Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933. Library of Congress
I think that many women spend too much time and money on makeup and clothes. I think many of them would look better without the fuss. I acknowledge my view isn’t typical, but consider the public discussion going on now.
Today’s New York Times discusses Michele Bachmann’s image and makeup. Reporters cover this, perhaps, because Bachmann herself has devoted time, money, and energy to it. But I think also that reporters just like the quirks of political campaigns. The image question is one of the best of the modern political campaign quirks. The stories aren’t just about women running for office. Politico flagged Mitt Romney’s makeup expenditures in 2007. Everyone heard about John Edwards’s $300 to $500 haircuts.More than a decade has passed since the press teased Al Gore for covering his sunburn with orange foundation. In the photo today of Bachmann in white dress, makeup, and high-heeled sandals, she’s writing on a white board, presumably something about her campaign platform. That’s not in the story.
In the August 15 issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza reported this: Bachmann’s press secretary Alice Stewart told reporters on the campaign plane, “I know everything is on the record these days, but please just don’t broadcast images of her in her casual clothes.” Bachmann was wearing cargo pants. Why not see a candidate in cargo pants?
Eleanor Roosevelt, the most enduring female political figure I can think of, never worried about this stuff. At least, she managed to appear to the public as if she didn’t. Appearances mattered then, too, but then, appearances supposedly marked the person beneath, while today, images mirror the public’s expectation that public figures look like actors.
Leaders who endure can be ugly or not. They should mingle candidly with the smelly populace and not care. They should be ready to react to the country’s serious needs, looking outward, always ready to move fast whether in high heels or a wheelchair. They should not worry about their looks so much.
When we discuss the images of women running for office, we often hear that women have to be careful. They have to walk a thin line between femininity and strength. The best kind of femininity, though, places sympathy and grace ahead of beauty and image.