One of the most striking moments of Monday night’s presidential debate came in the form of an anecdote towards the end.
Hillary Clinton went after Donald Trump’s well-documented history of misogyny, including his penchant for calling women “pigs, slobs and dogs,” his distaste for pregnant women, and his concerning comments about equal pay. She also brought up one woman’s firsthand experience with Trump: former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
“One of the worst things [Donald Trump] said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” recounted Clinton. “He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado, and she has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”
The Clinton campaign followed up the debate by releasing a video (seen below) of Machado talking about her interactions with Trump, and the way his body-shaming ― he invited reporters to watch her work out after she gained weight during her tenure as Miss Universe ― impacted her life after she left the pageant world.
“I felt really bad, like a lab rat,” Machado says in the video. “Long after, I was sick with eating disorders. I wouldn’t eat, and would still see myself as fat, because a powerful man had said so.”
Machado’s story struck a chord. Within 24 hours, Cosmopolitan and The Guardian had profiled her. Cosmo declared, “Former Miss Universe Alicia Machado Won’t Be Defined by Donald Trump’s Fat-Shaming.” Fusion even dug into the media’s coverage of Machado’s public workout, and discovered the same sort of fat-shaming commentary that Trump subjected Machado to.
But instead of expressing remorse about his past actions, Trump went on “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday morning and doubled down on his body-shaming of Machado. “She was the worst we ever had,” he said. “She was the winner, and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” (Trump is nothing if not consistent about his distaste for women who don’t meet his personal barometer for female attractiveness.)
Historically, comments about women being ugly, fat or like an animal ― dogs, pigs etc. ― have been ways to keep women in line. Amy E. Farrell, Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dickinson College
Words matter ― and Trump’s words about women and their bodies are no exception. After all, research has shown that not only does fat-shaming not help people lose weight, it can actually contribute to myriad psychological and physical health issues.
Amy E. Farrell, Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dickinson College, and author of Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, told The Huffington Post that there is a long history of powerful men using body-shaming as way to maintain the status quo.
“Historically, comments about women being ugly, fat or like an animal ― dogs, pigs, etc. ― have been ways to keep women in line,” Farell said. “The fear of not looking a certain way that is acceptable to powerful men has been a way to scare women into spending their lives worrying about their looks. That goes all the way back to the suffragists, who were painted as animals, painted as fat. These are ways to scare women into not speaking up.”
(Trump’s disdain for women who speak was on full display during Monday’s debate, as he attempted to manterrupt Clinton, finally resorting to spitting out the word “wrong” every time she made a factual statement about his past.)
I asked women on Twitter whether Machado’s story had resonated with them ― and if so, why? Many said yes, expressing that Machado’s experience, rather than feeling unusual, felt disturbingly relatable.
“I can’t think of any woman I know, including myself, who hasn’t been body shamed by a man,” one woman tweeted.
“Even with a masters degree, colleagues and clients often comment on my appearance before my skills/education/credentials,” wrote another.
And it’s that familiarity ― taken to an extreme ― that makes the prospect of a Trump presidency so abhorrent to so many women.
“If [Trump is] sizing up this accomplished woman that way,” tweeted a third woman, “how do we know he won’t treat women when he’s in office that way?”
Trump’s consistent denigration of women based on their looks, body size and f**kability is horrifying to many women voters because he seems to embody an amplified version of the misogyny that women face on a daily basis. It’s not news to women that we are punished when our bodies deviate from a socially acceptable norm. But it’s frustrating to imagine someone who thinks so little of women’s worth determining the future of policies that impact American women’s lives on a daily basis.
Can women voters really trust a man who rates women’s looks on a numeric scale, has said it’s a mistake to give your wife any “negotiable assets,” and believes that parenting is only the purview of women to understand why the wage gap still persists? Or understand the complex, diverse reasons women choose to have abortions? Or understand the intersecting structural discrimination African-American and Latina women face?
If the polls are any indication, maybe not. This election is shaping up to have the largest gender gap in American history.
Maybe that’s because the contrast between the two candidates ― especially when it comes to gender ― is inarguably striking.
“[Clinton is] gonna stand with other women who have been made to feel that they’re lesser, or that it’s dangerous for them to take up public space,” Farrell said. “Whatever one thinks about her politics, I think there’s a really important message there.”