Is Trump Turning ‘Fat’ Into a Swear Word?

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Photo: Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

The Donald, ever the linguistic innovator, seems to have hit upon a new, yet old, swear word. As John Kelly notes at Slate’s Lexicon Valley, Donald Trump has become the nation’s foremost wielder of the “Other, Other F-Word”: fat. To Trump, being overweight is a titanic offense, at least if you’re a woman.

The two most extreme examples are Alicia Machado, the Miss Universe winner Hillary Clinton brought up in the first debate. Clinton’s expertly placed debate bait prompted Trump to go on a cringe-inducing tirade the next day about how “Machado gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem,” among other colorful phrasings. The bigger thorn in the Donald’s side is, of course, Rosie O’Donnell, who criticized Trump and mocked his hair on The View a decade ago. In a foreshadowing of 2016, Trump got on Entertainment Tonight and called her, as the New York Times has it, “disgusting,” “a slob,” and someone with a “fat, ugly face.” He said he wanted to see her in court and “take some money out of her fat-ass pockets.” He’s called her “my nice little fat Rosie,” a “degenerate,” and “a woman out of control.”

The Donald is deploying fat as a sort of slur, an epithet for dehumanizing a group of people. Kelly takes his definition of profanity from University of California, San Diego, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen and his new book What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. There are four main varieties across languages, which Bergen captures in what he calls (for better or worse) the “Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle.” Respectively, profanity concerns the sacred, the sexual, the bodily, and those referencing denigrated groups — racial, sexual, gendered, or (in this particular case) bodily. It reflects the values of a society: In places where the Roman Catholic church was culturally dominant, most curses are still religious: tabarnack (“tabernacle”) in Quebecois, porca Madonna (“pig Madonna”) in Italian, in some Spanish dialects, copón bendito (“blessed chalice”).

In contemporary American English, the triumphs of equality have made identity-based insults taboo. “Gay” and “retard” and “faggot” used to be commonplace insults, but have since been made taboo, similar to how calling someone “an illegal” is now mostly recognized as a terrible way to talk about undocumented immigration.“Societally, we are recognizing, or at least seeking to recognize, a greater range of identities and experiences than just race, sex, and creed, and this includes ability, age, mental health, immigration status, and, yes, body,” Kelly writes. “As our attitudes towards such groups shift, so does the language we use to talk about them. ‘Fat’ fits this trend.”

From the way Trump bellows it, “fat” isn’t just anatomical, but psychological — it signals a personal failure. Even its euphemistic counterparts — curvy, plus-size, overweight, obese, chubby — all carry a lot of shaming, showing how big of a deal weight is in the culture, and how it’s tied (in the eyes of some) to personal worthiness. Like superstar Harvard linguist Stephen Pinker has argued, the euphemism doesn’t protect from the emotional content of the word it’s obscuring. Trump provides the case study: “We’re all a little chubby, but Rosie is just worse than most of us,” he said. “But it’s not the chubbiness. Rosie is a very unattractive person, both inside and out.”

The more that oppressed or authorized groups are included in what society deems to be okay — the less okay it is to use words that demean them. Just like we all (more or less) learned in kindergarten, one of the ways you show respect to people is not insulting them. Still, fat, in a way, is different: Tellingly, the Grammy-winning singer Sam Smith has said that he’s way more affected by being called “fat” than “faggot.” “I think just because I’ve accepted that, if someone calls me a faggot, it’s like, I am gay and I’m proud to be gay so there’s no issues there. But if someone calls you fat, that’s something I want to change,” he said. With such a culture of fat-shaming and bullying, some women have started reclaiming the word, thereby, they say, defusing it of its emotional loading. Fat “was a thing that I and others could use to tear me down,” one reclaimer told Bustle last year. “But using it as a self-descriptor is a way for me to take the pejorative association the word often carries and turn it on its head.” Still, if “fat” were to be made taboo in the way “retard” (another Trumpist reference) is, that would be a Band-Aid upon a cultural wound. “If the word fat becomes taboo, then we’ve only acknowledged the unacceptability of insulting people on the basis of weight,” Kelly writes. “This doesn’t mean we’ve dismantled the notion that being overweight, a physical condition, is inherently and objectively wrong or evil.”

However, the way that fat is different from other identity markers — of race or gender or sexual orientation — is that from a health standpoint, being overweight isn’t good for you. Increased risk of stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, gallstones, and certain cancers all come along with it, according to the National Institutes of Health, noting that “being overweight or obese isn’t a cosmetic problem.” That tension between body positivity — it’s okay to have different body shapes — and medical reality —it’s unhealthy to have certain physical states — reveals a paradox that philosophers have pondered for ages: Your body is how you experience the world, a subject, and, indeed, it mediates the way you perceive it. But it is also an object in the world, a symbol of your identity, if not your identity itself. It’s shown in how I might say that I “have a body,” suggesting that the perceiving “I” is in my brain or floating above me or somewhere else, but if you were to talk to me, you’d see me as my physical, instantiated form.

This is why to objectify someone — as Trump is so expert at doing — is so damaging, because it invalidates their subjective, phenomenological, embodied experience, and instead just views them mechanically, instrumentally. Indeed, clinical psychological research indicates that self-objectification is a cause of eating disorders in women — where they internalize others’ objectification of them, identifying more with the way they’re seen than what they see in themselves. Using weight as an index of character, as Trump does, shows a similar objectification: Who you are is the body you present to the world. And if he doesn’t want to touch it, it’s useless to him.