the bodies of our leaders: mental and physical health stigmas & talking about Tr*mp

When someone steps into the public sphere, how much of themselves are they giving over to the people they’ve committed to serving? Public criticisms of Trump frequently descend from nuanced political debate to ridicule of his physical and mental health. Arguably, some discussion of Trump’s health as it aligns with his ability to perform as president may be warranted. As an elected official, and one with an incomparable amount of power, “we” empower him in theory he owes it to us to use that power in the way that will most benefit us. If the highest ranking official in our government is physically or mentally unable to do that job, does it not fall to the people to demand that he make changes such that he become capable, at risk being removed from his office? But if it’s on us to do so, certainly it’s on us as well to examine our cultural standards of mental and physical health and what it means to apply them to our elected (and potential!) leaders.

Our bodies are one of few things we tend to feel are under our ultimate control. We’re wrong of course sickness, genetics, environment, race, gender, sexuality, trauma, and so on work together to determine how our bodies behave. But one of the essential lies our culture tells us is that Wellness can be achieved if only we restrict, if only we exercise in just the right way, if only we buy the right supplements, if only we exert an iron will and bend and shape our bodies into lithe, pure things. We can stave off illness and ugliness and, ultimately, maybe, our mortality. So is the promise of the Wellness movement and the frenzy that accompanies it, driven largely by able-bodied wealthy white folks. But the perception of control and the satisfaction that comes of controlling one’s body are real can we hold our presidents to some standard of mental and physical wellbeing, taking away this one last thing, control over food and body, when the president is already asked to give up control over so many aspects of his life?

Importantly, we have to acknowledge that to hold Trump or any president to a level of health is to hold him to our very American definitions of health. In America, to be physically healthy is basically just to be not-fat. Aesthetic Wellness is in; fatness remains massively stigmatized. We hypermoralize body size and body fat and food choice. Early in Trump’s presidency, descriptions of him in bed at 6:30p eating McDonalds and yelling at unflattering news reports of himself were heavy in circulation. The food he chooses to consume is monitored and mocked, as if to lambast him for what he eats is to throw a dagger straight to the center of his moral ineptitudes. When he underwent a presidential health exam, the results of which have historically been released (at least in part) to the American public, there was a veritable outcry about whether or not he’d fudged his height to escape having his BMI land in the “obese” range. Picking at Trump’s weight and physical health has become a national pastime, an outlet for the unparsable rage we’re confronted with as our politics and culture become more and more farcical — but it’s grounded firmly in fatphobia and in classist ideas of what foods and bodies represent moral Goods (thin bodies, kale) and which represent moral Ills (fat bodies, so-called fast foods).

Mental health in America is defined even more nebulously. To be mentally healthy, besides presenting as someone with no overt struggles with anxiety, depression, and the like, seems to be a designation that belongs mainly to cis straight white men.  Mental wellbeing seems to be equated in the mainstream with this idea of “rationality” who is capable of making a “rational” choice, who should be followed, trusted, believed? Whosoever gets to lay claim to rationality is another interesting if self-evident question women certainly don’t; our “hyper-emotionality” precludes our ability to be rational. And “rational” choices are essentially those which uphold the mainstream power structures choices and statements that uphold the white supremacist cis-patriarchy that is American power. Choices and statements that undercut this mainstream power structure are thus viewed as “irrational,” “hysterical,” “fraudulent” whether they come from women demanding accountability for the perpetual sexual violence our nation supports, people of color demanding accountability for the perpetual racial violence our nation supports, low-income folks demanding accountability for the flawed economic structures supporting ever-growing wealth gaps, and so on. To be mentally unhealthy is a designation only given to white men when to do so actually functions to uphold their power as in the many, many cases of white male gunmen in school shootings and incidents of mass violence, who are called mentally ill in a way that disallows a fuller conversation about the violent intersections of white male entitlement and toxic masculinity. In our conversations about the president, Trump’s rationality is at once questioned by his detractors and assured by his supporters.

Obviously people are fulfilling certain needs by critiquing Trump’s body and brain. Criticizing someone’s physical appearance is a universalizing, accessible form of criticism you don’t have to engage critically, you just get to express your rage. And feeling rage at the current state of our politics and the person and people leading them is inevitable if you’re a person who is impacted by their leadership (many people) or a person with any level of basic empathy (hopefully many other people).

Picking at Trump’s mental (un)health gives people something to blame, a simple explanation for the complex, layered bigotry he regularly spews and espouses. Much like other situations where an empowered group is exercising their power through violence white male gun violence, white supremacist violence, sexual and gendered violence pointing to mental illness in the perpetrator gives us a simple answer to a complex problem. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that Trump’s violence is the natural outcome of someone who exists at the top of so many power structures and is thus completely removed from the lived reality of most other people. It’s easier to see this as anomalous, something alien to the rest of us and our society, rather than contend with the arduous work of deconstructing the power structures at the core.

But critiquing Trump in such a way only serves to hurt already marginalized communities people with mental health issues and people who are overweight or obese, factoring in as well the overlap of these two with racial and class dynamics in the U.S. These kinds of criticisms of Trump add further stigma without adding any real value to the conversation these are surface level critiques that avoid any real engagement with the many layers of Trump’s bigotry and violence. In addition, if our view of health is bigoted (it is) how can we uphold it as any kind of standard? Where is the line of “healthy enough” to be president or to serve as a leader? If we’re upholding a fairly arbitrary and biased definition of mental health, it adds weight to the millstone telling folks with mental health problems that they are incapable of doing difficult and important work. And as we should know but collectively seem incapable of recognizing, weight is not a determining factor of health. Trump’s weight is not what’s making him a horrible president and person, and Trump’s mental health is a red herring as to the real cause of his bigotry and violence.

This all said, Trump does seem fundamentally unstable but is this because he’s legitimately mentally ill in a way that precludes his ability to do his job, or because he’s never been in a position where he had to be “stable”? He’s always been empowered to act however he wants and he’s still just doing that. To a degree, his ability to function within the bounds of “normality” is imperative to his position as the leader of our country, and it’s worth discussing whether or not we can set levels of acceptable behavior for our most powerful leaders. But in our discussions and critiques of Trump, we need to be aware of how the stigma around bodies’ mental and physical health does damage above all else. And how in this case it is further stigmatizing those who live in fat bodies and those who live with various mental health problems, rather than adding useful context to our conversations around Trump’s presidential viability.

 

*Piece inspired by conversations on the She’s All Fat podcast (season 2, episode 8, “Our Fat President”)

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