When President Obama elicited outrage for saying that Attorney General Kamala Harris was “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country,” his defenders jumped to say that people offended by the comment should “lighten up,” or focus on more serious threats to women’s rights.
But just days after that comment, a brand new study shows there’s definitive evidence to back up what the detractors were saying all along: It might seem small, but pointing out the physical attributes of a woman in the political arena can have a big effect.
The study, released Monday by the Name It, Change It project, reveals that mentions of a woman’s appearance when she is running for political office — whether those mentions are flattering, unflattering, or neutral — has a negative impact on her electability. That includes “the horserace, her favorability, her likelihood to be seen as possessing positive traits, and how likely voters are to vote for her.”
The survey was conducted by asking 1,500 likely voters to read about two candidates, one male (Dan Jones) and one female (Jane Smith). Some groups received descriptions of the candidates that did not mention physical attributes. Others received one of three types of descriptions for the woman:
Neutral description: Smith dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel…
Positive description: In person, Smith is fit and atractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartlyturned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heels….
Negative description: Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails.
When respondents hear the negative description of the female candidate’s appearance, she gets only 42 percent of the voters. When they hear the “flattering” description, she gets 43 percent (and there are fewer undecided votes overall, so her opponent gets an even bigger lead). With no physical description, Jane Smith gets 50 percent of the votes.
The same is true for all of her personal attributes; no matter the description, it affects her negatively:
But the real point of the survey — and the most salient fact that came from it — is that pushing back on the comodification of a female candidate’s beauty can be just as impactful as the criticism itself. Some respondents heard a defense from Jane Smith, saying, “My appearance is not news and does not deserve to be covered. Rarely do they cover men in this fashion and by doing so they depict women as less serious and having less to offer voters.” Others heard a similar defense from Name It, Change It. In both cases, when they heard that, their votes flipped back. Indeed, Jane Smith gained her first lead of the entire campaign.
It might seem lighthearted, or fair game, to comment on Hillary Clinton’s headbands, or Sheila Jackson Lee’s colorful suits. But those comments are not without repercussion. Overt, unequal, and pointed criticisms of women’s appearances are hurting them politically. And it might help explain that horrible ambition gap that’s keeping our elected government so heavily male.