How the 'System of Beauty' Hurts Female Politicians

Talking about their looks makes women running for office seem less competent, less effective, and less qualified -- even when it's just praise and compliments.

A study released Monday sheds new light on last week's foofaraw over President Obama's comment that his friend and supporter California Attorney General Kamala Harris was "the best looking" AG in the land.

Sponsored by Name It. Change It., a project of the Women's Media Center and She Should Run, the March survey of 1,500 likely voters nationwide found that no matter what is said about a female political candidate's appearance, it has a negative impact on what potential voters think of her.

"When voters heard that coverage focused on a neutral description or a positive description or a negative description of the woman candidate's appearance, it hurt her likability and it made voters less likely to vote for her," the groups report of the study, which was conducted by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Bay Consulting.

"Appearance coverage damages voters' perceptions of the woman candidate on all key traits we tested, but the greatest average losses are on being in touch, being likable, confident, effective and qualified," they said.

In short, the moment a woman contending for power within the system of power gets talked about as if she's contending for top marks within the system of beauty, it diminishes her standing in the other power realm.  

The only way out for female candidates is to push back on the media coverage of their appearance, which uniquely diminishes them.

A woman can regain the ground she's lost if she responds "directly by saying this coverage has no place in the media and that her appearance is not news," the survey authors say.

A caveat here about the study's methodology, which ranks descriptions as neutral, positive, and negative: The researchers provide three examples about hypothetical candidate Jane Smith, but I'm not sure these actually communicate what they are intended to.

Neutral survey description: Smith dresses in a brown blouse, black skirt and modest pumps with a short heel ...

Caveat: How is this neutral? Who wears a brown blouse with a black skirt? She sounds dowdy and like she doesn't know how to present herself for TV. Also the word "modest" is not a neutral, but rather the ground of seemingly endless cultural controversies.

Positive survey description: In person, Smith is fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionably high heels ....

Caveat: How is this positive? Ruffled jackets are not everyday workwear, while "fashionably high heels" are not something women in politics routinely wear, as Sarah Palin discovered when she took her red open-toed patent-leather Naughty Monkey pumps on the trail in 2008 and prompted headlines such as "Sarah Palin Wears the Same Kind of Shoes As Paris Hilton."

Negative survey description: Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering looks for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails.

Caveat: This isn't just a negative description, but a description of a person who presents herself in a highly culturally specific way that says a lot about her education, social and economic class, and geographic background.

All of which is just to say that female appearance is a complicated semiotic system women use to communicate with each other and with men, and I'm not sure it's something that can ever be spoken of entirely neutrally. The very act of praising a woman's appearance, for example, can provoke an outpouring of contrary opinions, and creates a framework in which assessing her appearance can become a dominant theme. And then we are all suddenly debating Kamala Harris's hotness and Hillary Clinton's "sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous," as if her hair were a cup of tea leaves.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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