Let’s be careful fat shaming public figures (yes, even Trump)

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Let's be careful fat shaming public figures (yes, even Trump)
Photo via Eater

We definitely want our leaders to be physically and mentally able to take on the huge burdens of leading. That’s a given. It’s why we insure CEOs and give physicals to presidential candidates. But if you’re at all familiar with the Fat Acceptance Movement, you’ll know that being concerned about the weight of others can lead to discrimination, bias, and detrimental health and mental health effects. So when I heard the term “girther” as a play on words for “birther” regarding Donald Trump’s presumed (by some) falsified weight in this last physical exam, I bristled.

Regardless of your feelings about Trump (and you probably know ours’ already), we need to choose our words carefully when bringing up the issue of weight in relation to competency and health. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “concern shaming/trolling” by assuming that being overweight means you’re unhealthy. It’s usually just a front for fatphobia with a shiny facade of concern for health.

There’s acceptance in the medical community that weight can affect health, but we can’t know anything about someone’s health just by looking at them. That’s between that person and their doctors. BMI (Body Mass Index — on which many are basing his classification) hasn’t even been considered a good indicator of health in general. Additionally, health issues are wide and varied and often have very little impact on the ability to work and lead. Applying this criticism to public figures (and especially ones we may dislike), opens a door to acceptable shaming, criticism, and bile that is mostly still considered okay in most circles, despite its detrimental effects on progress with health and especially on the mental health of those who self-describe or are perceived as fat. Here’s how that works, via Health:

“The research, published in the journal Obesity, showed that higher levels of “weight-bias internalization”—the term for what happens when people are aware of negative stereotypes about obesity and apply those stereotypes to themselves—were associated with more cases of metabolic syndrome, a combination of health issues that raise the risk for heart disease and diabetes. This was true above and beyond the effects of body mass index (BMI), indicating that internalization isn’t just a result of weight or other issues, but a risk factor on its own.”

And let’s be real, telling someone they need to lose weight doesn’t spark a big light bulb above someone’s head. It makes them feel shitty and want to fall back on habits that they may be trying to avoid in the first place.

I get it. I, too, want to find ALL of the reasons why Trump isn’t right to lead us. And there are many from which to choose. His history of fat shaming is wide and varied, too, ironically. But hyper-focusing on his weight as an indicator of ability to lead isn’t the method which makes the most sense. The more likely result is that we regress further back in our protections of these people with a long and storied history of dismissal and ridicule.

Telling someone they need to lose weight doesn’t spark a big light bulb above someone’s head. It makes them feel shitty and want to fall back on habits that they may be trying to avoid in the first place.

There’s proof that they face discrimination everywhere, but especially at work. Fast Company stated, “Obesity was found to lower a woman’s annual earnings an average of 4.5% and men’s earnings as much as 2.3%.” It’s hard out there, and especially so for people of color, the LGTBQ community, and those with disabilities (often unrelated to their weight).

TL;DR: nitpick Trump all you like, but be mindful when that criticism has actual trickle-down effects on all of us with extra weight and dealing with the societal consequences that are placed upon us. I realize many of you may be formulating your own case for losing weight, but the issues of tackling obesity in America has a long history founded upon lectures and shaming that has unilaterally failed. It’s time to seek out new methods of improving nutrition and public health (and keep it between individuals and their doctors to gauge).

Comments on Let’s be careful fat shaming public figures (yes, even Trump)

  1. I had this thought in the early morning hours:
    When you make a joke about a public figure, they will absolutely never have their feelings hurt by that. But what about the people around you when you tell it?

    People have been making jokes about his weight, his diet, his mental health, his sexuality (especially as it relates to Vladimir Putin.) Unless you happen to be a guest commentator of Fox & Friends, he’s never going to hear your jokes. But all kinds of people around you–people who are struggling with these issues in very real, painful ways–do.

    When someone is a walking well of #sad humour, there’s no reason to go after stuff that’s going to have emotional fallout for people who are already vulnerable and hurting.

  2. I have had to force myself to take a big step back from all the Trump news because I found myself reading articles on how his marriage wasn’t affectionate and his diet ect. I was reading these articles that aren’t any better than click bait and fueling the machine.

    I really want to make comments on his appearance and life choices in a negative way because I disagree with him on sooooo many things. I’m not going to, I’m not going to read an article where someone does. I will keep to articles on his actions, use that information in conversations about him, if I can deal with talking about him.

    I did this as I was getting myself worked up with a situation I can’t change, I agree with the above throw away comments about people we don’t like can hurt the ones we do.

  3. I agree: when you really don’t like someone for many reasons, it’s easy to also not like superficial things such as their weight or their looks. But turn it on its head – if there was a really good leader who did a lot to help people and who happened to be overweight, would you care? Would their weight have any impact on the good job they were doing? The answer’s probably no, and if other people derided their weight you would dismiss it because there obviously wasn’t anything genuinely bad for people to deride so they had to fall back on appearance, which is subjective anyway.

    So insult Trump’s policies, or his attitudes to women, Muslims, LGBT* people etc all you want as these are genuine things to complain about. But insulting his weight just implies you have nothing else about him to dislike, or that being overweight (which isn’t harming anyone and is his business) is worse than being racist or sexist. Although I admit I’ve probably been guilty of making fun of his fake-tan-orange complexion in the past!

    • I have similar thoughts whenever Melania’s nude modeling comes into play. Whether you find it to be moral or immoral is irrelevant- it was her profession for a time. Her being naked on film has nothing whatsoever to do with her actions as first lady. She’s complicit in a whole ‘lotta shit, and that is most definitely problematic, but it’s got nothing to do with the morality of posing nude.

  4. I was thinking about this when my boss (who I like LOTS) forwarded the article to our office (given our office culture, this is normal and generally totally fine).

    The thing is, there were all of these comparisons between Trump and ripped bodybuilders who are clearly much younger than he is. I checked the height thing by looking at pics of him standing next to Obama, so that looks more or less accurate. But the comparisons to bodybuilders kinda made me facepalm about how the general public think weight, body fat percentage, and appearance correlate.

    I have no idea if Trump’s stated weight is accurate. The thing is, muscle is HEAVY. My SO started a concerted effort to bulk up over the last year, and while his waist has gotten smaller, every time he tries to cuddle with me it’s like OOF because he’s gained by the scale. So if we look at a picture of a body builder who’s the same height as Trump and ripped like whoa, I’m . . . actually not sure they couldn’t have a similar weight. Not gonna claim there isn’t some fudging there, and I have no opinion on Trump’s BMI (which is often completely wrong for bodybuilders, btw), but we have this idea in our heads that fit means a low scale number which is really unhelpful.

    Also, truly, I have no love for the giant orange turd, but I do think it’s a bit rich doing side-by-side physical comparisons between a professional athlete and a politician or businessperson.

    Instead, why couldn’t we talk about that very discrepancy, that while this number seems to indicate something about his health, that his habits and, yes, appearance show that he isn’t really taking proper care of himself? Why can’t we discuss that weight is just a number and real health requires understanding of nuance, conscientiousness, and commitment to doing the right thing even when it’s hard – qualities that he clearly doesn’t have?

  5. For similar reasons, I really hate the “tiny hands” jokes. Granted, *he* seems obsessed with genitalia size–but can we please not act like this is what makes someone a man?

  6. Yes, the weight shaming bothers me a bit. People carry weight differently.

    However, I am ok with talking about the DISCREPANCY in listed height from what was previously recorded and how that affects his weight classifications. If it’s true that the extra added inch makes him ‘not obese’…I have a huge problem with that. If you are inclined to lie and fudge numbers for something relatively meaningless, what will you do when it really matters?

    Just to be clear, I do not care at ALL if he’s considered obese or not. I do not like people laughing when talking about how they don’t think he weighs X pounds. But the extra inch that changes his category…that bothers me tons because it could happen in other situations that DO affect the rest of us.

    • Yes! Absolutely talk about his compulsive lying, including about his height. Talk about his excessive need for grandstanding. Those are the issues. But don’t make it about his weight or his height by themselves.

      Just like when he talks about shithole countries. It’s not that he used a potty word – it’s about the sentiments behind it.

  7. I absolutely agree with the idea behind this article! But, putting on my nit-picky nursing hat, I have to say the research you presented regarding internalized stereotypes and metabolic syndrome is not very sound, scientifically.

    Metabolic syndrome is a combination of a high waist circumference with 2 of the following; high triglycerides, low LDL (good cholesterol) elevated blood pressure and fasting blood sugar over 5.7. It is like having a bunch of yellow warning lights in your car dash; by itself, each is a bit worrying but nothing to panic about. When you have all of these though, your risk of developping heart disease and diabetes is really high. It’s a warning that you need to change how you eat and your exercice habits, or you’re in trouble in the long run.

    I read the original article you linked to, and it is very vague as well as financed by a weight-loss pill. While I am sure internalized stereotypes DO have a link with metabolic syndrome, I think jumping to conclusions that they are a direct cause of it is not possible. Maybe these women who had metabolic syndrome feel worse about themselves because they have a larger waist circumference (the initial criteria of metabolic syndrome). Maybe they eat less healthy foods as a result of being depressed by poor body image, and so they have higher triglycerides (which, in the article, is presented as a whole seperate « proof ». Um. High triglycerides is a criteria for metabolic syndrome, if you have more metabolic syndrome you will find high triglycerides. ) But I don’t think a causal link can be established between « higher weight-bias internalization » inducing metabolic syndrome. There are too many factors at play. It’s one of those things where I don’t think research will be able to isolate the factors like that.

    (And I’m really sorry for criticizing your research. I debated all day wether or not to post this but in the end, even if this article is mostly about Trump and fat-shaming, I couldn’t just let you cite wonky research. )

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