As most news followers know by now, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon offered a peculiar explanation on Tuesday as to why press briefings had been moved off-camera (a decision since back-pedaled): “Sean got fatter.”
It was a response given to The Atlantic, and referred to Sean Spicer, the beleaguered White House press secretary known for hiding in bushes and swallowing massive quantities of gum — and someone whose job security is reportedly on shaky ground.
Almost instantly, Bannon’s comment spread like wildfire on Twitter, with none other than Chelsea Clinton calling Bannon out for fat-shaming — and, subsequently, throngs of Twitter users criticizing the former first daughter for being unable to take a “joke.”
Then came a series of think pieces on the politics of fat-shaming and gender, and whether there is ever really such a thing as a “joke” when it comes to mocking someone because of their weight or appearance.
While fat shaming should never actually be OK, the sociological and psychological dynamics at play when men’s and women’s bodies are talked about — usually in very different ways — are much more nuanced.
And contrary to the opinion of many, men are anything but protected from body shaming or fat shaming, according to David Frederick, assistant professor of health psychology at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
“Many men feel dissatisfaction with their weight, with their muscle tone, with their face, and so on,” Frederick tells Yahoo Beauty. “It is quite common for boys to be teased about their weight — either because they are perceived as chubby or because they are perceived as scrawny.”
He notes that while it is “certainly true” that women face more stigma regarding their weight than men do, it’s clear that men face stigma, as well.
“Steve Bannon isn’t alone in his mocking of a man’s weight,” Frederick points out. “Prime time [TV] shows routinely mock men who are perceived as overweight. One of the classic studies of prejudice shows children an array of images of boys who vary in ethnicity, disability, weight and other traits. When children are asked who they like least or who they least want to be friends with, the chubby kid is most often chosen as the target of prejudice.”
Furthermore, research published in 2016 by Frederick found that 39 percent of heterosexual men and 44 percent of gay men report being dissatisfied with their weight. Other findings: that most men report feeling judged based on their appearance, say they regularly compare their appearance to that of other men, and feel media pressure to be attractive. Over half of the over 100,000 men surveyed said they exercised to try to lost weight or have gone on a weight-loss diet.
“Too often people see the higher rates of dissatisfaction among women than men and remember that as ‘women are dissatisfied, men are not,’ rather than the more accurate, ‘more women than men are dissatisfied, but many men are dissatisfied,’ when it comes to body image,” Frederick emphasizes.
That said, he also points out that men’s bodies are not objectified in the same way that women’s bodies are, or subjected to having worth based only within a sexual context.
Carolyn Becker, a body image expert and psychology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., tells Yahoo Beauty that her gut reaction to the Bannon remark was that it was “taunting,” and “was a very bullying, demeaning type of thing for him to do.” But more broadly, she says, it underscored the reality of living “in a society that believes that fat is bad and thin is good and that there are moral implications” of each.
“For Bannon to pull this out, regardless of whatever you think of the job he’s doing, as someone who in a very high power government position, it was a very trivializing thing to do,” Becker says. She adds that Bannon’s comment only serves to reinforce “the notion that it’s perfectly appropriate to be commenting on the size or shape of one’s body — that this is a topic that is open for public discussion or criticism.”
She adds that it isn’t “permissiveness” that allows Bannon’s comments to be excused as a joke, but “more of a lack of awareness” that men’s bodies, too, can be subject to the same insults as women’s.
“Men have more ways out of objectification than women do,” Becker notes. “What has happened is that there is an active advocacy community out there to address these issues for women because it’s been so egregious for women for so long. I think that the advocacy movement is less developed when it comes to men, and less aware. But one of the historical reasons for less advocacy is less objectification for men.”
Yet Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD, and a professor of psychology at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and an expert on the social psychology of gender and the body, sees a more twisted tale in the Bannon narrative.
“Bannon is simply baiting people like Chelsea Clinton by saying Spicer ‘has gotten fat.’ There is no way he’s ‘fat shaming’ Spicer; he’s goading feminist and other liberal into saying that he’s doing so,” Roberts tells Yahoo Beauty. “Bannon isn’t shaming Spicer. He’s making what he knows is a joke that will obfuscate the real issues and — bonus — goad liberals into actually feeling sorry for someone like Spicer.”
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