Lu: Enough with the Clothes

by Jessica Lu | 4/8/15 6:31pm

In her April 3 column “Dress for Power,” Annika Park ’18 drew attention to the ways in which women in power have used their wardrobes to their advantage. While she argued that women can subvert traditional perceptions of womanhood by asserting authority through feminine attire, the fact that we scrutinize women’s style at all is the underlying phenomenon that needs to be tackled.

In news coverage of powerful or prominent women, it is usually just a matter of time before a story appears that discusses and critiques her appearance — her clothes, hairstyle or makeup choices. An article that discusses the meaning of First Lady Michelle Obama’s clothes on a visit overseas or the wardrobe habits of German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not strike anyone as odd. With powerful men, however, appearance seldom receives the same treatment, if it receives any attention at all.

Unlike women, celebrated male politicians are primarily thought of as policymakers, and any role as a style icon comes second. John F. Kennedy was certainly a style icon — if his countless glamour shots are any indication — but his legacy is rooted in his achievements in office, not his preppy New England aesthetic. It is commonly thought that JFK defeated Richard Nixon in the televised debate because he looked better on TV than Nixon did — though not all agree with this assessment. Regardless of the extent to which JFK’s handsomeness helped him win the election, we focus on his tenure in office. And despite the attention that JFK clearly put into maintaining a certain appearance, it is his accomplishments that we value — and it should be.

Meanwhile, style looms much larger over female politicians. Following the end of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, news coverage that commemorates her style and legacy as a fashion icon — rather than her professional achievements — has not been uncommon. Since her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton’s appearance has prompted numerous style commentaries, like her hair scrunchies and bright fabrics. While writers rely on qualifications, experience and character to discuss and critique male candidates, we can open up The New York Times to find a columnist like Maureen Dowd arguing that Clinton’s new haircut is proof that she’s ready to take office and make a run for the presidency with her new, updated style. Because discussion of her appearance is so common in the media, when asked to name one of Hillary’s defining characteristics, most Americans would probably say “pantsuits” before they mentioned her hardline foreign policy stances.

While it is true that some women seek to use public scrutiny to their advantage, attention to style is never actually an advantage. A 2013 study published by Name It. Change It., an advocacy group that fights sexism in politics and media coverage, found that any commentary on a woman’s appearance makes her less electable. As much as women may try to make the most of the situation, in the long run all women in politics suffer because their male counterparts and competitors are not subjected to the same focus on and evaluation of looks.

Frankly, it’s ridiculous that we would spend any time at all discussing what a powerful woman wears instead of what she does. If we don’t psychoanalyze a man using his sartorial choices, then we should not ever do it to a woman. Yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg loves lace collars. But when we think about her, what should come to mind first is her biting and witty prose in her Shelby County v. Holder dissent, not her sense of style.

We shouldn’t just accept that women, particularly women in power, will be judged and scrutinized for their appearance in ways men are not. Acceptance is followed by complacency. While we should support a woman like International Monetary Fund managing director Christine LaGarde, who makes the best of a bad situation and uses her position to rebrand feminine clothing as powerful, we should also demand that the regular attention on women’s appearances stop immediately. Women deserve to be treated the same way that men are — that is, as professional partners, not runway models for pretty pantsuits. Women deserve respect — and using a woman’s style to evaluate her is, quite simply, disrespectful.