Melania Trump’s remarks at the Republican National Convention are making news because they appear to have been lifted, in part, from a 2008 speech given by Michelle Obama. But Melania’s speech was distinct from the First Lady’s in a significant way. When she talked about her upbringing, she elevated the importance of beauty as a part of her personal narrative. It was one more way that she, and her husband, have used their position of power on the campaign trail to send a message that a woman’s worth can be measured by the way she looks.
Presidential campaigns are personality contests as much as a battle of ideas. Voters pick the people they want to represent their nation alongside a vision for how the country should act. The impulse to vote for someone who can act as a role model is part of the reason why Hillary Clinton’s campaign believes voters will veer from Trump. But while qualities like loyalty, hard work, and respect—all of which Melania emphasized during her speech—can be learned, conventional beauty is far more difficult for the average woman to emulate—or, perhaps, identify with.
For Melania and her husband, beauty is a mark of status and a trait by which women should be judged. Trump, of course, is famous for his beauty pageants. In her convention speech, Melania spoke fondly of how her “elegant and hard-working mother” introduced her to “fashion and beauty” and recalled her time working “in the incredible arena of fashion.” A short biography on Melania’s website emphasizes her modeling career, and her beauty, above all else. “In the words of Manolo Blahnik,” it reads, “‘She is a true beauty. She has it.’”