On his first state visit to France yesterday, US President Donald Trump was caught on video praising First Lady Brigitte Macron for being ‘in such great shape’. He is then heard reiterating the point to her husband, President Emmanuel Macron. Social media quickly reacted to his comments, denouncing them for being sexist. ‘The comment is like catcalling — never about beauty, it's about power. It's a reminder that #Trump and men have power over our bodies,’ wrote Alex Berg, a freelance video producer and writer. While it is far from the first time that the president has been criticised for commenting on a woman’s appearance (see: Hillary Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell and Ariana Huffington) or for being sexist (see: ‘grab her by the pussy’) it does highlight something that has been bothering me for some time: the media’s obsession with 63-year-old Brigitte Macron’s toned physique – and in particular, her legs.
There have been increasing column inches dedicated to Brigitte’s toned pins since her husband was victorious in the French election. American Vogue has an article titled ‘Brigitte Macron’s jaw-dropping legs prove that, in France, age is just a number’, while The Express shouts ‘Brigitte Macron flashes VERY tanned legs’ and The Telegraph writes about how ‘Brigitte Macron has made the miniskirt an ageless style staple’. There is one thing that unifies all of these pieces: the obsession with how Macron’s gym-honed limbs somehow defy her status as an ‘older’ woman.
Of course, this fascination is tied to the media’s interest in the age difference between the new French President and his wife, who is 24 years his senior. When the couple first stepped into the spotlight, people were completed transfixed with their relationship: why would a young, attractive, powerful man be interested in an older woman? There were rumours that the president was secretly homosexual - something Macron powerfully denounced, saying: ‘There is a big problem with the presentation of society and [how they see] the place of women.’ So how has the media remedied the supposedly mind-fuddling inverse age gap? By focusing on how young Brigitte looks.
Society today has a worrying fixation on women ‘looking young’. We’re constantly surrounded by advertisements promising magical creams that will prevent, stop or remove ‘the signs of ageing’ and shown airbrushed images of wrinkle-free women in magazines. Some people say that Hollywood stars like Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez look the same or better now than they did 20 years ago, while others, like Nicole Kidman or Renee Zellweger, have been criticised for going ‘too far’ in their surgical quest for youth. This focus on Brigitte’s legs is just the latest example of that.
Aside from the age issue, it’s also about status. After all, being ‘in shape’ after ‘a certain age’ is the ultimate signifier of wealth. Women today are relentlessly ‘promised’ that they can have it all – and having it all – aka a high-power job, a loving family and a healthy, strong body – is usually only accessible to a very small number of people who are financially well off enough to maintain it. Just look at Gwyneth Paltrow. The reason so many people take issue with her is because she claims that being Gwyneth is easy – it’s just a case of eating healthily and exercising – but the very products she consumes and the lifestyle she encourages are ludicrously out of reach for most normal cash and time poor people. Our interest in her body stems from the fact that it’s aspirational – just like Brigitte’s legs. Of course, if 63-year-old Brigitte didn’t have an athletic body, the media (and no doubt Trump) would probably be making snide remarks about that.
All of this reminds me of the fascination with former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s arms: just a cursory Google brings up over 3 million search results. Why is it that the media is so quick to reduce our First Ladies to their limbs? Indeed, The New York Times once described ‘Michelle Obama’s sculpted biceps’ as ‘the only bracing symbol of American strength right now.’ Her arms. There is definitely a sexist undertone to some of the coverage of Brigitte’s miniskirts that feels similar to some of the outrage targeted at Michelle’s arms – she was famously told to ‘cover them up’ by The Daily Beast and Conservative critics were outraged by her exercising as 'un-First-Lady-like behaviour'. Another recent example is of course that photograph of our PM Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the cover of The Sun which was splashed with the headline ‘Legs-It’. Would Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s six-pack get the same fetishisation? It seems unlikely somehow.