Emily Cain, the Democratic candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat, is fighting back against two Republican-backed ads purporting that she supported a bill that would body-shame teenage girls, an issue that’s drawing national attention as well as reaction from local women’s groups who say the discussion doesn’t belong in politics.

The attack ads on Cain and her response aren’t the only instance of women’s bodies as a campaign issue, coming just days after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump came under fire for comments made about a former beauty pageant contestant whom he called “Miss Piggy” in an attack on her appearance. Ads released by Hillary Clinton’s campaign also have gone after Trump for his attacks on women’s bodies.

In Maine’s 2nd District, where Cain is challenging U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, several news releases from both parties have exchanged accusations of body-shaming over the last week. A recent poll by the Maine Sunday Telegram and the University of New Hampshire found Poliquin leading Cain by 10 percentage points.

Both Kelli McCannell, executive director of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a Waterville-based nonprofit dedicated to the health and well-being of girls and women; and Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, a nonprofit advocating freedom from violence and discrimination and access to health care, were quick to lament the use of women’s bodies as political fodder in interviews Friday.

“Overall, it feels like election years bring up shallow and insulting references to women, not speaking to what actually matters to the women and girls we speak to and work with year round,” McCannell said in an email. “Women want social change, not ongoing discussions of our appearances.”

The Maine Women’s Lobby has taken a stand on several current political issues, including endorsements for upcoming referenda to institute universal background checks and raise the minimum wage, both of which Townsend said are pressing issues for Maine women.

“We’ve issued press releases about both of those, and yet what do I get a phone call about? I get a phone call about bodies,” she said. “It’s very frustrating to think that this is the level on which our political campaigns are conducted.”

Body-shaming is seen as negative statements and attitudes about other people’s weight or size, or discriminating against someone who is overweight.

Discussion of body-shaming emerged in the 2nd District campaign last week with the release of a radio ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee that takes aim at L.D. 1886, a bill Cain sponsored in 2007 that would have introduced a weight screening process in public schools as a way to collect data on childhood obesity trends.

The screening would have been confidential and parents could opt out of the program, though those details are left out of the radio ad and a similar television ad released Monday.

The NRCC ad suggests the legislation Cain supported would have violated the privacy rights of students, “including teenage girls,” while also painting Cain as a lawmaker who favors unnecessary government regulations.

POLITICAL, PERSONAL STRUGGLE

Already the ads and Cain’s response have sparked headlines in a number of national publications including New York Magazine, Slate and a British newspaper, the Guardian. The magazine Allure, which is targeted at teenage girls and young women, praised Cain, saying she is “taking a stance every woman can be inspired by.”

The ads also highlight an increase in outside spending in Maine’s 2nd District, where more than $2.7 million already has been spent by outside groups on advertising. In just the last seven days, the NRCC has spent more than $530,000 on ads opposing Cain. VoteVets, a political action committee supporting veterans, also spent more than $500,000 in the last week on an ad targeting Cain’s opponent, Poliquin.

On Thursday, the Maine Democratic Party issued a news release calling on Poliquin to denounce the NRCC ads, though spokesmen for his campaign did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Cain, in an interview Friday, said that more than the national attention, she was touched by personal responses to her response ad over the last week. The ad features Cain talking about her own struggle with weight and saying that “it’s a new low” for the NRCC to “exploit the insecurities of teenage girls.”

It also generated conversation Thursday on Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Calling” program, with advertising executives and a Colby College professor weighing in on the power of the NRCC television ad in appealing to mothers and their daughters despite offering misleading information.

On the radio program, broadcast at Colby College in Waterville, Brenda Garrand, CEO of Garrand Partners, said the “very visceral issue” has put Cain in a “extremely difficult position.”

“It was kind of a low blow; unfortunately, it may have landed,” Garrand said.

Sam Surprise, president of Surprise Advertising, said on “Maine Calling” that while Cain did well to personalize her response, she also could have done more to address what the bill was about. Tony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College, said on the program that he thought Cain’s response was effective because it contained a powerful message.

“She has a very personal appeal that I think will be very relate-able,” Corrado said.

Cain said Friday she felt that given the short time frame of the ad, it was better to respond directly to what she called a “blatant twist of facts.”

“I’ve had a lot of people thank me for speaking up,” Cain said. “I had one woman that I didn’t even know write me a note to say ‘thank you’ because a lot of people don’t know how hard it can be to struggle with your weight.”

NOT THE FINAL ANSWER

Cain’s campaign also has come out with news releases showing opposition to the NRCC ads from the Maine Medical Association, the Maine State Nurses Association and Maine PTA.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the Maine Republican Party responded with a news release and video featuring Party Vice Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas criticizing the legislation.

The bill, which never made it out of committee, was co-sponsored by five other Democrats and one Republican, and an almost identical version was passed in 2009 with bipartisan support. That bill, L.D. 319, created a protocol for school nurses to collect students’ body mass indexes as a way of obtaining state data on childhood obesity.

McCannell said the topic of body mass indexes usage in Maine schools is one that was explored last year by her group’s Girls Advisory Board, a group of high school girls that work with the organization to create more girl-friendly environments.

“They, too, were concerned with this practice, but struggled to find another accepted practice,” McCannell said in an email. “They recognized the need for schools to participate in monitoring health, but the implementation was often poorly done.”

Cain’s bill, she said, “feels like a start, although clearly not the final answer.”

Jason Savage, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, also said in an interview Friday that he didn’t disagree with the use of data to gain insight into childhood obesity, but said that “school is not really the place to do it.”

“There are other ways to go about (addressing childhood obesity),” Savage said. “It’s something parents can focus on, something doctors can focus on, something communities can focus on with activities and better foods.”

Meanwhile, Townsend declined to comment on the legislation, saying too much time already had been devoted to an issue that “is not central to the things affecting Mainers.”

“It seems like there’s an effort to reach women voters, but I would argue that the way to reach women voters is to talk to them about the issues in their lives — access to health care, being able to earn a decent living, the ability to care for their children and their parents,” she said. “Those are the issues I would hope our elected leaders and people who want to be leaders would address.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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