Imagine sitting before a scrum of reporters while two men discuss your weight-loss goals.
They call you beautiful but talk about how they hope you will look on camera: feminine and soft, weighing somewhere between 125 and 130 pounds.
It would be hell for almost any woman, and Alicia Machado has attested to that fact. When the former Miss Universe gained weight after winning the crown in 1996, her employer and pageant owner at the time, Donald J. Trump, paraded her before reporters to detail a new fitness regimen and describe her passion for eating.
Machado, now a U.S. citizen and Hillary Clinton supporter, has spent much of this week talking about how the Republican presidential nominee publicly and privately humiliated her 20 years ago.
Instead of ignoring and denying her claims, Trump appeared on Fox & Friends and said Machado was “the worst,” claiming that she’d gained a “massive amount” of weight during her Miss Universe reign. Machado says she gained less than 20 pounds; Trump told the press two decades ago that number was 60 pounds.
By early Friday morning, Trump went on a Twitter tirade against Machado, calling her “disgusting” and claiming she’d appeared in a sex tape, which does not appear to exist. Hours later Machado released a statement calling Trump’s remarks “cheap lies with bad intentions.” Then Buzzfeed published a non-sexual scene from a Playboy soft core pornography video in which Trump appears.
The misogynist spectacle that unfolded on Twitter echoes the one he staged with Machado back on January 28, 1997. Though Trump smiled and joked through the press conference, the message was clear: he considered it his right to lift Machado up or tear her down.
Can’t stop thinking about the cruelty & disgust Trump showed to Machado the moment her body stopped pleasing him, profiting him. It’s awful.
Chloe Angyal (@ChloeAngyal) September 27, 2016
Trump, however, had willing accomplices in the media. Young people who watch the CNN footage today might be appalled by how freely members of the media participated in fat-shaming Machado.
The opening of CNN’s web story was also appalling.
“When Alicia Machado of Venezuela was named Miss Universe nine months ago, no one could accuse her of being the size of the universe,” wrote Jeanne Moos, then a correspondent for the channel. “But as her universe expanded, so did she, putting on nearly 60 pounds.”
At the press conference, reporters in the three-minute clip direct their questions to Trump while Machado nods and grins, occasionally letting her facial expression hint at anger and embarrassment.
“What is your advice to Alicia,” asks one reporter.
Well I dont think Alicia needs much advice, Trump says. I felt that Alicia was one of the most beautiful women Id ever seen. It was incredible. Alicia is like me and like a lot of other people. I love to eat, we all love to eat and she had tremendous pressure put on her with the win and everything else and some people when they have pressure dont eat and some people when they have pressure eat to much, like me, like Alicia.
Referencing his own eating habits seems like a generous move until the conversation turns to Machado’s looks prior to and after winning. “When she won the contest, I had never seen anyone more beautiful,” Trump says, before noting that she’ll attend the pageant “a little heavier than when she won it.”
When Trump proceeds to tell some of the reporters in attendance that they have “weight problems,” only then do they voice some displeasure with the body-shaming he’s peddling.
The D women Senators have talked & we’re concerned about Donald’s weight. Campaign stress? We think a public daily weigh-in is called for.
Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) September 28, 2016
Contrast that picture with media coverage today. When the Clinton campaign published its video featuring Machado’s story on Monday night, it quickly became the subject of outraged Facebook posts and tweets as well as negative coverage for the Trump campaign.
The headline of a lengthy Cosmo profile of Machado read, “Former Miss Universe Alicia Machado Won’t Be Defined by Donald Trump’s Fat-Shaming.” A New York Times story called Machado “shamed and angry” in its headline. Maria Cardona, a Democratic political strategist and Clinton supporter, implored voters not to cast a ballot for a “fat-shaming misogynist” in an op-ed published by The Hill. Even Late Show host Stephen Colbert lambasted Trump for his comments.
“Twenty years ago there wouldnt have been this kind of backlash.”
Media commentary like this was once hard to find outside of the feminist press, says Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV and executive director of Women In Media and News, an organization that works to increase the presence of women in the public debate.
“Twenty years ago there wouldnt have been this kind of backlash,” Pozner says.
In the 1990s, there was a robust discussion happening within activist and academic circles about the emotional, physical and psychological toll of beauty ideals. Seminal books like The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women and Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, for instance, were published in the first half of the decade.
Yet, Pozner says, the media ranks were hardly diverse. And even if a woman held a senior position in a newsroom, that wasn’t license to challenge sexist assumptions that framed coverage.
“That was a quick way to get yourself a reputation as someone who ‘whines’, ‘cries’ and is a trouble maker,” she says.
If you’re a male pundit critiquing a woman’s weight you should have to do it shirtless in front of an audience of women three ross deep
Erin Gloria Ryan (@morninggloria) September 29, 2016
Now women have more visible roles in newsrooms and often welcome the opportunity to express critical opinions on gender dynamics in their reporting and via social media. Pozner credits this partially to the feminist blogosphere that flourished in the early aughts, injecting public debates with a dose of intersectional analysis of gender and equality.
Despite the progress, however, “gross standards” and “gross representations” of women are still part of in pop culture and sometimes journalism.
“Its not that weve eradicated misogyny,” she says.
Gender studies will never recover: The first female pres elected because a cartoon misogynist slut & weight shamed a Latina Miss Universe
Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) September 30, 2016
But the media’s response to Machado’s story this time indicates something important has changed in the way journalists cover gender. That may be of little consolation to Machado years later, but perhaps it gives young girls hope that casually shaming a woman’s body is no longer a deed that goes unpunished.