By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
In a recent text-ersation with my sister-in law, journalist Katie Hafner, we began discussing the recent story about Trump body bashing Alicia Machado. When we realized our texts had turned into a full-blown Q and A (thanks to voice recognition and my soap box!), we decided to share it in the hopes of keeping this important conversation going. May we all take a good look and a solid stand against body discrimination.
KH: Was the debate the other night the first you had heard about the Miss Universe incident?
AW: I’ve heard of Trump insulting people for years and I’d read about his shaming Alicia Machado about her weight in the past. I call it “fat chat” and he is one of the leaders of fat chatting in our culture.
KH: How do you define “fat chat?”
AW: I define fat chat as speaking negatively about one’s own or someone else’s body or eating. This can include comments about certain foods being deemed “good” or “bad,” even “evil.” Or someone being “good” or “bad” according to how they look, ate or exercised.
KH: What were your thoughts when you heard about this story from the viewpoint of a therapist who specializes in body image issues?
AW: My thoughts were that this is despicable and sad. In my line of work (and personally), I try hard to have empathy for everyone, but I have to say, Trump isn’t making it easy. I realize that he comes from the same lookist, sexist culture that we all do, but to think that this man is attempting to be a leader and a role model and is actually perpetuating such archaic and damaging beliefs is incomprehensible.
Every day I work with people in my practice who hate their bodies, purge their food, restrict their eating and spend massive amounts of time and money in pursuit of a different shape and weight. Millions of people in our country are tortured about the size of their bodies. And this insanity has no age limit. I have seen kids as young as six-years old and adults in their 80’s. And nearly every age in between. It’s comments like the ones Trump has been making that contribute to this insanity. It’s hard enough for people to stop body shaming themselves, but to think they are hearing it from a “politician,” someone claiming to be fair enough and fit to run our country?
KH: What did you think after watching the video in which she speaks about the entire incident?
AW: I think it’s tragic that the incident took place at all but equally important that the conversation about it in the media caught on so quickly and so many people are speaking out about the importance of body appreciation and acceptance. There’s been a lot of forward movement in recent years with more and more awareness and education on eating disorders, and the Health at Every Size movement. I know we still have a long way to go, but body image activists are speaking out more and the movement toward body acceptance and body love is becoming more mainstream than ever before. I hope Alicia found it empowering and healing to share some of her story and I hope she can see how it sparked an important public conversation.
KH: Were you surprised when she said that the entire episode gave her an eating disorder?
AW: Not at all. While we are all at risk, given the extremely perfectionistic, image-obsessed culture we live in, every single person I have treated with an eating disorder has had personal experiences that led them astray. Most people who suffer from an eating disorder can tell you the specific moment or moments when someone called them a name or told them to lose weight or commented negatively on their shape, weight, athletic ability or food intake. I call it a “dart in the heart moment.” Someone says or does something cruel (in this case body shaming) and the comment goes in like a dart in the heart. This can trigger unhealthy decisions about our own worth along the lines of, “Uh oh, I am not okay, I better eat less, or get rid of what I eat or work out more.” And the die is cast. A full or part-time job often ensues, of trying to make oneself okay when ironically, they were okay all along; it was the initial comments that weren’t.
KH: What about his comment, “this is somebody that likes to eat,” as if enjoying food were a crime?
AW: Depending on the tone and context, that could be an innocent comment or even a compliment. What’s not to love? Food is wonderful. In this case, on top of calling her “Miss Piggy” and an “eating machine” and commenting on her weight gain, it was yet another outlandish comment that was at best, extremely rude and at worst, a contributing factor to her developing an eating disorder. Of course we all have to take responsibility for the way we react and respond to what is said to us but if we can use this as an opportunity to raise awareness and continue the conversation on lookism and body discrimination, then something positive will have come from her painful journey. Millions of people have joined together to try to put a stop to racism, homophobia and other forms of abuse, discrimination and cruelty, we can continue to do the same with body shaming.
KH: If you were to give her advice, what would it be?
AW: Speak to yourself the way you wish you were spoken to. Treat yourself and feed yourself the same way you would a loved one. See if this can catapult you into deeply accepting and loving yourself.
KH: What advice would you give Donald Trump about the way he speaks about women and their bodies?
AW: If I thought he’d be open minded enough to heed it, I’d ask him to consider the miracle of the human body, the body that birthed him or his daughter; to think about how he would want someone to speak to his daughter or his wife. I would suggest he take a moment and ask himself, really ask himself what is it that leads him to critique or criticize someone else’s body? What need is he trying to meet by giving someone an unkind label? How does he stand to benefit if someone else on the planet changes their shape?
KH: What can each of us do differently to help turn the tide of body obsession and body bashing?
AW: Stop Fat Chat. Let’s all make an effort to stop talking about how “fat” we feel or how “good” or “bad” we are according to how much we ate or exercised. Stop commenting on other people’s bodies and insulting our own. Try saying things like “It’s great to see you,” instead of “You lost weight. You look great!” Stop dieting (in reality or mentality). If we all change the club rules to eating real food when we are really hungry (to the best of our ability), we can turn the tide of thinking that certain foods are morally good or bad. Make a true attempt to listen to your bodies’ natural needs for movement and rest. Refuse to buy magazines and go to sites that feature emaciated models. If you see your child restricting their food intake due to fear of food, over-exercising or fat chatting, take action and intervene the same way you would if they started using drugs. Stop telling and laughing at fat jokes. Fat jokes and fat chat cause shame for people that are large and fear for people that are not. Let’s all commit to finding sweetness and fulfillment in our lives, even in the smallest of ways, rather than only from excess food or the fantasy of weight loss and let’s teach this to our kids. May we all live healthily after.