After millions of women descended on downtowns around the world to march in support of women’s rights Saturday, several conservative lawmakers took to social media for commentary. Did they critique the marchers’ message? Nope. Question the efficacy of protests? Not that either. What they did was make fat jokes.
“Just think about this,” Judge Bailey Moseley, a state judge in East Texas, wrote on Facebook. “After just one day in office, Trump managed to achieve something that no one else has been able to do: he got a million fat women out walking.”
Indiana state Sen. Jack Sandlin posted a similar sentiment on Facebook; he shared a meme that featured a photo of marchers in pink hats under the words “In one day, Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years.” (Sandlin claims he’s “[n]ot sure how that ended up on my Facebook wall,” but according to the Indianapolis Star, “[s]creenshots show Sandlin’s account sharing the message directly from another Facebook page, not another account sharing to Sandlin’s Facebook page.”)
If we’re keeping score, Sandlin gets bonus points for fat-shaming marchers and getting in a dig at Michelle Obama at the same time, but he loses points for originality — North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey shared the same image on Facebook and Twitter.
Double points also go to Nebraska state Sen. Bill Kintner, who skipped the fat-shaming but managed to both insult marchers’ appearance and perpetuate myths about sexual assault. He retweeted an image of three women holding signs referencing President Trump’s “grab them by the p—y” comments, along with the words, “Ladies, I think you’re safe.” (Kintner announced his resignation on Wednesday afternoon.)
Knowingly or not, these lawmakers were participating in a long, bipartisan tradition of denigrating women in politics by criticizing their appearance rather their ideas. A hundred years ago, opponents of women’s suffrage portrayed the suffragettes as snaggle-toothed hags whose primary problem was that they hadn’t found husbands. More recently, Democrats and Republicans skewered then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for her “Cruella De Vil” makeup in 2000. Newsweek chose an absurdly zoomed-in photo of Sarah Palin for a 2008 cover story, revealing Palin’s “unwanted facial hair, pores, and wrinkles.”
After a GOP debate in 2011, a Huffington Post editor didn’t have much to say about Michele Bachmann’s debate performance, but she devoted four paragraphs of snark to Bachmann’s “hard, glossy, squared-off acrylic nails.”
In 2012, a Democratic analyst publicly advised Elizabeth Warren to soften her “schoolmarm appearance,” “lose the granny glasses” and “soften the hair.” Speaking of which, perhaps the only aspect of Hillary Clinton’s life that has generated more media coverage than her emails is her hair, which has been a topic of public conversation since the ’70s, when she reportedly “felt a need to frost her hair” for the sake of “her husband’s gubernatorial career.”
And it’s not just politics. Women in journalism, in sports and even in meteorology all face criticism of their appearance that is totally unrelated to their job descriptions. It seems that any woman who has the audacity to speak in a public forum will be evaluated not only on the substance of what she says or how well she does her job, but on what she weighs, what she’s wearing, and what her hairstyle says about her.
Needless to say, men hardly face similar critiques. When Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, “people said she looked like she belonged in a kosher deli, as if being eye candy is a criteria for a Supreme Court nominee,” Stanford Law School Professor Deborah L. Rhode said. “And people didn’t make those comments about male nominees.”
But focusing on the appearance of women in politics isn’t a problem just because it’s unfair or mean-spirited. Describing women as fat or ugly allows critics to dismiss female politicians (or activists) without engaging with their ideas. “It’s a way of undermining their credibility,” said Rhode, the author of “Women & Leadership” and “The Beauty Bias.” “It speaks volumes about our misplaced priorities when it comes to women in politics, and about the obstacles facing female candidates.”
Democratic strategist Celinda Lake agrees. “When women’s ideas are threatening or women’s power is threatening, you often see them referred to in terms of their appearance,” she said. “It’s a way to distract, to trivialize and to divert attention from the important things women are saying and doing.”
Trump has employed this technique against women who challenge him for years. When New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote a column referring to Trump as a “financially embattled thousandaire” in 2011, Trump responded by sending her a printout of the column with her photo circled and “The Face of a Dog!” written over it. The next year, Huffington Post ran a column asking why Trump had been “so moody,” and the site’s founder, Arianna Huffington, appeared shortly after on CNBC to criticize the 2012 Republican National Convention, which Trump was promoting. That day, Trump tweeted that Huffington “is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man.”
“Engaging with someone on ideas is a level playing field,” Lake says. “When you make fun of someone’s appearance, you tilt the field in your favor.”
Appearance-based barbs also serve as a form of “gender policing,” according to Katherine Bartlett, a professor of Gender and the Law at Duke University School of Law. Historically, “women were valued more for their bodies and how well they pleased men than for other qualities,” Bartlett said. As a result, women tended to put more time and energy into their appearance than men. When women indicate that they have priorities other than pleasing men — by not going out of their way to look hot — people who would prefer to maintain traditional gender roles often attack them. Insults about women’s appearance are “an attempt to hurt and to punish” women who are seen as violating gender norms, Bartlett said. “If you can say something about their appearance, you can put them down.”
Such attacks can reinforce gender norms, create pressure for women to present themselves attractively (with “attractiveness” defined by men, of course), and even persuade women to stay out of the public sphere altogether.
Some women have switched from broadcast journalism to print journalism to keep themselves out of the public eye. Women thinking about running for office may think better of it when they see other women pilloried for being insufficiently attractive. “Women considering running see this sort of thing and think, ‘Who needs this?’” Rhode said.
Danny Hayes, a political scientist at George Washington University and co-author of “Women on the Run,” agrees that “historically,” comments about their appearance are something that “women in politics have had to put up with.” Hayes’s research with co-author Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at American University, actually shows that in recent congressional races, media reports weren’t any more likely to mention the appearance of female candidates than male candidates. But according to Hayes, whether it’s true or not, many people believe that women will face more criticism for their looks than men, and that belief influences who chooses to run for office. “One of the things that dissuades women from running is the perception that they will be attacked on the campaign trail,” he said. There’s a “fear that they will be subjected to the kind of sexism people are sometimes subjected to when they run for office.”
So what’s a woman in the public eye to do?
Hayes’s and Lawless’s research shows that women can somewhat ameliorate the effects of appearance-based coverage by calling it out when they see it.
“Voters don’t like it when the media engages in criticism that they don’t think is appropriate,” Hayes said, so “one strategy is to push back and say, ‘That is not an appropriate standard by which to judge me or any other candidate who’s running for office.’ Voters seem to respond to that.”
And Rhode believes women who aren’t politicians have an important role to play as well. She thinks there’s a limit to what politicians themselves can do — “If you call it out, you’re seen as whiny,” she said. “But if you let it pass, it diverts attention from your substantive message.” But ordinary voters can let reporters, lawmakers and tweeting state senators know when they find a comment unacceptable.
“Women voters have to call it out and people have to be outraged about it,” she said. “That’s what we need to shut it down.”