The American president-elect’s contempt for women he finds unappealing is by now pretty well known. “Fat. Pig. Dog. Slob. Disgusting animal. These are just some of the names that Donald Trump has called women over the years.” But Trump’s fat shaming is not completely gender biased. As the typical image of the computer geek is male, many assumed that the anonymous hypothetical “400-pound hacker,” who Trump said might have released emails from the Democratic National Committee, was also male. Observations that Trump himself is fat – perhaps “too fat to be president” – as well as seemingly ignorant, merely generated predictable charges of hypocrisy and exercises in reverse fat-shaming. The cable television channel Comedy Central even offered an election day diversion for bored netizens. To play “How Fat Can You Make Donald Trump?” one need simply scroll down the page as cartoonish images of the candidate grow steadily larger until he finally explodes.
All this tit-for-tat about fat keeps the focus on the relevant issues of how corpulence relates to physical appearance. Yet the Trump campaign and subsequent election has activated other dimensions of global fat stereotyping that are not reducible to health or appearance. Witness the brief but nasty election night Twitterstorm sparked by Laurence Nardon of the Brussels-based Institut français des relations internationals. “This vote epitomizes the obese white male living in the suburbs of Detroit” [Ce vote, c’est l’image du mal[e] blanc obèse qui habite dans la banlieue de Détroit]. The Francophone reaction was swift and angry. While it is difficult to discern the political perspectives of these netizens, many of their comments and/or profile images and emoticons suggested nationalist and religious leanings. Allegations of leftist racism and intellectual snobbism were among the most common responses, sometimes delivered with more conventional racist sentiments than those supposedly manifested by Nardon. One self-professed “nationalist, patriot, of the extreme right” tweeted that “[t]his class contempt epitomizes a racist, sexist and ugly female bobo who lives in her Parisian cocoon.”
Through her hyperbolic and unnecessary tweet, Nardon conjured the figure of the “Fat American” – an enduring staple of global media depictions of the United States – that many would recognize, even if they might guiltily recoil from whatever visceral satisfactions it affords. Unlike actual fat people who are often subjected to ridicule and discrimination – and who are often viewed as “victims” of unhealthy environments – the Fat American rarely elicits sympathy. Rather, often garish images of the Fat American transpose prejudices about ordinary fat people to a global level where – being identified with a target that seems to “deserve” it – they can be expressed with apparent impunity. Far from being an exclusively overseas phenomenon, the Fat American circulates within the United States as well, and is often trotted out as a commentary on the “bloated” federal government, “lazy” welfare recipients, or the idleness and ignorance of consumers and voters. “Fat” is not simply a rude comment to make about someone’s appearance, but a loaded concept that defines divisions between America and the world as well as among Americans themselves.
Nardon’s tweet is thus worth unpacking. Numerous respondents insisted that African-Americans are fatter than whites, perhaps referencing the favored right-wing trope of the fat and lazy welfare recipient. Yet in political cartoons depicting the Fat American, this figure is almost uniformly white, oftentimes male, bringing into sharper focus the figure that crossed Nardon’s mind before it demanded expression on social media. But also relevant is Nardon’s implied connection between fatness and ignorance. “You forgot to specify that these white males have no [university] diplomas!” fumed one of her respondents, knowing full well that she didn’t really need to. In addition to connotations of gluttony and lack of exercise, fatness has historically been connected to images of cognitive thickness, ignorance and folly. Such qualities are implicit in Nardon’s knee-jerk depiction of the typical Trump voter, but explicit in overseas depictions of the United States as a “big, fat, stupid nation” populated by people characterized as “fat, stupid, greedy, classless bastards” or “stupid, fat, [and] arrogant.” Nardon’s tweet fits broadly into French perceptions of Americans as well.
There is a background to all of this. Historically speaking, the Fat American condenses a number of figures that have circulated in the Western imagination, with the “fat capitalist” and “parasitical Jew” serving as obvious antecedents. In European eyes the United States has often represented the worst excesses of the powerful and predatory businessman, whose girth embodied the ability to “devour” or “feed” upon others. At the same time, the Fat American’s body – much like the influence of the nation itself – seems to expand as a byproduct of his (less often her) consumption. Rarely viewed overseas as a marginal or subordinated character on the world stage, then, “America” is commonly depicted as a devouring and dominating force as well as the harbinger of troubling new norms, projecting “scenes of a possible European future.” From this perspective the Fat American is a global villain rather than a victim.
But the situation is more complicated when we consider the slippage between representations of the nation and the lives of its constituents. Abigail Saguy shows how discourses about fat are often framed as a matter of personal responsibility or as an effect of sociocultural conditions. When depicted as possessing appetites out of control, the fat person’s “gluttony” is linked to a failure of self-control that suggests the mindless and excessive devouring of food. Yet even when depicted within a corporate frame that foregrounds the role of “obesogenic” environments and the “predatory” conduct of food industries, discourses of fat people’s consumption vacillate between the poles of agentic and coerced eating. Summarizing the European dimension of the “obesity epidemic,” Friedrich Schorb observes that “The demonization of the food industry is inextricably linked with the victimization of fat people,” which means that “[w]ithin the two major lines of criticism fat people are the villains or the victims.” Unstable representations of the Fat American seem to conflate these two lines of criticism to present a more paradoxical image of the villain-as-victim, the devourer-as-devoured.
The Fat American, both villain and victim, has made frequent appearances during the post-election scramble to find people to blame for the Trump victory. Suggestions that Trump supporters are especially fat have cropped up often enough. “[F]at, drunk and stupid is no way to go through history, America,” warned an Arkansas columnist. In an open letter to the country, the music producer Moby connected fatness to a more general American ignorance: “you eat garbage, believing it won’t make you sick and obese. and now you’ve elected donald trump.” On election night one of the majority of horrified Americans left comments on her local television station’s website. “I am embarrassed and ashamed to have any connection to the idiots, my fellow Americans who voted for this bozo. Wow, what must other countries think of us? Now we are not just the fat, lazy Americans, now we’re stupid, too!” Seeking a factor more compelling than a lack of college education as a way of explaining why one would vote for Trump, The Economist weighed in with the notion that “illness,” specifically, high rates of obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, and sedentariness, was a particularly good indicator. For others outraged by the Trump victory, the victims of socio-economic marginalization become villains propelling the country, if not the world, towards disaster. “Trump voters are the same obese simpletons that shop at Wal-Mart, eat at McDonalds, and listen to popular country music.”
As Clinton supporters engage in their own brand of fat shaming, body size continues to play a role across the political spectrum. Not known for subtlety, the hyper-thin conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted that “without fat girls, there would be no protests” against Trump. The libertarians are upset too, with one satirical piece playing with the idea that Gary Johnson “lost because he’s athletic and slim.” Such fat talk is not likely to recede in the near future. As we head into the holiday season, some predict that post-election blues will make Clinton supporters resort to comfort eating and gain at least ten pounds (the “Trump 10”), or that, by meddling with the healthcare system, Trump may make American kids fatter still. And so it goes as the fattest nation in the world debates who is the fattest of them all.
So did Donald Trump, soon to be the most powerful Fat American on the planet, ride to power on the backs of mindless herds of like-bodied people? For some this ludicrous scenario will prove endlessly satisfying. This may be because the global stereotype of the Fat American assumes that all Americans are “fat,” even if some happen to be thin. Without directly referencing stupidity, the U.S.-based former French “diplomat,” Jean-François Boittin, offered an “indisputable way” to explain Trump’s election with reference to Midwestern and Southern obesity rates. Since the “girth of the populace is inversely related to the distance to the coasts,” it stands to reason that “the majority, on November 8, simply liked what they saw, which is what they see every morning in their mirror: a rotund figure.” The pointlessness of all this is described by a comment left on the New York Times website “Hilarious to read all the fat shaming comments about Trump’s weight. Because fat shaming is fine when you do not like a person, right?”