Hillary Clinton on Friday ran a campaign ad that played Donald Trump’s words over video of little girls looking in the mirror. “I’d look her right in the fat ugly face of hers,” his familiar voice booms. “A person who is flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.” “She’s a slob; she ate like a pig.” “Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat [redacted]? Absolutely.” At the end, an interviewer asks Donald Trump “Do you treat women with respect?” “I can’t say that either,” he replies, laughing.
The video is only 30 seconds long but lands as a punch to the gut. It’s been viewed nearly 4 million times after going viral on social media. The ad is a rare, uncomplicated success in what has so far been a hardscrabble fight for the Clinton campaign.
How did they manage to connect to voters this late in the game? The Telegraph has a “Donald Trump sexism tracker” that live-updates; it starts tracking in 1990. Trump’s public disrespect of women is well-documented.
But this time, we heard Trump’s cruel words in familiar situations. We’ve all brushed our hair, sucked in our stomachs and adjusted our backpacks before school. In his voice, we heard the words of a culture that denigrates women who don’t have glossy hair, large breasts and light skin, who are not a size 0, 2 or 4.
Women who don’t fit Trump’s mold have heard these words of disapproval many times before he was the nominee. We’ve heard these words many times since.
Not even my father’s sure parenting protected me from internalizing the hatred that other men heap upon the women Donald Trump calls “flat-chested non 10s.” Women like me.
As a teenager, I read a three-page article in Allure about how to get rid of your freckles so you didn’t look … freckled. (I’m covered in freckles, which I’d loved to that point, and love again now). In my 20s I gained weight, and I ran my fingers longingly over the plastic pages of old photo albums, fetishizing my teenage body. When I lost the weight because I was depressed, everyone said I looked wonderful. When I worked my way out of that depression and gained it back, nobody said I looked wonderful.
Every woman I know can identify moments when they’ve gone to war with their bodies. Some men I know have stories like these; many do not. Donald Trump is overweight and thoroughly average in appearance but made millions of dollars off the hard, oiled bodies of young women as owner of the Miss USA pageant. If he recognizes the gulf between himself and the women he rates as “10s,” we are not privy to it.
Donald Trump is the hateful voice of a culture that bullies women on the Internet for being fat, or black, or taking controversial positions. He’s the hateful voice of men who catcall women on the street, then spit at them when they don’t respond. Liberals refer to the 43% of Americans who now support Trump as marginal extremists. Actually they’re the mainstream.
This summer, I received hundreds of emails on my personal account in response to my opinion pieces on politics, violence and gender. These emails were from retired army generals and ultra-marathoners and accountants; the cruel ones were invariably from male readers; they called me a stupid little girl and an uneducated idiot and a special snowflake; they asked me to be ashamed of myself; they told me I disgusted them.
I made myself physically and spiritually ill reading these letters, wondering not how to be sharper, but how to be more likable. I was afraid that I’d done that thing women have been told not to do from infancy; that, in accidentally being myself, I’d taken up too much space. That I’d come across as a bitch. And I was sorry, even and especially to people I did not respect.
At the first debate Monday night, Hillary Clinton’s main task is to walk the tightrope that us ambitious non-10s know so well. She has to play perfect; she needs to synthesize a lifetime of policy experience into layman’s terms, while smiling and wearing a female-president-material outfit, whatever that is. Any misstep is cause for ruin. On one side of the tightrope is a pit of “bitch” lava; on the other is a “not serious” pool of jello.
Trump has to be average. He has to try not to sound like the most unprepared, racist dude who’s ever run for president. He’s walking across a wide bridge of low expectations, bowling with bumpers.
We live in a world where a man like Trump can tell a woman like Clinton that he’s better qualified to be the president of the United States and what matters is not how absurd his statement is, but how amiably she responds to it.
That’s the voice we hear in the mirror.
They hate you.
They hate you.
They hate you.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her on Twitter @velvetmelvis.