Hillary Clinton has endured more criticism in her two decades on the national stage than most of us will in two lifetimes. There was the early insinuation that she wasn't a real woman, since she had the audacity not to stay home and "bake cookies," as she curtly put it, and worse, not to be sorry about her choice. There were the embarrassing rumors about her marriage, and the even more embarrassing confirmation of some of them. Watching her walk across the White House lawn with her family after the sad truth had finally emerged about the Lewinsky scandal it was easy to believe that she would never face a more demeaning moment under the media microscope.
But we recently learned that's not true.
Last week Clinton, a woman who holds degrees from Wellesley and Yale, has served in the Senate and as Secretary of State, endured an endless loop of media coverage for not wearing makeup.
A google search of "Hillary goes without Makeup" turns up more than 3 million results. But a google search of "Hilary (with one L) goes without makeup" turns up more than 20 million. (Apparently most of us cannot spell the Secretary's first name correctly.) Throw in a search of "Hillary Clinton goes without makeup" with over 2 million hits, and you have well over 25 million searches for a photo of the Secretary of State without, as one outlet put it her "warpaint." For a quick comparison, if you do a search for "Hillary Clinton (Iran)" you will get just over 22 million results. No, I'm not kidding.
This means that about as many people have searched in a few days for a photo of the Secretary of State without her makeup on, as have searched for any information related to her leadership on dealing with Iran since she joined the cabinet in 2009. Just ponder that for a moment.
So why are the media, and everyone else, so obsessed with makeup-free Hillary?
For starters the media always obsess over how women in the public eye look, in a way they never have, and likely never will, with men. Though Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton may appear to have little in common besides ovaries, they also share a history of being objectified by the media throughout their public life.
As The Huffington Post once noted, "Back in the 90's tracking Hillary Clinton's hair was a national pastime," (and it has the slideshow to prove it.) A single search for "Hillary Clinton" and "headband" yields over 200,000 results. I can only imagine the internet blackhole I would have found myself disappearing into if I had actually searched for "Hillary Clinton power suits." Aside from endless references to her wardrobe and her hair, there are the countless references to her weight and body type. (Apparently many "experts" have long felt strongly that she needed to dress to accentuate her positive physical attributes, while diminishing the negative. Because after all, that should be one of your most important concerns when you are one of the most important diplomatic leaders in the world.) For committing the cardinal sin of daring to wear -- gasp! -- a ponytail she was compared to a Bond villain. And no I do not mean Bond girl or villainess. She was compared to a man.
Meanwhile, Sarah Palin found herself relegated to the role of right-wing fantasy pinup. A role, some may argue she didn't seem to mind, but it doesn't make the media's role in perpetuating it any less egregious. Conservative writer Rich Lowry's infamous critique of her debate performance read more like a fan letter to a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader than a legitimate performance review. There were nonstop articles about her hairstyle, her glasses. And then of course there was wardrobe-gate. When it was discovered that the Republican National Committee had spent over one hundred thousand dollars on a new wardrobe and makeup for Palin's "welcome to the national stage makeover," the moment marked a disastrous turning point for Palin and the McCain campaign. Only it shouldn't have.
While the move was clearly politically stupid, smacking of insensitivity and tone deafness during an election in which the defining issue was the economic struggles of Americans who don't make six figures (and certainly will never be able to spend that much on clothes), from a purely practical standpoint the campaign did nothing wrong. How do I know? Because I am not on television or photographed nearly as much as Palin was in one week on the campaign trail, yet you'd be surprised to see the ratio of comments I receive about my appearance or wardrobe versus those on a post that I write about rape or contraception or something else much more important than my outfit.
The reality is women are judged more harshly. The McCain campaign knew that. So they prepared accordingly and they were criticized anyway. (Speaking as a Loehmann's loyalist myself, yes I'm sure they could have found a more cost effective wardrobe, but as any true bargain hunter knows, bargain hunting takes time and time is the most valuable commodity on a campaign. That's how you end up with a personal shopper dropping by a hotel suite with a bunch of goodies and leaving you with a one hundred and fifty thousand dollar bill.)
When it comes to Palin and Clinton's male counterparts, there is no comparison. Every year the media engage in their annual "How much is the presidency aging the president?" analysis, which essentially counts how many new gray hairs President Obama has earned in his last year on the job, but beyond that I have no idea what label suits President Obama wears, or who his ties are by. Do you? Similarly, I have no idea who cuts Newt Gingrich's hair, but I know more about Callista Gingrich's hairstyle than I care to, because it was covered so extensively during the GOP primary, as was Michele Bachmann's 'do before she bowed out.
In response to the chatter about her makeup-free look, Clinton displayed the same cool that apparently makes her suited to her role as Secretary of State. Laughing the controversy off she said, "I feel so relieved to be at the stage I'm at in my life right now... If I want to wear my glasses I'm wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back I'm pulling my hair back... At some point it's just not something that deserves a whole lot of time and attention. And if others want to worry about it, I let them do the worrying for a change."
Only the criticism is no laughing matter. Because the criticism we tolerate regarding our appearance -- and the criticism we as women direct at other women's appearances -- represent yet another way in which we allow men to maintain the upper hand, in the workplace, in media, and yes, politics. For instance, as critics noted, during the 2008 campaign Palin and Clinton had to wake up at least an hour earlier than their male counterparts just to get their hair and makeup done, so as to avoid the kind of news coverage Clinton has endured the last couple of days. I've heard from other women who have speculated that makeup-free Hillary is probably less likely to be taken as seriously as glammed up Hillary; a sentiment reiterated when I toyed with the idea of going on television au natural, in solidarity. The verdict from concerned friends? That it wouldn't be good for my career. That this is even a concern today reminds me of the Ann Richards saying. "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."
And if she'd been in flats I'm sure her wardrobe would have been criticized and her performance wouldn't have been considered good enough.
The fact that Clinton finally has the confidence and courage to stop caring what critics have to say about her appearance puts her miles ahead of most of us; many of whom wouldn't be caught taking out the garbage without a touch of concealer, let alone at an official work engagement. It also puts her miles ahead of most of her male counterparts. So to all of her potential 2016 opponents: You've been warned.
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