Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) apparently got a haircut last month, and the Washington Times wanted to assure readers that it had the scoop.
“EXCLUSIVE: Self-declared socialist AOC splurges on high-dollar hairdo,” read the headline of Wednesday’s story.
The article estimated that Ocasio-Cortez’s hair styling at Last Tangle in Washington Salon cost about $300, including an $80 haircut, $180 lowlights and a hypothetical 20 percent tip equaling $52. Those prices are listed on the salon’s website, but neither Last Tangle nor Ocasio-Cortez’s staff responded to requests from The Washington Post for verification of what the congresswoman paid.
The Washington Times quoted Richard Manning, president of the conservative nonprofit organization Americans for Limited Government, saying the congresswoman “preaches socialism while living the life of the privileged.”
The news outlet also wrote that Ocasio-Cortez’s haircut “stands in stark contrast to” former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s regular $20 haircuts at Senate Hair Care Services in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. The story did not mention how often he gets his hair cut.
People of all political persuasions responded with a collective eye roll. They mocked the comparison to Sessions, urged the Washington Times to focus on Ocasio-Cortez’s policy proposals and bemoaned the newspaper’s disapproval of the congresswoman for doing exactly what society expected her to do.
“Sorry you don’t get to create beauty standards that require women to spends hundreds or thousands a year to be considered presentable and then hate us for it,” feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted.
The backlash to the congresswoman’s hair appointment exemplifies a Catch-22 that experts say women in public life face: Either be criticized for spending exorbitant amounts of money to meet society’s manufactured beauty standards or be lambasted for failing to fulfill those requirements.
“It is all completely consistent with the trap we’ve created where we teach women that the most important thing they can be is physically beautiful, but also criticize them for responding to that pressure,” said Renee Engeln, author of “Beauty Sick” and a psychology professor at Northwestern University.
Paying $80 for a haircut and $180 for lowlights — darkening some strands of hair — would not be unusual in Washington. At two salons within blocks of Last Tangle on 19th Street, cuts cost $85. Another salon charged $50 for just a haircut or $75 for a cut and blow-dry. Highlights or lowlights at those salons cost $135, $165 and $175.
Ocasio-Cortez, whose annual salary is $174,000, took a swing at her critics Thursday, writing on Twitter that although conservatives wanted to blame Democratic socialists for the nation’s income inequality, liberals’ policies help working people. “They’re just mad we look good doing it,” she wrote, quoting a tweet about the Washington Times’ reporting.
The congresswoman later shared a tweet by government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit organization, that said Vice President Pence spent $600,000 of public funds in September for limousine service to President Trump’s resort in Ireland.
“Won’t you look at that: Mike Pence used *taxpayer funds* — not personal ones — to spend several thousand haircuts’ worth of public money on a visit to Trump golf courses,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “I wonder if Republicans care about corruption as much as they care about a woman’s cut & color.”
Scrutiny of Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance is not new. A Washington Examiner reporter in November tweeted a photo of the congresswoman from behind and commented, “I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” The Internet erupted into a debate about people’s biases regarding how professional women should dress.
Unlike male professionals, who can wear similar suits every day, women are expected to vary their appearance regularly, Engeln said. The monetary and time costs of meeting societal expectations for women — including makeup, long hair, jewelry and matching purses — add up fast.
Criticizing the appearance of a female politician like Ocasio-Cortez plays off stereotypes about women as fiscally irresponsible and implies that she can’t be trusted with big decisions because she can’t even spend the “right” amount of money on a haircut, Engeln said.
When the focus is on a female politician’s appearance, Engeln said, it distracts from discussions of ideas. The result is that powerful women are silenced, she said, and other women are dissuaded from entering the political arena.
“This game is rigged,” Engeln said. “It was never set up to be fair, and I think the best thing we can do is, to the extent that it’s possible, just refuse to play. Women’s lives are not beauty pageants.”
Ocasio-Cortez and other female politicians face a conundrum, said Jaclyn Wong, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies gender inequality. They can be punished for refusing to participate in “beauty work” such as getting a haircut, or they can be penalized for the amount of money they spend to do that work.
The effort people put into their physical appearance can affect their salary, Wong said. She said women who are well-groomed tend to earn more money than women who invest less in their appearances — a reward to women “for behaving the way we expect them to.”
Although women might be tempted to try to play by society’s rules about their appearances to avoid criticism, Wong said this strategy rarely works and that women are better off calling out the unfair expectations they face.
When it comes to Ocasio-Cortez, Wong said, people who criticize her appearance often do so because they oppose her policies and perceive her as a threat.
“It’s about making her feel uncomfortable for just being a person and doing what she needs to do in this position of power,” Wong said.
Criticizing politicians’ appearance-related spending, including the cost of their haircuts, is a popular way for people to make their political opponents appear elitist. A columnist for the New York Post in 2015 chastised Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic presidential candidate, after she was seen entering a salon where haircuts can cost $600.
Her husband, former president Bill Clinton (D), was the subject of front-page news stories in 1993 when rumor spread that he had gotten a $200 haircut while Air Force One idled at Los Angeles International Airport, bringing many of the airport’s operations to a standstill. Fact checks later found the haircut had not caused significant delays and probably cost significantly less than previously reported.
A Republican-linked television ad attacking Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004 listed his $75 “Hairstyle by Christophe’s” as evidence that he was not the man of the people he claimed to be. John Edwards, then a Democratic presidential candidate, in 2007 was dinged in a news report for two $400 haircuts for which his campaign picked up the tab.
Commentators seized on Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s spending in 2008 when campaign finance reports showed the Republican National Committee had paid $150,000 for her designer wardrobe. Conservatives worried the revelation would hurt Palin’s appeal to working-class voters.