One of the odder moments of Monday’s presidential debate came when Donald Trump speculated that the DNC had been hacked not by Russia but by “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” He was trying to suggest the crime had been committed by someone unaffiliated with a government—but why bring up fatness?
Weight seems to be one of Trump’s preoccupations. The debate and its fallout highlighted how he publicly ridiculed the Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and an “eating machine,” and how he called Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig” with “a fat, ugly face” (“I think everyone would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her,” he said onstage Monday). He also recently poked fun at his ally Chris Christie’s weight-loss struggles and called out a protestor as “seriously overweight.” And when he was host of The Apprentice, he insisted on keeping a “funny fat guy” on the show, according to one of its producers.
On Dr. Oz recently, Mehmet Oz told Trump that his body-mass index is high for his height and Trump said he’d like to lose some pounds.
Looking for some historical context for Trump’s comments on weight, on Tuesday I spoke with Amy Farrell, the author of the 2011 book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. She is a professor of American studies and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Dickinson College. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: I was struck by how much the topic of weight was part of the debate: There was the 400-pound hacker, Rosie O’Donnell, and Alicia Machado. Why do you think this keeps coming up this election?
Amy Farrell: Trump is definitely a bully, and we know that fat-shaming is the most typical reason a child will be bullied. So he’s picking up on a typical playground tactic. And it’s really connected to our ideas about sex and gender, race, and sexuality. His specialty is to insult, and fat shaming is a rhetorical move that’s far reaching, prevalent, and an easily understood way to degrade people.
Kornhaber: A couple of weeks ago he was on Dr. Oz and it came up that he was overweight. Do you think he’s immune from the same standard that he’s holding other people to?
Farrell: The Dr. Oz example was interesting on a number of fronts. I’m not a medical doctor but in terms of my researching the scientific studies about weight and my expertise—which is more cultural—Dr. Oz himself was off. We know that actually the nuanced information about weight is much more complex than saying, “You’re fat, lose weight and that will take care of your problems.” Exercise and eating well correlates with health, not necessarily weight.
Does Trump seem to be immune himself, considering that he’s wielding “fat” as a weapon even though we wouldn’t look at him and necessarily see a thin person? There’s certainly a double standard. It’s not that men aren’t criticized for being fat or don’t face repercussions about fatness. We know that Chris Christie had weight-loss surgery in order to make himself seem more politically able.
But there’s much more of an allowance for a man to be fat than there is for a woman. Studies are pretty clear that a man can be much larger and be perceived as [just] a “big man,” and a woman gaining some weight very quickly moves into the category of being fat and undesirable.
I think that there’s some level of the image of the “fat cat” that Trump is relying on. The fat cat wasn’t necessarily likable, but he was seen as powerful and able. So he gets a bye in that way. [In The New Yorker] Calvin Trillin did a pretty fatphobic but biting account of whether Trump is actually wearing a corset to hide his weight. I think that Trillin was picking up on that double standard in writing that.
Kornhaber: The issue of weight was brought up in the debates in part by Hillary mentioning Trump’s previous comments. She’s treating them as if they are a political liability. Back when Trump was judging Miss Universe, when he made some of the most egregious statements, it was the ’90s. Is she right to be thinking that people’s attitudes have changed?
Farrell: It’s an interesting question as to whether or not she’s actually dipping into dangerous waters by pointing out how fatphobic he is. I think she’s right on. It’s not as if we’ve moved into a world where there’s no fatphobia, but I think she is recognizing the extent to which “fat” gets used as an insult against anyone who steps out of line.
It’s in the same way the term “lesbian” would have once been used to critique any woman who spoke up for herself, who seemed to be making a claim for a certain level of rights. There were two [defensive] tactics that powerful women used. One was to say, “We’re not, and we have nothing to do with lesbians actually.” All that does is divide people, make lesbians angry, and make it even more scary for a woman to be identified as a lesbian. The other tactic was to say, “Quit calling me a lesbian, we might or might not be lesbians. To be called a lesbian doesn’t mean we’re a lesser person than someone who is straight.”
I think she’s choosing the latter tactic there, to say, “You’re throwing out these insults, I’m going to stand with my sisters here who may be thin or fat. I’m taking the sting out of this by saying I just find you really reprehensible for trying to insult this way.” She’s using that tactic of solidarity.
Have things changed? I do think that Hillary Clinton is tapping into the fact that there [have been] many people working since the latter part of the ’60s to make a space for fat people. The New York Times just had an article on how poorly fat people are treated in medical settings. The fat-activist movement is making inroads, there’s a constituency out there who knows these kind of tricks and is done with that: “We’re not going to be treated as second-class citizens anymore.”
Kornhaber: In the ’90s, Trump criticized Alicia Machado’s weight as a violation of the contest, saying, “When you win a beauty pageant, people don't think you're going to go from 118 to 160 in less than a year, and you really have an obligation to stay in a perfect physical state." Last night, Hillary implied there was something negative about Trump’s connection to beauty pageants in general—what do you make of that?
Farrell: I thought Hillary was walking a fine line, because it’s a problem for her to say that it’s bad to be in a beauty pageant. Lots of women are in beauty pageants, or enjoy them. But I think what she’s alluding to is that his only use for women is that they’re beautiful. She’s saying women are more than what we look like. So even if someone isn’t necessarily beautiful, they’re a real person.
Trump’s insults are really about fearmongering for women. [The implication is] that women need to live up to a certain kind of standard, and if one doesn’t they are deserving of insults, threats of violence, of sexual assault, whether symbolic or real. That has been a tactic used for the last 150 years. Cartoons against the suffragists showed them as turning into animals; white suffragists turning into black people, using the presumption that blackness was bad; and them turning into fat people. So he’s just drawing on a long tradition of mocking women if they don’t satisfy a particular kind of standard that is pleasing to him as a powerful white man.
Kornhaber: The incredible thing he said about Rosie O’Donnell last night was that no one could disagree with him about what he said about her—as if there was a universal standard under which she could be written off completely.
Farrell: Right, and also what was her great crime? It was disagreeing with him. And she’s an outspoken woman who also makes people laugh, which makes her particularly hated. The mockery of him he can’t stand, and so the only response back is to say she’s really like an animal, out of control, ugly, etc.
Kornhaber: The gender double standard is clear, but for many people his hacker comment probably brings to mind a man. I was reading an interview with an Apprentice producer who said that Trump always wanted to keep a fat man on the cast so people could laugh at him. He’s also made fun of Chris Christie’s struggles with weight, right in front of Chris Christie. What does it mean for a man to be making fun of other men’s weight?
Farrell: There have been some interesting cultural analyses that have been done of representations of fat men. The fat man can be the everyman who everyone can identify with and isn’t threatening. Often he’s a humorous character: easy to mock but maybe quite likable, too.
But that also slides into a man who’s perceived as not being sufficiently masculine. Not being sufficiently strong. Not sufficiently male, really. So I think when he mocks other men for being fat, it’s like the alpha male kicking the other men who aren’t as great of a man as he is.
When he said [the hacker] could just be “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” we don’t know if he was thinking about a man or a woman. But my sense was that he was imagining a man. I think that was just a statement that he could be some kind of loser who snuck into the DNC because we don’t have the cyber security we were supposed to be having. [Weight] was a quick way to paint a loser.
Kornhaber: What role has weight played in presidential politics before?
Farrell: Grover Cleveland was really mocked for his weight, Howard Taft was mocked for his weight. I’ve written about the fact that I find it unsurprising that the Obamas have been very concerned about weight because weight is a way to signal being civilized, being the most professional. When Bill Clinton started to gain weight, he was made fun of—that was like, “See, he’s out of control with his weight and his sexuality.”
So weight has certainly played a part before. What’s new is that I don’t have any records of any presidential candidates going around just mocking fat people. Or calling women fat, at least publicly.
When Trump said, “Hillary Clinton doesn’t look presidential”—he denied it then last night—that was actually a really interesting phase, because she doesn’t. We’ve only had male presidents, so when we think of presidents we think of male. She doesn’t look like a man, she looks like a woman. So he was getting to that whole issue of body politics there. Obviously I’m not saying she doesn’t look presidential, but I’m saying body, body weight, body size, skin color, sexuality are all things that have been attributes about whether or not someone is “looking presidential” or not.
Kornhaber: Any other thoughts on this topic?
Farrell: I’m very unhappy that Trump has said those things but I am glad it has given us an opportunity as a culture really to look directly at what fat denigration means to people—for us to get this on the table so it’s not something that’s hidden and hurting people but something that we can address and challenge. Last night when Hillary had the last minutes to speak, she made sure she included [Alicia Machado]. Knowing that she’s a careful debater and practiced, it wasn’t something that just popped out of her mouth.