Friday, April 1, 2011

Image, Gender, and Public Figures

When a man is in the public eye, his appearance may be mentioned. Teen magazines may talk about the hotness of one actor or another, a politician may be called handsome by the papers as he's running for office. Certainly, attractive male public figures such as celebrities and politicians are praised when they are attractive. At minimum, a man must look put together, well dressed, neat, hair combed, but he doesn't always need a slim figure or perfect nose to succeed in his field, and in fact such physical traits are considered bonus features rather than requirements. What matters is his talent, his intellect, and what he has to offer to the field he is known for working in.

It's different for women.

Female celebrities are constantly scrutinized for their looks. Their outfits and hairstyles are constantly critiqued, especially after award shows and movie premiers. Their weight makes headlines in gossip rags and celebrity news. When a woman runs for public office, her appearance is also under scrutiny. Sarah Palin was called a MILF, and Hilary Clinton was sometimes discredited simply because she was masculine-looking and "ugly" (seriously, I've way too many people, mainly guys, say Hilary Clinton sucks because she looks like a man) - as if a woman needs to be physically appealing before her words are taken seriously. Even Michelle Obama is known for her biceps and dresses as much as she is for the actual work she's doing in the realm of public service, and she's not even an elected executive. The message? If you want to be a successful woman, you had better be gorgeous as well. The fact that a female politician's appearance makes headlines as often as her platform, her actions in office, and her words themselves, tell women, and really men too to a certain degree, that your appearance matters just as much as your intellect, if not more so.

Certainly, everyone needs to look nice. Everyone needs to dress appropriately, comb their hair, look neat, etc. - but it goes further for women. Where all a guy needs is to wear a nice suit, women are under pressure to make the "best dressed" lists, and make sure their dresses are perfectly flattering and show just the right amount of skin - a very fine line to walk. Where a man may make headlines for losing a substantial amount of weight and moving from the obese range to a healthier size, a woman makes headlines in US Weekly for gaining or losing 10 lbs., and everyone speculates as to why - is the pressure getting to her? is she pregnant? has she stopped trying to be a size 2? is she anorexic? what diet is she using?

Clearly, the media's heightened scrutiny over women's appearance sends a toxic message: that being skinny and perfectly dressed is much more important for women than it is for men. It also sends other messages, such as: if your weight changes even a little bit, everyone is going to notice; and if you gain weight, you better have a gosh darn reason for letting yourself go, piggy! It subtly tells women to watch out, people are paying attention to what you look like you you had better give them something nice to look at. Media criticism is almost like a public punishment, making an example of these celebrities that dared to break fashion rules, who dared to gain weight, who dared to go out in public without makeup and perfectly styled hair, scaring the rest of us into compliance with these beauty rules, and giving other women the power to police their peers into obeying as well. After all, the magazine writers do it, they talk crap about women who don't look perfect, why can't the rest of us?

What does this say to women who want to become actresses, singers, politicians, or pursue any other occupation which may lead to a life in the public eye? You had better be skinny and hot, or you might as well forget it. In fact, I remember wanting to be a singer when I was a preteen, and actually gave up not because of my voice or stage fright, but because I was told I was too fat and ugly. This is certainly discouraging to people who don't fit the beauty standard, women who may want to be president but feel more suited to a life behind the scenes because of their appearance, rather than their actual confidence in their intellect and leadership skills - which in itself tends to be lacking in women, for other reasons.

The idea that women need certain physical traits to enter and succeed in certain professions, while men need only to be clean and well dressed, definitely contributes to the glass ceiling that still remains decades after the second wave feminist movement. In order to achieve true gender equality in the workplace and in the public eye, we need to stop holding women to these extra standards of appearance and hold them only to the ones men are held to.

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