Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO: There are people who believe gaining weight is the worst thing a woman can do.

One of those people is Donald Trump, and he appears to be defending that belief rather than evolving beyond it. That’s not surprising; the man made famous by brazenly firing people on television isn’t known for his changes of heart.

But when a candidate running for president of the United States doubles down on his long history of mocking women about their weight — as Trump did Tuesday — we need to examine what that means for our daughters.

Hillary Clinton mentioned 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado in Monday’s debate, reminding viewers that Trump called the pageant winner “Miss Piggy,” among other names. The following morning, Trump called Fox and Friends and dug in his heels, calling Machado, “the worst.”

“She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem,” Trump said. “We had a real problem.”

The Clinton campaign released a video showing archived footage of Trump telling reporters Machado “weighed 118 pounds, or 117 pounds, and she went up to 160 or 170. So this is somebody who likes to eat.”

Why would that be “a real problem?”

Did she start to look a little more like the rest of the universe she represents? Did she challenge someone’s teeny-tiny definition of beauty? Did she break the unwritten rule that says women don’t have appetites?

Last week, Clinton released another video filled with Trump’s comments about women’s bodies.

“She’s a slob,” Trump can be heard saying. “She ate like a pig.” “Does she have a fat (expletive)? Absolutely.” And so on.

His comments stopped being astonishing several dozen news cycles ago. We’ve reached the point now where they have to be managed.

Which brings me to our daughters.

I was torn over whether to show my 11-year-old the video Clinton released last week. It ends with the question, “Is this the president we want for our daughters?” — which tempted me to ask mine for her thoughts.

I decided not to, mostly because I don’t know what she would gain from hearing those words from the man who might become our president — or from anyone, really. I wasn’t sure what I would say when she finished watching. How would I frame that as a teaching moment? What was I even hoping she’d learn?

She’s growing up in a culture that shames women for taking up space, and not just beauty pageant contestants. Television journalists get endlessly body-shamed. Women in sports reporting get awful earfuls of it. Authors and bloggers get it too.

What do we say to our kids?

I’m not sure. But I know we can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend it’s not happening, and we can’t pretend they don’t hear it. I didn’t show my daughter that video, but I know she and her friends feel the pressure to be thin every time they turn on the Disney Channel, walk into a clothing store, flip through a magazine.

It’s relatively easy to explain unrealistic standards in the entertainment and fashion industries. We talk about airbrushing and Photoshopping. Parents get adept at this stuff quickly.

It’s harder to explain Trump. He’s not selling a product for our daughters to buy. He’s not pointing out their so-called flaws so he can cash in on the solutions, as advertisers are so adept at doing.

His words seem to reveal, instead, a visceral distaste — serious, contemptuous disdain — for women who stray beyond his extremely narrow definitions of beauty. That’s a harder battle to fight — the one that pits women’s weight against women’s worth.

I don’t know how to prepare our daughters for that battle. I know we should do everything in our power to teach them their worth has nothing to do with their size. I know we should remind them of all the ways their bodies are powerful, beautiful gifts that will carry them to wonderful places and lifelong adventures. I know we should limit their exposure to voices that tell them otherwise. And when they do confront those voices, I know we should be their soft place to land.

And I know we should do all those same things for ourselves.

Trump’s voice is big, but I hope ours can be bigger.

And I hope that’s enough.

Stevens is a Chicago Tribune columnist. She can be reached at hstevens@tribpub.com.