Is A Female Politician Only The Sum Of Her Parts?

Women have taken amazing steps into politics, science, medicine, and finance but somehow cannot do so without having their looks discussed, says Carrie Laski.

“Fat thighs, small breasts…left wing.”

According to some buttons seen at a republican convention in California, that’s the “Hillary Special.” Call it disgusting, call it misogynist, call it what you like, but don’t call it shocking because women have been experiencing body-focused evaluation since we entered the public sphere.

We have taken amazing steps into politics, science, medicine, and finance but somehow cannot do so without having our looks discussed. Did the news media portray Wendy Davis as a filibustering phenomenon? Or did it portray her as a pink-tennis-shoe-wearing filibustering phenomenon? It seems no matter how successful we become or what positions we achieve in our professional lives, our bodies—and what we put on them—will still be hot topics for debate. Is it fair to say that a man is a man, and a woman is the sum of her parts?

I’m reminded of a conversation I had early this summer right after Margaret Thatcher passed. I was sitting with a male acquaintance when I first heard the news and soon came across Morrissey’s response to Thatcher’s death, in which he calls her “a terror without an ounce of humanity,” among other things. After showing the article to my male acquaintance, he immediately commented about the late baroness’ “pointy nose” and “frumpiness.” He said nothing about her politics, nothing about her legacy, and nothing in response to Morrissey’s statement, omissions I immediately pointed out to him.

I wanted to know why he jumped straight to Thatcher’s looks when so many other issues lend themselves to debate. Was my friend a complete anti-feminist who values women only in terms of their looks? Was he ignorant of Thatcher’s politics and simply looking for something to say in response? Was he acting on past reinforcement for poking fun at a target who doesn’t fall into conventional standards of beauty? This incident was a microcosm of what society and the media do every day, and I needed an answer.

When pressed, he was able to offer some sophisticated comments about Thatcher’s politics, but declined to explain why his first instinct was to attack her appearance. Would he have done the same thing if a controversial male figure had died? I wanted to know. He said it depended who it was, and I was left to speculate. Apologies in advance for morbidity, but if, say, Vladimir Putin bites the dust in the next decade, will we discuss his policy choices or his facial structure? His leadership style or his fashion choices? I can’t help but guess it will be the former in each case because the media is comfortable evaluating men based on their professional lives in ways it is not comfortable doing with women.

Instead, articles about powerful women are often padded with descriptions of their appearances or details about their personal lives as if those are essential to understanding their professional agendas. Must we know what color blouse a woman is wearing or if she is married or unmarried in order to contextualize her message?

Australian Senate member Cheryl Kernot acknowledges the differences in the ways the press treats male and female public figures. She says she and many female politicians have fielded the question: “Who’s minding the children?” Such an inquiry implies that the woman’s professional responsibilities are causing her to leave a gaping hole in the domestic sphere, a hole that perhaps she ought to mend. Even if the interrogator has benign intentions and is not advancing any suggestions as to a woman’s “place,” I can’t recall any circumstances in which a male politician has had to respond to such a question. The press seems content to let men be public figures first, if that’s what they choose to be, but continuously reminds women that they are women/mothers/wives first and public figures second.  

I, personally, am completely in favor of the multiple roles assigned to women by the media because it reveals how capable we are and how variable our talents can be. We are multifaceted and rarely define ourselves by a single label. What I do not support is the ways these roles, especially the broad role of “woman,” carry stock images with them. What is a woman supposed to look like?

Obviously the answer varies depending on who you ask, but certain no-no’s for female public figures seem to endure in mainstream media. Don’t dress like a whore. Don’t dress like a spinster. Don’t be too overweight. Don’t be too skinny. Don’t pay too much attention to fashion. Don’t pay too little attention to fashion. It’s no wonder the middle ground is so hard to find, and women in politics often labor just to have their looks not mentioned in the press. 

Not only does constant discussion of a female politician’s looks affect her body image, identity, and confidence, it can also damage her chances of obtaining public office, says a study done by the Women’s Media Center. The surprising finding of this study was that a woman’s chance of getting elected to a hypothetical position decreased no matter if the press described her appearance favorably, negatively, or neutrally. The point was that her looks were described at all. Further measures showed the mere mention of a woman’s appearance was enough to lower ratings of her effectiveness, confidence, and qualifications. Thus it might not matter if you win praise for stepping up to the microphone in Christian Louboutin heels or if you get flack for wearing white socks with black shoes while on the campaign trail. What counts is if the press writes about it or not.

The comments about Hillary Clinton’s body that appeared on those campaign buttons are flagrant examples of the body-focused critiques female politicians endure every day. My hope is that these leaders will harness the energy they could spend on being upset by the comments and channel it toward their goals, once again proving the resilience and competencies of the female sex. If we are to be constantly reminded that we are female before anything else, the least we can do is show what a great compliment that is.

By reaching new levels of success (congratulations Janet Yellen!) we can crowd out mentions of our appearances with words about our achievements. It can be easy to fall into the habit of commenting on a woman’s looks (even President Obama is not immune), so I encourage journalists and anyone who blogs or writes to be mindful of the ways they portray women in print. Simple changes are the beginning of more equal press coverage for men and women.

Carrie Laski is a 20-something barista/writer living in Chicago. She enjoys discussing the psychology of relationships and also writes for

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