Should We Judge Hillary’s Hair or Christie’s Weight?

Clinton caused a stir when she stepped out with bangs last week, but there’s more than sexism at work when people judge a politician’s looks.

01.06.14 10:45 AM ET

A year ago, President Obama had his inauguration thunder stolen by his wife Michelle, or rather her new ‘do. The First Lady’s bangs, which she later attributed to a midlife crisis, generated so much attention that the president joked they were the “most significant” occurrence of the inaugural weekend.  Well this month history repeated itself. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio found his recent inauguration speech competing for attention with Hillary Clinton’s new bangs.

New York Magazine proclaimed, “Hillary Clinton Gets Bangs, Nation Rejoices” whileThe Huffington Post decried, “Hillary Clinton Gets New Bangs, Is So 2012.” Whether you love them or hate them, here is a question: Is writing and talking about Hillary Clinton’s hair, or appearance period, sexist?

I was among those outraged when Clinton was ridiculed for going without makeup during her tenure as Secretary of State. (Obviously as Secretary of State the most pressing concern she had was mascara.) But I was not outraged when President Obama called California Attorney General General Kamala Harris, “the best looking attorney general.” Harris is beautiful. She is also smart, a sharp dresser, and articulate. So why should we be limited from acknowledging all of her fabulous qualities? I thought the pseudo-controversy Obama’s remarks created were a perfect example of why so many men don’t take feminists seriously, and why so many young women don’t want to be labeled as feminists. So when is remarking on a woman’s appearance just a remark and when is it sexist?

Danielle Belton, founder of the black women’s blog The Black Snob, and editor-at-large for online women’s magazine Clutch, argued that the inherent double standard in how men and women are covered makes most comments about a female candidate’s appearance steeped in sexism. 

“It would be different if people simply made a comment here or there and then focused on her background or experience, but things like cutting your hair into bangs or wearing pantsuits become these naval gazing exercises in the media that you simply don't see when it comes to male politicians,” she said. “You don't see lengthy discussions about what shade of black suit male politician X is wearing versus male politician Y. There's no debate over whether a guy should (or shouldn't) dye his hair, or wild speculation over growing (or not growing) a mustache because people know with men that sounds absurd. But since women historically have been judged by their looks no matter what they do, we act like this is okay and it's not. It's distracting and sexist.”

Penny Nance, the CEO of the conservative women’s group Concerned Women for America, echoed this sentiment.

“I think it's downright shameful the way the media picks apart the appearance of women politicians,” she wrote in an email. “Whether it's Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, it's wrong.” Despite identifying as conservative, Nance made it clear this is an issue that all women should care about, across party lines. She said she is just as offended when conservative radio hosts attack liberal women for their appearance, as she is when liberal outlets criticize conservative women for theirs. Nance said she has personally been a victim of these kinds of superficial attacks. As have I. The amount of mail I have received over the years regarding my hair and lip-gloss rivals what I have received for the most incendiary column I have ever written.

But here is what complicates this conversation. When asked, I have given interviews regarding my favorite fashion designers to wear on air. Plenty of female political figures have similarly discussed their wardrobe choices. Meanwhile, Hillary has appeared on the cover of Vogue. Television is after all a visual medium. So an argument can be made that a novelist who refuses all television interviews and does not include headshots on his or her book jacket should never, ever have to discuss his or her hair, ever. But a novelist, who wants to promote his book on The Today Show, may have to do so. That’s not necessarily fair, but it is reality of the age in which we now live.

Just ask Chris Christie. Christie has endured more jokes about his weight since becoming a national figure than Hillary has probably endured about her hair in her two decades on the national stage. It is even arguable that if most of the jokes that high profile comedians have made about Christie’s weight had been made about a female politician, some of them would have been out of a job. (Just consider the backlash—well-deserved—against comedian Jay Mohr for making a recent off color remark about new mom Alyssa Milano’s weight.)

Christie underwent weight loss surgery recently. While his health was a motivator, many also speculate he did it with an eye on a future presidential run. A presidential campaign is physically grueling, but the inevitable spotlight on his weight would likely have been emotionally grueling as well.

Belton posited that “looks and what you wear should only come up in politics if it falls into the realm of distraction, extreme or unusual.” She cited Rep. John Boehner’s tan as being a source of interest to all types of people because it is unusual in Washington. But bangs are not.

One study found that media coverage that referenced a candidate’s appearance actually hurt female candidates who are considered attractive. Maybe the real distinction should be determining whether or not a candidate or public official’s appearance, wardrobe, hairstyle, weight or tan will have any meaningful impact on elections or policy and that should be the threshold by which we in media determine whether it is worth covering. For instance, Christie’s previous weight raised questions about his endurance level on the campaign trail and his health in serving. With her health woes last year, some may have similar questions about Clinton’s health.

But that has nothing to do with her bangs. So why are we writing about them?