The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

News coverage of female candidate’s appearance damages her chance of winning

Placeholder while article actions load

Congressional candidate “Jane Smith dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt and modest pumps with a short heel…”

Even such a neutral description of a female candidate’s appearance can hurt her chances at getting elected, according to a study released today by Name It. Change It., a joint project of The Women’s Media Center and She Should Run.

Although it seems obvious that an unflattering portrait painted by reporters would negatively impact a candidate’s image with voters, what’s surprising is that even positive, or neutral, descriptions of a female candidate’s appearance proved detrimental in damaging key attributes and the likelihood that people would vote for her.

News coverage that referred to a female candidate as “fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age,”  even though it sounded complimentary, hurt the voters’ perceptions of the politician for being in touch and being likeable, confident, effective and qualified. Both negative and positive comments caused damage. The voters whose responses were affected the most by coverage of a candidate’s appearance were independents — and their support often determines the outcome of an election.

The nationwide survey of 1,500 voters, along with a sample of 100 young women, age 18 to 35, looked at a hypothetical Congressional race between Jane Smith and Dan Jones. Survey respondents read a profile of each candidate, along with sample news stories covering their positions on an education bill. Nothing was said about Dan Jones’s appearance; the articles about Jane Smith included either a positive, negative, neutral or no description of her appearance.

The negative description drew a most unflattering picture: “Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails.”

I shudder to think that any reporter covering a political race these days would write copy like that, but all of the descriptions used in the survey were pulled from media coverage of the 2012 election. It seems like a woman’s appearance is fair game. Just think back to this spring, when The Drudge Report featured a photo of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, after days on the diplomatic trail overseas, sported black-framed glasses and wore no makeup except lipstick. The headline declared “Hillary Au Naturale.”

A second survey examined the impact of sexist language in news coverage of women running for office. Stories that described a female candidate as a “mean girl” or “ice queen” did more damage than a straightforward piece attacking her stand on an issue.

There was some good news with both surveys, however, in how women can fight back. The damage done by the descriptions was mitigated when a female candidate said such coverage “has no place in the media” and proclaimed that we must end this type of coverage of women candidates because “it damages our political debate and democracy.” In fact, voters who hadn’t even been exposed to stories about the female candidate’s appearance or sexist language responded positively to a woman standing up for herself.

Then again, Clinton found the fascination with her appearance had its uses when she was first lady:  “If we ever want to get Bosnia off the front page, all I have to do is change my hair.”

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.