Obesity stigma is plaguing the 2016 presidential election — and not just from Donald Trump


On August 18, statues depicting a naked Donald Trump appeared suddenly in cities all over the United States. Onlookers gawked at the paunchy, tiny-peckered body on display, and many snapped photos and posted them on social media.

Trump has made a big to-do about the size of his endowments — financial and otherwise — so many read the statues as poking fun at his presumed penis size. But the figures were also grotesque indictments of a fat body: their stomachs hung over their crotches like pelvic aprons, their flabby skin seemingly meant to inspire repulsion.

Mary Altaffer/AP

The fact is, Trump is fat — and he's also a fat shamer. Practically anyone who's heard him speak knows he's called women "fat pigs" and "slobs," and engaged in a long-running offensive against Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe contestant he criticized for gaining a "massive amount of weight."

But in doing so, Trump has demonstrated a fundamental belief that being fat is something to be ashamed of, and thus perpetuated a problem that plagues society at-large. It's called obesity stigma — and it's played an outsized role in the current presidential election, for both Trump and his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Obesity stigma refers to negative attitudes held against overweight and obese people that color our everyday interactions with, and opinions of, them. Rather than viewing obesity as a disease, many Americans see it as a moral failing — a view which, ironically, makes the stigma even harder to combat.

"Culturally, we have this idea that everyone has the perfect ability to control the size and shape of their body, in the sense that all you have to do is stop eating and start exercising," said Todd Harper, an assistant professor of science, information arts and technologies at the University of Baltimore. "In modern American capitalist society, we put so much cultural value on work and effort and individual determination, or the idea that you're in charge of your fate."

Under these standards, fat people become easy targets. Trump himself seems acutely aware of this and may have gone so far as to downplay his own apparent obesity as a result. When the GOP nominee appeared on Dr. Oz's mid-afternoon talk show in September, he asserted that his height was 6-foot-3-inches, and that he weighed 230 pounds — putting him at a 29.5 on the body mass index scale, just 0.5 below an obese BMI of 30.

However, after the appearance the internet excoriated the GOP nominee over his weight. A few sleuths tried to deduce his alleged actual dimensions — reportedly 6-foot-2-inches and 267 pounds, for a BMI of 34.3. 

The latter figures would plant him firmly among the 1-in-3 Americans considered obese, per statistics from the National Institute of Health.

It has muddled public discourse to no end that Trump is both perpetrator and victim of obesity stigma. In an article published Sunday, the Root's Michael Arceneaux went so far as to suggest we should remind the 70-year-old of his own size as a way to counteract his fat shaming of women.

"[For] the good of the republic, let's all do our part to remind Donald J. Trump that he's fat as hell," Arceneaux wrote. 

Reminding Donald of his own fatness — and wanting him to feel the sting he's doled out to countless women — makes sense on a certain, retributive level. But it's impossible to use Trump's own tactic against him without participating in the same fat shaming practices that are part of the original problem.

In fact, it's arguable that fat shaming in retaliation for fat shaming shows how little we think of the practice as real discrimination. When Sarah Palin makes comments about abortion and a woman's right to choose, for instance, opponents don't encourage others to hurl sexist comments at her. Quite the opposite — when she ran to become John McCain's vice president in 2008, much of the media monitored sexist treatment of her very closely.

On the other hand, obesity stigma constitutes open season on criticizing obese people, and normalizes viewing and discussing them as bad or worthy of scorn. In a 2010 op-ed in the New York Times, overweight American Harriet Brown talked about this open ridicule many obese people face.

"Public attitudes about fat have never been more judgmental," Brown wrote. "Stigmatizing fat people has become not just acceptable but, in some circles, de rigueur."

In all states but one, a person can actually be fired or not hired because he or she is obese — Michigan is the lone one that explicitly bans weight-based discrimination. And while people usually stay mum on making fun of people's gender, race or sexual orientation, the same can rarely be said for overweight or obese people.

"I've sat in meetings with colleagues who wouldn't dream of disparaging anyone's color, sex, economic status or general attractiveness, yet feel free to comment witheringly on a person's weight," Brown wrote.

M. Spencer Green/AP

A typical attempt at foiling the notion that obese people are discriminated against focuses on concerns about their health. Often, Todd Harper said, people who engage in obesity stigma do so because they think they're making a valid medical statement — when actually, much of the current science around obesity is wrong.

The body mass index scale, for example, was created by a Belgian mathematician — not a physician — and has been debunked as a health indicator time and time again for being scientifically nonsensical, physiologically wrong and for creating false weight categories, according to NPR.

Even in doctor's offices, people are often reduced to their fatness: A study written up by health magazine Stat found that doctors interact with fat patients differently than thin ones — they often only see their patients as fat and ignore other health concerns — which can have some life and death consequences.

"This is not about somebody's feelings being hurt," Dr. Michelle May, a medical physician and member of the advocacy group Health at Every Size, told Stat of this problem. "This is about people receiving inadequate health care, and preventative advice, and counseling, and support, and treatment — because the focus is on weight instead of managing risk factors."

Fat shaming, in other words, can literally be deadly.

To make matters worse, many wings of the media reinforce and exacerbate negative ideas of fatness. According to one 2011 study, 72% of depictions of obese people in online news stories about obesity were stigmatizing or dehumanizing. Another 2003 study found that, more often than not, the few obese characters portrayed on television were considered unattractive, were not given a romantic partner and did not receive physical affection.

Obesity stigma has now seeped into our politics, especially this past year. The current presidential campaigns highlight how little respect people seem to think they should give candidates they perceive as overweight. 

For example, Hillary Clinton has faced overwhelming stigma for her body from opponents — though it is clearly exacerbated because of her gender:


Sexist swag sold at Trump rallies advertise the KFC Hillary Special: "2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts, Left Wing."

Trump rarely gets the same treatment, Harper says, but he still hasn't been able to avoid fat-based attacks completely. 

The aforementioned prank statues and investigation into Trump's BMI show he's been a target for body-based ridicule as well. Which is par for the course in this election: these two presidential candidates are among the least-liked in U.S. history. People's contempt for their policies and personae are manifesting as hatred for their bodies, in both cases, Harper says.

We don't dislike them solely because of their weight, in other words — but we feel free to comment on their weight because we don't like them.

"I don't think that people think their weight is what they think disqualifies them from holding office," Harper said. "Their weight stands in for all this other stuff, but also it's low hanging fruit."


This attitude makes even less logical sense when you consider how much eating is a part of the American electoral process. 

During primary season, how many photos circulate of candidates throwing back pancakes while making laps around the country via its roadside diners and state fairs? Presidential candidates litter the road to the presidency with plastic forks, maple syrup packets and corndog wrappers.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

But at the end of the day, while each side has its problems with the other's candidate — and one of the problems with Trump is his hatred of women and his fat shaming — targeting each candidate's weight doesn't need to be our recourse as voters. 

We can demand that Trump stop making repulsive remarks about women's bodies without using the same tactic against him. Because ultimately, those comments don't just affect Trump — they affect the millions of other overweight and obese Americans who are dealing with a world that is openly antagonistic to them.