It was the fat joke heard ‘round the world. Pope Francis, speaking with Donald and Melania Trump during their recent visit, asked the first lady whether she’d been feeding her husband potica, a rich Slovenian dessert.
His Holiness wasn’t the only one eyeballing the president’s diet. Recently, the public learned that the White House kitchen staff knows to deliver their boss extra Thousand Island dressing and a double serving of ice cream while his guests get vinaigrette and a single scoop of vanilla, triggering sniggers about presidential gluttony.
And since Trump so shamelessly slings stingingly personal insults tied to fitness and body type — from “Miss Piggy” to “fat pig” to “Little Marco” – why resist the urge to poke his proverbial soft underbelly?
We should resist, because Trump’s attitudes toward healthy eating and exercise aren’t a joke — they have serious consequences for the nation’s health. First, they mark a dramatic pivot from his presidential predecessors on both sides of the aisle. Previous presidents saw projecting a personal embrace of healthy living as politically attractive, while Trump perceives just the opposite.
And second, in a nation already defined by highly unequal access to healthy food and exercise, Trump’s own inclinations threaten to make wellness an even lower public and private priority. Today, if your work schedule, child care and next meal are unpredictable, wellness is at best aspirational and at worst a cruel reminder of yet another dividing line between haves and have-nots. Trump’s attitudes and actions will only exacerbate this inequality — even as they thrill his fans.
American presidents have celebrated wellness as a personal and political virtue for so long it verges on cliché. Teddy Roosevelt famously advocated an outdoorsy “strenuous life,” which showcased his own swagger and resonated in a moment when urbanization and the expansion of white-collar work provoked anxiety that white men were becoming sedentary sissies.
Sixty years later, President-elect John F. Kennedy decried in Sports Illustrated that affluence had created a physically and morally “Soft American” unfit for Cold War citizenship. This essay painted JFK as a champion of “vigor” (even as he privately suffered from serious ailments) and boosted support for federally funded physical education and recreation programs.
Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were often photographed jogging, while a 1983 Parade spread featured Republican Ronald Reagan exercising on Nautilus machines and chopping wood. Fellow Republican George W. Bush installed a treadmill on Air Force One, required staffers to exercise and told Runner’s World in 2002 that at long last, “statistic after statistic is beginning to sink into the consciousness of the American people that exercise is one of the keys to a healthy lifestyle.”
President Trump, however, missed that memo. The president’s conspicuous contempt for self-care — unlike Obama’s occasional furtive cigarette — benefits him politically in part because it taps into the anti-Obama hatred that propelled him to power. The Obamas took the presidential embrace of healthy living as a vehicle to improve society and self to new levels.
Men’s Health dubbed Obama the “fittest president ever” and stealth video of his workout in a Warsaw hotel gym went viral. If Michelle Obama first drew notice for her sculpted biceps, her legacy became Let’s Move and lunchroom reform. So powerful is this association that a Tennessee school cafeteria worker recently told me that a Trump supporter crowed that serving her child chocolate milk and tater tots at school was a “personal F-U to Michelle Obama.”
Not only does Trump benefit from being the anti-Obama, but he also gives voice to a sense among his supporters that healthy eating and exercise have become increasingly elitist. Back in 2007, Obama caught blowback at an Iowa campaign stop for making casual reference to buying arugula at Whole Foods. Soon after, white working class reality TV star Mama June proudly told In Touch that despite her wealth, she served her family “sketti” — enriched spaghetti doused in butter and ketchup — rather than snobbishly preparing quinoa.
Trump’s self-fashioning as champion of the common man capitalizes on the contemporary association between wellness and unsavory cosmopolitan pretension. Yet his love of rich foods and leisure paradoxically trades on century-old tropes that also cast him as a kind of Everyman’s Billionaire. Until about 1920, the wealthy conspicuously consumed caloric foods and avoided exertion because few felt they could afford to do so.
Dominant scientific theory at the time argued that humans were born with a finite energy supply and that the better classes should conserve theirs for loftier ends than physical labor. When industrialization and the white-collar sector made food abundant and sedentary work more accessible however, resisting these temptations through diet and exercise became a display of upper-class restraint — as it remains today.
Trump, whose appeal to many stems from nostalgia, conjures an outdated but aspirational ideal of what wealth might feel, or taste, like. It’s why dropping $36 on an “haute burger” just after overwhelmingly capturing the working class white vote didn’t tarnish Trump’s legitimacy. It’s why the “cheap version of rich” marketed in every truffle-oil-soaked steak slung at his eponymous “Grille” still sells. Same goes for his peculiar but precedented explanation that he prefers relaxing at his various luxury properties to exercise that would deplete his “non-rechargeable battery.” In the throwback image of American abundance that Trump hawks, his supporters envision themselves as deserving fat cats consuming cake rather than kale.
And yet. While expending energy on exercise and dietary restraint may be undesirable for Trump’s everyman, it’s a requirement for the women in his orbit. Of the little we know about Melania Trump, her penchant for Pilates is widely reported and a former roommate remembered her consuming only vegetables and diligently wearing ankle weights around the house. First daughter Ivanka Trump’s diet and exercise routines have long been the stuff of lifestyle pubs, and she recently craved a sweat badly enough to cause controversy by enrolling at a D.C. studio under an alias.
In 1996, Trump himself set up a media scrum in a gym to film a tearful Alicia Machado exercising after she gained what he determined was an unacceptable amount of weight for Miss Universe. A viral meme in the wake of the January Women’s March announced, “In one day, Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years.”
Clearly, Trump’s world is a sexist one in which wellness is a women’s issue. Weight control is appropriately top priority for the half of the population whose worth corresponds to their waistlines.
Unlike exercise and diet, sports — especially football — have long earned the approval of conservatives, including Trump, for building masculinity and competitiveness. The president’s apparently contradictory celebration of sport and scorn for healthy living actually corresponds to a longstanding cultural divide between the two. In the 1950s and 60s, straight American males were assumed to be so uninterested in diet and exercise that women’s magazines counseled wives to trim the fat from their husband’s roasts out of eyesight in order to safeguard the health of their hearts and egos.
By 1979, historian Christopher Lasch bemoaned the “degradation of sport” due to the “new sports for the noncompetitive” taking place in gyms and studios, which promoted bland “amateurism” in the name of inclusiveness and health promotion. (Some might consider this a forerunner to conservative complaints about participation trophies.) Thus, in the Trump playbook, sports are commendable for building manly character, while expanding opportunities to exercise and eat mindfully for health or beauty is feminine and inferior.
Making America Great Again will affect our collective wellbeing in subtle ways beyond the AHCA, cuts to Planned Parenthood and the deregulation of school nutrition that Trump embraces. Contemporary wellness culture is flawed, but has dramatically improved Americans’ lives and saved taxpayers millions. Diverse policies and programs ranging from Title IX, to yoga for the incarcerated, to corporate wellness initiatives, to body-positive activism have helped make the connection between healthy living and human flourishing widely accepted. Trump threatens to destroy those gains.
We owe our president the privacy to eat and exercise as he wishes, free from the fat-shaming cruelty for which his critics rightly fault him. But when he brandishes his unhealthy lifestyle to romanticize an era in which junk science upheld twisted ideas about gender, class and health, we owe it to each other to resist the deepening wellness divide, body, heart and mind.