The same week that Sarah Palin returned to the headlines for her choice of attire, and glasses, as opposed to the political pronouncements she was making while wearing them, another high profile, high-powered woman also found herself under the media microscope for her appearance as opposed to her performance.
The New York Times published a piece about Olympic track star Lolo Jones, and her appearance, so blistering the paper's public editor later deemed it "too harsh." But if the article was the media equivalent of throwing someone under the bus, Jones's track teammates finished her off with a television interview that was the equivalent of climbing into the driver's seat, hitting the gas and backing over her with a bus. Twice.
The article, which you can read here, seems predicated on four key assertions:
1) Media coverage Lolo Jones receives is disproportionate to her actual talent and athletic accomplishments and therefore unfair to her more talented, accomplished competitors.
2) This is because Lolo Jones is physically attractive and doesn't shy away from showing it.
3) She is a virgin.
4) One, two and three are Lolo's fault and make her a worthy target of criticism.
One, two and three may be true (as for three I have no first hand knowledge of her intimate life but am taking her at her word like everyone else.) But it's a big leap from one, two and three to number four. Yet it's not a particularly surprising leap to see. The reason? Because though most of us are loathe to admit it, we often resent the advantages attractive people enjoy and therefore don't mind seeing them taken down a peg -- or in Lolo's case a few pegs.
I can already hear some loud sighing and strong denials coming from some of you reading this. For a few of you the denials may even be true. If so, congratulations on being one of the few really secure people on the planet. But for many who are not as secure (and not blessed with your therapist), seeing someone who is taller, thinner, prettier or younger and competing against you for anything -- a job, a man or an Olympic medal -- is enough to not only make us feel shorter, fatter, homelier, and older, but insecure, and desperately resentful of the other person.
This resentment is not entirely unjustified. Study after study shows that attractive people enjoy countless advantages in hiring and compensation, advantages that are not fair to those of us who don't look like Halle Berry, or Sarah Palin for that matter.
(If you weren't sighing before, I know some of you are now.) Sarah Palin is a lightning rod for a variety of reasons. For progressives there are her extreme right policy positions, for everyone else there is her tendency to make up imaginary words (although she may "refudiate" that assertion) and tendency to use her hand as a teleprompter by writing on it (you know, like most grownups in professional settings do.) But there's also something else. She's pretty and many of us know that that's helped her get ahead, and that makes her even more irritating. Think I'm wrong? Then why is that some of you reading this -- particularly women -- find her more grating than former President George W. Bush? After all, it's not like she started any wars. I don't know that anyone can make a compelling argument that she's less intellectually impressive than he is, particularly when you take into account the fact that he had access to more educational opportunity than she did thanks to his privileged family background.
The only real difference between them is that he got ahead thanks in large part to his family name and connections, and she got ahead in part thanks to her appearance, but her path to success seems to bother some, particularly other women, more.
Just like Lolo Jones.
To be clear I am not calling Lolo Jones more attractive than her teammates, but according to traditional American standards of beauty, which are still largely defined as Eurocentric (aka whiter) she is. The reality is despite having a black president and a chocolate colored First Lady who has emerged as an icon of style, someone with Lolo's features and skin color is still considered more attractive and appealing to wider audiences than her darker skinned teammates with more ethnic features. (Lolo Jones is multiracial.)
Studies show that here in the U.S. there are financial advantages in the workplace to being fairer skinned. Historically subjective barriers, (those not based on something objective like a sports score), have been broken by black Americans who are biracial or extremely fair-skinned. (Examples: Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, Thurgood Marshall the first black Supreme Court Justice, Colin Powell, the first black Secretary of State, and Barack Obama the first black president, to name just a few. It is a lengthy list.)
Is this fair? No. But is it Lolo's fault? No.
As writer Genetta Adams put it "Don't hate Lolo because she's beautiful," and don't blame her. "Blame her parents."
My question to Lolo's critics is this. Was she supposed to tell her eager sponsors that she didn't want their money? Was she supposed to turn down magazine covers and say "I think you should actually ask my teammates instead since some are predicting they may beat me at the Olympics, although that remains to be seen"?
Are these missed opportunities a drag for her more talented teammates? Absolutely. But their beef should be with the media or even sponsors, not with Lolo. Watching their lack of grace in discussing their win and her loss made me cringe at the ugliness of it all -- and I don't mean in terms of their physical appearance. Bitterness is never pretty.
The irony of course is that those targeting Lolo for being attractive -- and benefiting from it -- don't seem to realize that their behavior is no different than others excluding them for not looking like her. Both behaviors are superficial and wrong.
I wish we lived in a world that valued talent, skill and kindness over beauty, charm, wealth, skin color, last name, connections and a host of other superficial attributes, but most of the time we don't. But I also wish we lived in a world in which women didn't play into the most negative and cliche stereotype out there about us, and picking on the pretty girl because people like her for being pretty is embarrassing, not just to the women doing it but to all women.
It's also wrong. We are better than that. At least we should be.
Click here to see which 2012 Olympic athletes (including Lolo Jones) have "twins," in American politics, (included on the list: President Obama, Sarah Palin, Gov. Mitt Romney and others, along with their Olympic counterparts.)