Let’s be honest. We are all judged, and judge others, on physical appearance. This is certainly true in politics. It’s why Hillary Clinton wears $1,400 pantsuits and why John Edwards once paid $1,250 for a haircut.
But members of the media often hesitate to comment on the way politicians look, for obvious reasons. Remarks about Chris Christie’s weight, for instance, are considered mean. Almost any assessment of a female candidate’s appearance can be deemed sexist. In short, looks are usually off limits.
Enter the phenomenon known as Paul Ryan’s beard. From the New York Times to the New Republic, GQ and, yes, the The Washington Post, the new speaker’s new whiskers are apparently fair game for observation and analysis.
The arbiters of style at GQ have questioned Ryan’s motive:
Look, it's no secret that we at GQ love beards, and we really love seeing guys — Paul Ryan included — trying out a new look. But the spectacle surrounding this makes it hard to believe that the speaker is actually experimenting with his personal style and not trying to make an obvious media play. It's the eye-roll-inducing style move equivalent to your father showing up to dinner on a skateboard. If two weeks from now Ryan's rocking a full frontier-level beard, then we'll talk.
The New Republic has offered some unsolicited grooming advice:
No word yet on whether Ryan’s beard is a result of his relentless, sleep-in-the-office work ethic, or if it’s just an effort to reach out to younger voters with a newer, hipper image. If it’s the former, that’s bleak but respectable. If it’s the latter, perhaps Ryan should next consider adding some gingham and a man-bun to really reach the young set where they live.
Just a thought.
And here at The Post, we have wondered if Ryan’s facial hair truly qualifies as a beard:
But the gentleman from Wisconsin might be putting the cart before the horse. The “beard” Ryan is displaying in the photo could more accurately be called a scruff: Judging from photographic evidence, it can’t be more than ten days or so old. No mater how you define “beard,” Ryan’s burgeoning facial hair is well short of the lush fringe populating the chin of old Gillett. We’ll give it a few weeks.
What’s going on here?
For starters, Ryan invited the attention. He posted an Instagram photo of his hairy mien, suggested that he is the first speaker to go unshaven in nearly a century, and asked the House historian to confirm the claim.
But there’s something else. Ryan’s beard presents a chance to discuss openly a thing we all notice, all think about, and almost always keep to ourselves: politicians’ physical appearances. It feels like a safe target because, well, who could really be deeply offended by a few beard jokes?
Comments about height or weight or beauty come loaded with value judgments. Tall, trim and pretty are good. Short, fat and ugly are bad. It's hard to remark on such traits without suggesting that the owner of a bulging belly is somehow less valuable — or that the possessor of handsomely chiseled features is more so (though that doesn't seem to have helped Martin O'Malley thus far). We feel badly when we do (and probably should) because, after all, these are policy-makers, not runway models.
Looks shouldn't matter but, of course, they do. At least a little. We know this but try to deny it and hesitate to talk about it.
Until a beard -- or perhaps just some "scruff" -- comes along with no inherent goodness or badness and invites us to start chatting.