The conservative politics of beauty and thinness

The conservative politics of beauty and thinness
Image: AP Photo/Alberto Pellaschiar
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Donald Trump never hid his misogyny from us. The Republican presidential nominee said that Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat ugly face” and that Kim Kardashian has a “fat ass.” He called former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” and declared that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, has “the best body.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign evoked the troubling implications of electing such a man to the US presidency with its “Mirrors” television spot, in which a series of young women look at themselves reproachfully in the mirror while a Trump voiceover intones various judgments about women’s bodies.

These objectifying comments told us what kind of man Trump was. A person who degrades women with his language is unlikely to respect them with his actions or his legislation. Yet for the bulk of the election, many Republican voters and politicians seemed to accept Trump’s demeaning comments about women’s bodies—perhaps because judging others based on their appearance actually fits neatly within conservative ideology.

There’s a proven link between conservative politics and negative attitudes toward fat people. In a study of 1,000 undergraduates published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 1990, researchers Christian Crandall and Monica Biernat found that politically conservative participants were more likely to agree with statements like “People who have little control over their weight probably have little control over the rest of their lives.” The researchers noted that they had found a substantial correlation between bias against fat people and authoritarianism, “indicating that prejudice against fat people may be another manifestation of a collection of political and social attitudes predicated on conventionalism and a narrow latitude of acceptance of others’ behaviors.”

As with racism, much of the bias against heavier Americans arises from the position that a particular group has failed to live up to long-standing American ideals like self-reliance, discipline, and personal responsibility. The political right has a history of pursuing policies that blame people who are poor or sick or otherwise marginalized for their situation instead of considering the larger forces at play. And so despite growing evidence of the genetic and physiological roots of obesity, not to mention the ties between poverty and obesity, the conservative impulse is to view fatness as a sign of bad personal decisions.

But the link between conservatism and appearance-based judgments goes beyond fat-phobia. Conservative ideology can be used to justify the idea that women are to be blamed for failing to meet other beauty standards or “provoking” assault as well.

“I do think that people who endorse conservative ideology—or at least many of them—are also more likely to believe that people are responsible for the outcomes they have in life, and that would certainly extend to most anything related to appearance,” says Christian Crandall, professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas and co-author of the 1990 study on ideology and anti-fat attitudes.

Case in point: Trump’s evidence that he did not assault businesswoman Jessica Leeds is Leeds’ own appearance. “She would not be my first choice, that I can tell you,” he said at a North Carolina rally. The implication is that only women Trump find attractive are worthy of what he might call his “attentions;” unattractive women are actually protected from them. More importantly, either way the woman is responsible for whether Trump gropes her.

Of course, this line of thinking is ridiculous on multiple levels—first, because sexual assault is about power, not desire; and second, because Trump’s comments are clearly an attempt to shift the focus of the conversation away from serious allegations of assault and toward his self-appointed role as the supreme arbiter of women’s attractiveness. (He used the same “defense” for his alleged assault of People reporter Natasha Stoynoff.) The fact that Trump sets the standards of beauty is supposed to make those standards infallible. Even being crowned a beauty queen isn’t enough; Trump could at any time decide she’s not pretty enough and punish her for it.

Indeed, Trump’s authoritarian appeal may have helped him get away with his derogatory comments about women. In his study, Crandall found a significant correlation between fat bias and agreement with statements like, “Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, and corrupt people.” If conservative policies attempt to put a genteel spin on blaming people for their circumstances, authoritarianism does so with a cudgel.

This is because, in the authoritarian mindset, there’s ultimately a right way and a wrong way to exist. The “right” way encompasses the 1950s Hollywood stereotype of what made America great—hardworking, attractive white men, supported by dedicated, attractive white wives. Most other kinds of people are living the “wrong” way. Applied to something like race, only the most extreme racists would openly say that being black makes one “wrong”; instead, authoritarians use arguments about crime rates and public assistance to make the same point. But when the “wrong” trait is something that’s seen as malleable, such as weight or one’s willingness to spend more time and money on hair and makeup to look more conventionally attractive, the trait in itself becomes deviant.

“An authoritarian person likes strong, dominant leaders,” says Crandall. “People who process the world in a shallow way can like authoritarian leaders—‘at least Putin has respect’—and this shallowness in thinking seems typical of Trump’s positions, with a few exceptions in the area of his expertise.” Trump’s supporters often cite his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality as being central to his appeal, something that goes hand in hand with believing someone’s appearance is indicative of their character. We often characterize an undue emphasis on appearances as being shallow, but authoritarians can see shallowness as a benefit.

With support for authoritarianism being the number-one predictor of Trump support, it’s easy to imagine why many fans might support his candidate’s misogyny. It emphasizes his unwillingness to bow to what he might term “political correctness,” which asserts his rogue dominance. Reducing women to their bodies eliminates the possibility that they might threaten authoritarian regimes while establishing a certain version of order. And if order is more important to you than any other metric, treating women as dolls becomes a righteous tactic.

All of which may help explain why so many Republicans in general, and Trump’s avid supporters in particular, have gone along with his past comments about women. One of the core beliefs of the GOP is that Americans get what they “deserve.” If someone is poor, it’s because they’re lazy, and therefore they deserve to be dismissed. If someone is fat, it’s because they lack discipline, and therefore they deserve to be shamed. And the allegations against Trump, along with his insults directed at the likes of Rosie O’Donnell and Alicia Machado, suggest an underlying belief in women’s fundamental inferiority—which in turn entitles men to treat them as second-class citizens. The fact that objectifying women is inevitably tied up with ugly behavior should be occasion for conservatives to take a long look in the mirror.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016).