Kirsten Gillibrand may be one of the 100 members of America’s most exclusive club. But to her U.S. Senate colleagues, she’s just another piece of meat, apparently. That’s the takeaway from excerpts of a People magazine interview published Wednesday with the junior Democratic senator from New York.
In the article, Gillibrand details a series of dispiriting encounters with her male colleagues, such as the time she was working out in the House gym and one of them told her: “Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!” She replied, “Thanks, a--hole.”
Another incident, she says, involved an “unidentified Southern congressman” who offered: “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.” The New York Post—which excerpted the People interview—also described a “labor leader” as advising her, “When I first met you in 2006, you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win [again], you need to be beautiful again.”
Gillibrand made public her struggle to lose weight after she had a baby. But even after she did, she was confronted by men eager to offer commentary on her body.
According to the Post, one of her “favorite older senators walked up behind her, squeezed her waist, and intoned: ‘Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.’”
There is, apparently, no position that a woman can hold that will protect her from men who want to talk to her like she is holding up a sign that says, “TELL ME HOW I LOOK.”
And the worst thing about Gillibrand’s experience is that it’s not surprising at all. As tempting as it is to react to what the senator’s male colleagues said, the real problem is that they felt entitled to say anything at all. Women’s bodies are treated like public installations that beg to be criticized by passersby—whether it’s in the form of a catcall on the street or whispers in the halls of Congress.
Gillibrand’s decision to speak out may have been meant to highlight the challenges faced by women in politics, but she also has underscored the fact that when a woman is objectified in this way, she will be condemned to preoccupy herself with it. It isn’t over as soon as the congressman stops talking at her. Think about it: In the interview, Gillibrand recalls remarks made to her several years ago.
Congressional employees can file sexual harassment claims with the Office of Congressional Compliance, and in May, the House approved funding for required sexual harassment training for members and staffers. But it is worrying that not even Congress is immune to this type of behavior. Which is not to say that lawmakers have proved themselves to be behaviorally superior, but these are the people who we are entrusting with decisions about how to run the country. They aren’t even perceptive enough to know not to tell a woman who just had a baby that in their humble opinion, she still looks acceptable even though she’s fat?
Of course, unprompted body appraisal is problematic no matter what the status of the woman—but when a woman as successful as Gillibrand is so dehumanized, all women are damaged. Her experience says that no matter what a woman accomplishes, she will be reduced to her body parts and judged on how well they fit some rapidly decaying idiot in Congress’s standard for “hot.”