many people outraged at what Machado has suffered, personally, I’m standing with the shruggers. This is not shocking, and this is not a Trump problem.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a major media outlet that never comments on women’s weight. Nor could you argue that things have really changed in the 20 years since Machado’s weight first made headlines. In 1997, CNN originally covered her story under the headline, “Expanding Miss Universe works to shed pounds,” in a story by correspondent Jeanne Moos, who quipped, “As her universe expanded, so did she, putting on nearly 60 pounds.”
The Washington Post took a slightly more guarded angle four months later, with “Miss Universe, Sizing Up Her Reign,” while assuring readers that, “She's skinny again, though not quite as skinny as when she won her title.” Well, that’s too bad, but phew!
Fast-forward two decades, and plenty of outlets (including CNN) have taken Machado’s side. But looking at the big picture, little has changed in the way that media watches women’s weight.
“Hot Mama! Bar Refaeli Shows Off Post-Baby Body Six Weeks After Giving Birth!” This People headline ran just a few days before the presidential debate, which brought the Machado incident back into the spotlight. The story ran under a photo of the model (evidently on a shoot) “rocking a sexy piece of lingerie like only a model can.” You can read the whole story under People’s BodyWatch category, which, as the name implies, is an entire section devoted to coverage of women’s bodies.
People is hardly alone in this coverage, of course. The New York Post has a Celebrity Weight Loss section, featuring such stories as: “Up and down: Stars whose weight fluctuates” (a photo roundup comparing the weight changes of different celebrities — all women); "These pregnant celebs really took ‘eating for two’ to heart"; and “Fat kid from TV is now less fat,” (this, on a story about 9-year-old Honey Boo-Boo).
Reassurance and relief are integral parts to the few, specific narratives used when it comes to women-and-weight coverage. There’s the shocking exposure: “Kim’s 200-lb Nightmare: I Can’t Stop Eating!”; “Rosie’s Bigger Than Ever.” The admission of hitting rock bottom: “Kirstie Alley: 'I’ve Let Myself Go',” often followed by public flagellation via interview (“Did you go right back to indulging in cakes and pies the way you did the first time you let yourself go?” this writer asks Alley). The promise to do better: “Gayle King Reveals Her Weight, Vows to Start Diet — See a Photo of Her on a Scale.” The journey toward redemption: “Oprah can now straddle Stedman ‘without breaking his back’.” The big reveal: “Melissa McCarthy Flaunts Her Weight Loss — See Her Amazing Transformation!”; “How Carrie Underwood Got Her Body Back After Baby.” And sometimes, the concerning rebound: “Trying to 'hold on' to weight loss, Carnie Wilson discusses second surgery.”
No, none of these stories refer to their respective subjects as “Miss Piggy.” And none of them were written by presidential candidates. But, on balance, I have to wonder how a nation can be so up in arms over one phrase (which almost entirely occluded his “Miss Housekeeping” mention in the press) when our media is clogged with this body-watch bullshit every single day.
Trump has not revealed anything but an ugly truth within our culture (another thing he’s good at). He is a particularly repugnant symptom of a vast, internalized prejudice that stains all of our lives — Trump’s included. All those naked, big-bellied statues did was bring out the ugliness in the other side, as Trump-haters posed with them gleefully for selfies. Just ask your not-thin, not-cis friends what they thought about those hilarious photos.
I admit, I laughed along myself at first, the irony flying right over my zapped head. I’m a not-thin woman; I’ve written hundreds of articles and a whole damn book about these body issues, and still the bias lives inside me, and it is well-fed. It cares little for the particular nastiness of Trump’s “Missy Piggy.” It thrives on a steady stream of headlines that twist every new mother into a “hot mama,” her every trip to the pharmacy a chance to “flaunt” her “stunning post-baby body.”
Over and over again, we are shocked but not surprised by Trump’s success. Each time he says something bigoted or slanderous, we look around and say, “Can you believe this?” only to see that many, many people do. This is the alarming undercurrent of Trump’s rise; it’s a daily wake-up call to the things we know but look away from — and the things we think but do not say. I say "we" not in solidarity, but because I can’t deny it: There are enough of us who believe in this man that "they" cannot reasonably be called a "they" anymore.
And the more he speaks, the more he reveals, not about them, but all of us. With this so-called “plain talk,” he has made more visible a problem that we prefer to keep cloaked in concern, fear, and backhanded compliments. That doesn’t give him a pass, but more importantly, it doesn’t give us one either. Here is one of many outrageous, undeniable facts about who we are: We don’t like it when women gain weight. Just because we don’t call them names doesn’t mean we aren’t saying it. If you can’t hear that, then you’re simply not listening.
Kelsey Miller is a features writer, the creator of The Anti-Diet Project, and the author of Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life. The views expressed here are her own.