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The Ugly Effect of Physical Insults

The Ugly Effect of Physical Insults

Debates can get, well, ugly in Congress, but rarely do they descend to the level of physical taunts. Yet that is exactly what happened on Thursday during a meeting of the House Oversight Committee.

During a discussion about whether Attorney General Merrick B. Garland should be held in contempt of Congress, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, told Representative Jasmine Crockett, a Democrat from Texas, “I think your fake eyelashes are messing up what you’re reading.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York whose own signature red lipstick has become something of an online lighting rod, then leaped to Ms. Crockett’s defense.

“How dare you attack the physical appearance of another person,” she said.

Further name-calling ensued, culminating in Ms. Crockett’s covertly returning the insult by asking the chair, James R. Comer, “If someone on this committee then starts talking about somebody’s bleach blond, bad-built butch body, that would not be engaging in personalities, correct?” (That description being a not-entirely-implicit reference to Ms. Greene.)

All in all, not a pretty moment.

As much as anything, however, the makeup vs. body image brouhaha reflects not just the way Capitol norms have changed over the last six years, but the way physical appearances have become weaponized against all genders since Donald J. Trump first took office, bringing with him his penchant for costumery, casting and playground insults.

Whether it’s calling Stormy Daniels “horseface,” saying Rosie O’Donnell had a “fat, ugly face,” anointing Marco Rubio “little,” comparing his former aide ​​Omarosa Manigault Newman to a “dog,” dismissing E Jean Carroll as “not my type,” or criticizing Nikki Haley’s dress choice, the former president and current presidential candidate has made an art out of the playground insult. With these barbs, he attacks not policy positions but rather shared insecurities, rooted deep in old gender politics and stereotypes. It’s like a wormhole back to middle school, and everyone can relate.

Which also makes it particularly effective. After all, few forms of ridicule are as belittling as being reduced to a body part, or being called out for your beauty choices, especially in the context of a public career. It’s the essence of objectification.

This scrutiny is even more loaded when it comes to women, who have historically borne the burden of surface evaluation. Indeed, it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine Ms. Greene’s fellow committee member Jim Jordan being jeered at for his receding hairline, or someone slagging on Chuck Schumer for his wrinkles.

The rare times appearance has been raised in the recent past, it most often has been used as a form of humor — by the person involved. Hillary Clinton, for example, joked about her own hair color when she was running for president. “I may not be the youngest candidate in the race, but I have one big advantage: I’ve been coloring my hair for years,” she said in 2015. “You’re not going to see me turning white in the White House.”

It’s a different story, however, when the jab comes from someone else. Not long ago, the comedian Michelle Wolf was castigated for a set at the 2018 White House Correspondent’s Dinner in which she mocked the eye shadow of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, saying, “She burns facts, then uses that ash to create the perfect smoky eye.”

At the time, her comments provoked criticism from both sides of the aisle. Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of “Morning Joe” and a woman Mr. Trump had once described as “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” said she could empathize. “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable,” she said.

Apparently, that truce no longer holds. Now it appears Mr. Trump’s supporters in Congress, such as Ms. Greene, are simply following his lead, in this way as in so many others. Their opponents, meanwhile, are lowering themselves to the occasion. In which case, who really wins?

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