From the moment girls are born, we are wrapped in little pink blankies and put into little pink outfits. We are encouraged to love Disney princesses, dress up our Barbie dolls, love sparkle and glitter, behave like little ladies, and above all, be pretty, pretty girlies!
The beauty contest begins the moment we appear. For the rest of our lives, we are judged on our appearance, and unless we are considered beautiful by societal standards, we are usually found wanting. The judges in the pageant that is our lives are not at all hesitant to let us know where we fall short of the male ideal of beauty. We are judged too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too shrill, too feminine, too masculine, too much, or not enough.
From the time we start developing breasts, they become the focus of the male gaze. They are stared at, hooted at, and sometimes grabbed by complete strangers. Rather than look us in the eye, strangers speak to those breasts, as if they are unaware that they are attached to actual sentient beings. The older we get, the more intense the beauty contest becomes. The beauty contest includes our voices (don’t be shrill or strident!) our behavior (be ladylike – don’t make waves) and our brains (boys won’t like you if you’re too smart.)
What we look like is everything. That is reinforced daily through advertising and through the comments of men – men we may or may not know. If we are not cheerful chipmunks in every public moment, some guy will come along to tell us “you’d be so much prettier if you smiled.” In fact, throughout our lives, all kinds of people endlessly provide advice on ways to be “so much prettier.” The fun never stops.
If we choose to go into politics, the beauty contest is exacerbated. Men have a distinct advantage, beyond the whole patriarchy/money/power thing. They wear a uniform. Photographers never close in to catch a look at their ankles or their shoes. There are no write-ups on what a male candidate is wearing at an event. Seldom is the appearance of a man ever even remarked upon. There are some exceptions. Chris Christie is remarked upon for being portly, but it is often done in a joking way. Paul Ryan was photographed lifting weights. We were all supposed to be dazzled by his manly muscles. Wes Clark had the sweaters and the Speedo. Then, of course, there is Obama, who has been roundly mocked for wearing “dad” jeans, though how many of us would want our dads wearing anything else? Then there was the big kerfuffle about the tan suit. Because no president has ever worn a tan suit ….er…. except for Harry Truman, Ike, LBJ, and even Saint Ronnie Reagan. Of course it doesn’t matter what Obama wears, it’s always going to be wrong.
It’s a different ballgame for women. We had to hear about Hillary Clinton’s appearance endlessly. Her hair, her clothes, and as she aged, even her ankles. On a Twitter account, there’s a space for a short bio. Hillary’s mentions that she’s a “hair icon” and “pantsuit aficionado.” Sarah Palin was on the other end of the beauty obsession. From the beginning she was advertised to us as the hot GOP chick from Alaska, but the relentless focus on her hair, glasses, shoes, and wardrobe was tiresome. No one took photos of John McCain’s comb over, or his shapely legs. Michelle Obama has been criticized for wearing too many sleeveless dresses, for having muscular arms, for spending too much money on clothes, and for not spending enough; just whom does she think she’s fooling by shopping at Old Navy?
It never ends. For men, though, it never really begins. Scott Brown is the rare candidate whose looks are commented upon. I’ve never read a critique of Walt Havenstein’s suits or hairstyle. No newspaper ever remarks on the fact that Frank Guinta seems to wear a lot of red ties. All of the criticism and commentary is saved for women.
In 2011, an interviewer asked Elizabeth Warren a question about Scott Brown posing nude in Cosmo. She answered, “I kept my clothes on.” Brown heard about this and said, “Thank God.” His contempt for women was on display again over the weekend when he attended a tailgate party at UNH. While drunken fratboys shouted out rapey slurs about our US Senator, Scott Brown said nothing. If he’d turned to them and told them to stop, that’s no way to talk about our US Senator, or ANY woman, I’d be writing a very different piece, one that included the use of the term “respect.” Try as I might, I can’t remember a gang of women bellowing similar comments about any male candidate, anywhere, ever.
The beauty contest came home to NH in another form this weekend. State Representative Steve Vallaincourt of Manchester felt compelled to pen a blog post giving his opinion of Congresswoman Ann Kuster’s appearance. It was puerile and mean spirited, but that doesn’t surprise anyone who knows Steve Vallaincourt. The story hit the international fan hard, which meant the NH media couldn’t ignore it. Now he’s whining about being misunderstood. Some of his staunch male GOP defenders (brothers in misogyny) are blubbering about his First Amendment rights. What these guys never seem to get is that, yes, the First Amendment gives you the right to free speech. It does not give you immunity. If you say stupid stuff, you get to deal with it. I believe they call that taking personal responsibility. Why the women of the GOP continue to tacitly condone this kind of behavior remains a mystery.
That we’re still dealing with this kind of double standard in 2014 is depressing. That we haven’t evolved sufficiently to evaluate our female candidates (and all women) on the basis of their talents, experience, and qualifications is maddening. In 2013 a study done by the group Name It. Change It. found that when a female candidate’s appearance becomes the focus (positive or negative) they lose elections. One could begin to think it’s done intentionally.
“They always say the Miss America Pageant isn’t a beauty contest, it’s really a scholarship program. If that’s the case, why don’t we just put all the contestants on "Jeopardy” and pick Miss America that way?“ Jay Leno