Sarai Walker is the author of the novel “Dietland.”
Like many fat women, I’ve been called “Miss Piggy” more than once in my life. As an advocate for fat acceptance, I suppose I should be happy that Donald Trump’s fat shaming has become the hottest topic to come out of the first presidential debate. But it doesn’t feel like a victory.
What’s largely been lost in all the attention to this story is that Alicia Machado isn’t fat. She’s not fat today, nor is she fat in the footage that’s available from her reign as Miss Universe in the 1990s, during which she might have gained 10 to 15 pounds, still leaving her thinner than most American women.
“Hell knows no fury like a Latina who’s been called fat,” tweeted Republican commentator Ana Navarro. Indeed, this is a story about a woman who was “called fat,” in this case a thin woman. This is not a story about a fat woman.
In our culture, calling a woman fat is a grave insult, akin to questioning her humanity. There is intense pressure on girls and women to be small, not only to take up less physical space, but also to know our place in the world and to not ask for more than our share. Even 50 years after the emergence of modern feminism, we are trained to mold ourselves into shapes that please men. Calling a woman fat — regardless of her size — is textbook misogyny. It’s the same as calling a woman a failure, and it’s meant to silence her and tear her down. Fear of fat, and being called fat, is a weapon used to control women.
This is why 20-year-old footage of Machado being forced to exercise in front of reporters, and Trump’s “Inside Edition” interview criticizing her for gaining weight (“this is somebody that likes to eat,” he said, by way of condemnation), are so devastating for him. In a video by the Hillary Clinton campaign , Machado says she developed eating disorders thanks to Trump, explaining, “I wouldn’t eat, and would still see myself as fat, because a powerful man had said so.” In response, Trump has doubled-down on his criticism, telling “Fox & Friends” this week that Machado had “gained a massive amount of weight,” which obviously isn’t true and reveals a completely warped view of women’s bodies. This has predictably infuriated female voters, who understand what kind of man engages in this behavior.
Our gendered doublestandard only makes this worse. Trump’s September appearance on “The Dr. Oz Show” revealed that his body mass index puts him in the “overweight” category, bordering on “obese,” yet he still feels entitled to make fun of other people’s weight. Although he has fat-shamed both women and men — and, in the case of the 400-pound hacker, imaginary people as well — women’s bodies are a target of his insults much more often. Male bullies feel free to attack women’s appearance no matter what they look like themselves. This behavior isn’t really about looks, after all, but about power.
But there is a deeper double standard at work here, which is that Machado’s story took off in large part because she isn’t actually fat. Trump’s calling her fat seems like more of an injustice precisely because she isn’t. If Machado were fat, it’s doubtful she would be featured in the way that she has been by the Clinton campaign and the media. In our society, empathy for actual fat people is in short supply, and a fat woman in a similar situation would be told she deserved what she got. Machado, however, is a woman who scaled the heights of competitive female beauty and thinness to be crowned Miss Universe. When she couldn’t live up to the impossible standards of that world — standards that she was a victim of and also helped to perpetuate — she faced public degradation. If it could happen to someone who looks as perfect as she does, what chance does the typical woman have? This is one reason her story resonates.
Fat activists have long noted that the women the media places at the center of “fat shaming” or “body shaming” debates are thin. From Jennifer Lawrence to Gigi Hadid and Kate Winslet, we tend to focus on body shaming more when the targets are conventionally beautiful, as if this is needed to validate something that happens far more often and viciously to fat women.
The reality of what fat women face is not part of Machado’s story or the explosive response. While it’s important to highlight how fat is used as a weapon against women of all sizes, and that the line between thin and fat is a shifting one, it’s just as important not to perpetuate toxic ideas about fat in the process. Being called fat, or feeling fat, is not the same as living in a fat body and experiencing all the stigma and abuse that come with it. Machado’s story doesn’t challenge our toxic ideas about fat; it simply reinforces the idea that being fat is the worst thing a woman can be.
For more than a year, I’ve been speaking publicly about what it means to be fat. As a result, I’ve been attacked in auditoriums and on live radio, received hate mail and online comments from men wishing for my death. Even taking all that into consideration, this week has been surprisingly difficult for me. As the visceral response to a man calling a thin woman fat grew so strong it might even alter the outcome of a presidential election, I’ve been repeatedly reminded exactly what my body symbolizes in our culture.
You know what’s worse than being called fat? Actually living as a fat woman in a fat-hating society.
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