In a remarkably awkward farewell, President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shook hands for 24 seconds before Trump left France Friday morning. But the way Trump bungled his arrival in the country yesterday was more troubling.
In that encounter, he remarked on French first lady Brigitte Macron’s body.
“You’re in such good shape,” he said. “She’s in such good physical shape. Beautiful.”
The tacky remark suggests a presidential mindset that is damaging to America’s interests abroad.
Of course, Trump isn’t the first man to judge a woman this way. For millennia, women have been depicted in art and literature through the gazes of men. More recently, one study found that employers who reviewed social media profiles judged female job applicants more on their appearances and men more on the content they posted.
Women who are viewed as unattractive don’t fare well in America. A recent study found that, while the appearances of male students don’t seem to affect their grades, female students who are perceived as unattractive get lower grades than female students who are judged as attractive. Other research shows that overweight women make less money and are less likely to get top jobs.
The notion that women’s worth is derived from chromosomal chance and wardrobe has certainly been reinforced by other politicians and by the media. In 2013, President Obama called California Attorney General Kamala Harris “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country” — though only after calling her brilliant, dedicated and tough. And earlier this year, when human rights attorney Amal Clooney delivered an impassioned speech calling on the United Nations Security Council to investigate atrocities committed by the Islamic State, some media outlets covered her “baby bump” and dress instead of what she said.
But Trump’s remarks about Brigitte Macron are remarkable for two reasons. First, of course, is that they are part of a disturbing larger pattern of how he talks about women. Last month, he claimed that MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski was recently “bleeding badly from a facelift.” Trump has often even made comments about the body of his own daughter, calling Ivanka Trump “voluptuous” and suggesting he might date her if she weren’t his child.
What is most extraordinary in this case, however, is the forum in which Trump made his comments about Macron. When the President of the United States speaks, the world views his words as a reflection of US values and foreign policy.
Empowering the world’s women has long been a central goal of the US government. According to the State Department’s website, “women’s empowerment is our priority.” The government funds programs to help women around the globe build their leadership skills, start and grow small businesses, and advance in fields like science, technology and engineering.
Trump’s remarks suggest something different: that the United States’ chief representative views women as objects rather than as forces in the world.
This is not only humiliating for the American people. It’s also detrimental to our interests abroad. As the IMF has reported, women now make up 40% of the world’s labor force and the majority of the world’s university students. If we want these people to start businesses that create jobs and find solutions to the seemingly intractable problems the world faces, we need to teach them that they’ll be valued for their intellect, knowledge, morals and courage — not their physiques.
Trump’s instinct was, however, correct on one accord: flattering a first lady is a great way to win the hearts of foreign people and their leaders. Next time, however, he might consider a different compliment.