For many professional women, having your physical appearance tacked onto a list of career achievements can feel demeaning—suddenly you’re reminded that you’re not just an attorney, journalist, or politician, but a female attorney, journalist, or politician.
But if we’re all going to rush to condemn President Obama’s gaffe -- for which he has since apologized -- in introducing California’s Kamala Harris as “the best-looking attorney general in the country" (after he described her as “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough”), let’s likewise rush to stop placing such a high premium on beauty, especially in the realm of politics.
We all know the history of looks in elections, from Abraham Lincoln growing a beard, perhaps to cover up his homely face, to how looks factored into perceptions that John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in their presidential debate. But physical appearance still matters in elections, plain and simple. Study after study shows that voters tend to back political candidates who look better. In one MIT study, researchers found that appearance played a bigger role in Senate and gubernatorial races than in House ones, which usually feature fewer TV ads.
Some studies show that it’s not just beauty that voters value, but an overall look of competence. In a 2008 study seeking to explain the gender gap in politics, Yale University researchers found voters perceived male politicians’ faces as more competent, while female politicians were perceived as more attractive and approachable. The findings suggested that voters, in turn, view male politicians as more competent than female politicians—even though voters want a mix of both competence and approachability.
Being too beautiful can also backfire against women. All of a sudden, your seriousness or success is called into question: “Did she get a pass along the line because of her beauty?” Then a woman is in a position where she has to prove that she deserves her achievements.
Think back to how looks played out for Sarah Palin in 2008. Critiques came from all sides; some said her good looks gave a boost to an otherwise un-deserving candidate, while others said that such a critique was inherently sexist.
This seems to be a uniquely female problem. When was the last time you heard of a male politician coming under scrutiny for being too attractive? Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance was picked apart far more than male candidates’. And we can’t have a few months go by without someone penning an analysis of Michelle Obama’s physique.
How do we take beauty out of the mix? The Yale researchers noted that frequent exposure to female politicians helps reduce the gender bias that appearance can play; as we get more accustomed to seeing women in positions of power, we’re less likely to associate competent leadership as an inherently male, physical attribute.
So, yes, it’s inappropriate for the president to note a woman's appearance in a professional setting, where it should have no relevance. But when it comes to the ballot-box, subliminally, America is sort of doing the same thing.