In early January, President Trump had a physical exam at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a periodic rite for US presidents in the modern era. The results were made public a few days later, with fevered public interest from popular media and television commentators. Was the President, with a height/weight ratio that put his BMI just a shade below the cutoff for obesity, having his doctor lie about his weight to avoid a diagnosis? Images of 6′3″, 239-pound men circulated social media, asking readers to make the comparison between the President’s physique and those of athletes, celebrities, and others with supposedly similar measurements.
All of this begs an important question, and it’s not “is the President’s team misrepresenting his measurements?” People, even leaders, are mostly expected to lie about their weight. It’s also not, “is the President “healthy?” All evidence indicates that BMI alone is a very poor predictor of health or longevity. Rather, the key question is why do we, as a public, invest so much meaning in this data? Why do these numbers- height, weight, BMI- and the various, changing cutoff points that those data indicate — overweight, obese, and so forth — dominate news cycles, and fascinate media? In short, why is it that some Americans, from all corners of society, thrill to the news of the President’s weight?
No doubt some of the most recent opining comes from President Trump’s own penchant to engage in what has become known as “fat-shaming,” demonstrating time and again that he invests significant meaning in the weight and appearance of others. This hypocrisy, especially in light of repeated reports of the President’s fast food binges, makes for great clickbait. It is not noble, but it can be satisfying to see the bully get bullied.
Yet this goes much deeper than the current occupant of the Oval Office and in fact cuts right to the heart of powerful, longstanding cultural ideas about American masculinity and leadership. In my scholarly work, I have traced this vicarious interest in a President’s weight to three major developments, each from around the turn of the last century.
First, the belief that one could change the shape and appearance of their body, and thereby change their lives (including one’s health, career, and family) was a relatively novel concept in the late nineteenth century, and it gained strength over the first decades of the twentieth century.1
Second, with the ascent of US power on the world political stage that took place in the early twentieth century, anxieties about American fitness to lead, both militarily and economically, became twinned with white, native-born anxieties about immigration and the so-called “decline” of white male bodies in the United States.2
Finally, American faith in and familiarity with biometric data, which began around this time, rapidly led to a commonplace vernacular shorthand where numbers themselves stand in for assessments of health and character — from 95-pound weaklings to 400-pound bedroom hackers.3
These factors combined to create a discourse we still live with today — a setting in which the President needs to demonstrate to the public that he embodies a particular masculinity, one with its roots in an idealized, white, native-born masculinity of the 19th century. The 21st-century American president must be a man with great appetites- for power, and perhaps for food too — but also a man capable of performing these duties with discipline, restraint, and vigor.
The first modern President to undergo scrutiny for his weight was Republican William Howard Taft, who even in our own era is mainly known as the President who was rumored to have gotten stuck in the White House bathtub. At his inauguration in 1909, he was 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 354 pounds, the heaviest President in history, and by then Taft’s weight had also been the subject of countless jokes, editorial cartoons, and newspaper articles for years. Unlike the “big men” who served as president in the 19th century, for whom a great weight was seen as a sign that they would be leaders of consequence, Taft’s weight was closely followed in the popular press, and it would remain an object of fascination for the rest of his life.
When several of his horses died during the campaign, the New York Times and other papers reported that admirers were donating enormous horses better suited to the job, as in the story “Heavy Horse for Taft.” The Times also wryly reported that Taft’s political opponents argued that Taft was committing animal cruelty by riding horses at all, in the story “Calls Taft Cruel to Horses: Boston Man says No 300 Pound Man Should Ride.”
Criticism of Taft’s weight was not limited to political sniping. Like the recent criticisms of Trump, evaluations of Taft’s leadership capability, especially his diplomatic talents, were frequently linked to his weight and his physical fitness. Years before he was president, Taft bungled an important set of negotiations in the Philippines while serving as Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, and editorial cartoons around the country depicted a huge “Bill Taft” accidentally upending the entire island, tipping it perpendicular into the ocean.4
Years later, the New York Times wrote that Taft was unable to control his temper in delicate situations specifically because of his weight, asserting that “William Howard Taft is a very phlegmatic man, from whom one is not accustomed to hear such talk. This [particular outburst] may be attributed to his great weight.”5
Taft and his advisors surmised that his image as an island-toppling, bathtub-breaking, horse-killer would have to change for him to succeed politically, so he embarked on several highly publicized weight-loss regimens during the course of his career. Though Taft never managed to change his image completely (as evidenced by the tenacious legacy of the bathtub story) his public weight-loss campaigns were somewhat successful in cultivating an image of Taft as a man in control of his diet and committed to his health.6
Or, at least, for a while. Perhaps the first celebrity yo-yo dieter, Taft achieved significant weight loss several times, followed inevitably by prodigious weight gain. The nation’s newspapers followed Taft’s ups and downs closely, employing rhetoric about self-control and manly determination either to praise or condemn his efforts. Indeed, Taft’s seventy-pound weight loss in 1913 just after losing his reelection bid merited front-page coverage in the New York Times and in newspapers across the country.
From Taft on through the so-called “American century,” overweight Presidents have had to make a show of diet and exercise, in a public performance of manly rigor and discipline. President Bill Clinton, for example, famously took up jogging to offset weight gain and a love for high-calorie fast food. Photographers were invited along for the jogs, to better disseminate the clear message that here was a president with the fortitude to lead. The jogs were parodied by the press and on television as a cynical show of commitment designed to mask Clinton’s supposedly uncontrolled appetite. Years after Clinton’s presidency, a heart bypass surgery and commitment to weight loss and a vegan diet also merited headlines.
American political rhetoric has long considered body size and shape fair game for assessing leadership potential, political savvy, and personal character. As President from 1909-1913, Taft was charged with leading a nation newly ascendant on the global stage. Widespread anxieties about America’s ability to compete economically and militarily with older imperial powers like Britain and Germany asserted themselves in the first decades of the twentieth century with a new public focus on men’s bodies — especially white, native-born men’s bodies — and their ability to project both physical robustness and self-control, often at the expense of those who could not measure up.
This deeply-rooted political culture has loud echoes in today’s racial, political, and economic rhetoric about the precarity of the United States on the world stage. Is the President’s very body an indicator of American bloat and impending decline? It seems that for many, it is. At the least, it is an apt symbol for that deterioration. As more and more Americans worry about America’s dwindling status as a world power, they may become more, not less, concerned about politicians’ outward projections of strength, fitness, and control.
These markers are so entwined with ideas and assumptions about idealized masculine bodies, that I can’t help but wonder at what the annual Presidential physical would look like if ever there were to be a female occupant of the office. Had the election gone the other way, can you imagine the media circus surrounding releasing Hillary Clinton’s weight after a physical exam? No doubt it would have spurred much fevered discussion, but my guess is that it would have been tied up in ideas of female attractiveness and fashion, rather than in the highly gendered concepts of leadership and political power we are seeing today and have been living with for more than a century.
- For more on this, see: Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Harvard University Press, 2009). Return to text.
- See for example: Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Return to text.
- Elizabeth Toon and Janet Lynne Golden, “‘Live Clean, Think Clean, and Don’t Go to Burlesque Shows’: Charles Atlas as Health Advisor,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57, no. 1 (2002): 39-60. Return to text.
- “Taft in the Philippines,” The Louisville Herald, August 19, 1905. Return to text.
- “Cologne Paper Jibes at American Ideals,” The New York Times, July 7, 1918. Return to text.
- Deborah I. Levine, “Corpulence and Correspondence: President William H. Taft and the Medical Management of Obesity,” Annals of Internal Medicine 159, no. 8 (2013): 565-570. Return to text.