Ilene Prusher: Trump is an exaggerated representation of a culture that thinks it's okay to judge a woman's body
Women have also judged themselves on a 1 to 10 scale, writes Prusher
Editor’s Note: Ilene Prusher is a writer, author and a journalism lecturer at Florida Atlantic University. She is a faculty fellow in the university’s Peace, Justice and Human Rights Initiative. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Donald Trump has been rating women his whole life. And a simple ranking on a scale of 1 to 10 wasn’t enough: he often broke it down into body parts. “From the midsection to the shoulders – she’s a 10,” Trump said in an interview with Howard Stern, who had asked him to rate the actress Halle Barry, among many others. “The face is a solid 8. And the legs are maybe a bit less than that.”
We know by now that “the man who would be President” has been more egregious in describing the women he doesn’t find grabbable. He’s called them pigs and dogs, deemed them disgusting and nasty.
He insisted that his treatment of Alicia Machado – the 1996 Miss Universe, a Latina, who says she was humiliated by Trump and called “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” – was justified. After all, he said in an interview following the first presidential debate, “she gained a massive amount of weight” and “it was a real problem.”
Twenty years after he body-shamed Machado and made her exercise before a roomful of reporters, there’s still a real problem. But it’s not only about Donald Trump. Rather, Trump is an exaggerated manifestation of a culture that has long considered it perfectly acceptable to judge women’s bodies in this way.
It’s a mindset perpetuated even at the nation’s most prestigious universities, such as Harvard, which on Thursday announced it was cancelling the remainder of its men’s soccer season on the discovery that its players engaged in a “scouting report,” ranking Harvard’s female soccer players’ physiques and sex appeal in the lewdest of terms.
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But this practice of judging women’s appearance is one that women have participated in as well, and in some ways, we still do.
Born in 1970, I grew up influenced by some ideals of feminism, but these had to compete with the images of wafer-thin models in magazines and the message that the world would ultimately judge us on how we looked. The film “10” – about a man with a mid-life crisis who fantasizes about a beautiful woman he meets on the beach – was a sensation when I was nearly 10 years old, and this concept entered the vernacular more than before. Throughout my adolescence, ranking girls – but never boys – was common.
At 17, thinking it might win me funds for college, I was a contestant in a statewide teen pageant in New York, and emerged as a finalist eligible to go on to the next level, a feeder pageant for Miss Teen USA
Although I never came across the likes of Trump invading our dressing rooms, as we now know the Republican candidate was known to do in his years of owning Miss Universe (1996-2015), there was something distasteful about the experience that made me not want to repeat it. To get anywhere in the pageant world, I would have to turn myself into a commodity. Get sponsorships, walk the runway, keep dieting. I’d have to want it really badly – and I didn’t.
Nearly three decades later, I’m troubled that we accepted the things we did, and find myself thinking that beauty pageants ought to be put out to pasture. What emerged in this presidential campaign is a portrait of a pageant owner who liked to pop in on naked and half-dressed teenagers as if he were the sultan of a harem.
But that, too, is probably not exclusive to Trump. He is just a rich, off-the-rails byproduct of a culture that makes women’s bodies judgeable, marketable, quantifiable. And, if he and Mike Pence are elected, controllable.
In so many ways, that culture is fading – or at least morphing into something more empowering. As champion skier Lindsey Vonn puts it in the title of her new book, “Strong is the New Beautiful.”
In other ways, the obsession with “perfecting” women’s bodies lives on. On the college campus where I teach journalism, I see young women skating toward anorexia all the time. Some of them are now “waist training,” which involves wearing, working out and even sleeping in latterday corsets with the promise of an altered, thinner waist. One student of mine who had been waist training found it difficult to breathe and wound up with serious digestive problems – apparently a common side effect of the practice.
This, by the way, became more popular after Kim Kardashian posted a photo of herself on Instagram earlier this year wearing a waist trainer. Here’s an example of the many how-tos on this subject, encouraging women join in, even in a “respectable” magazine like Elle. Few and far between are pieces like this reality check in Marie Claire.
In this election season, look and listen to the men and women of various affiliations – including prominent Republicans – who withdrew support from Trump after the release of a troubling video in which he boasts about grabbing women by the genitals and getting away with it because he’s a “star.” It’s almost impossible for any voter to buy his brush off of the subject as mere “locker room talk,” although for people who remain mesmerized by Trump or who loathe Hillary Clinton, it’ll have to do.
Trump’s former-model wife Melania is out on the campaign trail now trying to convince millions of women that her husband is the ideal man to run the country. While her glamor and devotion to the man who told Howard Stern he ditched women after they turned 35, is charming, I have to believe that my fellow Americans are not so easily sold.
This election has crescendoed into a seminal moment for American feminism. Trump’s behavior, unmasked, has become a catalyst for tens of millions of women tweeting out their untold sexual assault stories. He’s spawned a growing movement of #nastywoman hashtags and a cottage industry in T-shirts.
He’s getting women to cross party lines, sometimes for the first time in their lives. True, the very latest polls suggest that some women are drifting away from Clinton as the race tightens in the final days. I think and hope many of those wavering will ultimately choose Clinton, not just out of disgust for how Trump views women – and nearly everyone but white males – but by seeing Clinton as the candidate who is eminently more qualified for the job.
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We will never stop noticing and appreciating beauty. But as a society, we have moved on from the objectifying ideals of beauty we held decades ago, and are more likely to recognize that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and skin tones.
Not for Donald Trump. His notions of gender congealed half a century ago, if not more. He often talks at rallies about how he misses “the good old days.” If I grew up on ‘80s shows like “The Facts of Life” and “Family Ties,” what was he likely watching in the same formative stage in life? Probably “The Honeymooners,” one of the most popular shows on televisions in the 1950s. In it, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) often threatened to punch his wife when she got on his nerves. “One of these days, Alice,” he’d bellow, “right in the kisser!”
One hopes that women voters are going to give it to Trump – right in the kisser.