11/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin's Appearance Makes Headlines Because of Our Hypocrisy, Not Hers

Despite my usual tendency to delight in the unmasking of hypocrisy, I am having a tough time hopping on the bandwagon of outrage over Sarah Palin's 150-thousand dollar clothing allowance. Oh sure, it puts the lie to her small-town, off-the-rack values and reinforces her critics' image of her as some sort of Barbie candidate, in this case the "makeover edition" complete with several designer outfits and stylish stilettos. Turn Caribou Barbie into Cosmo Barbie! But beneath this "controversy" is a troubling fact: when it comes to judging female politicians, we are still a deeply sexist culture. Hillary Clinton was certainly subjected to this relentless scrutiny. The result: she actually looked better and better as the campaign went on, her "look" polished by hair and makeup folks who were part of her entourage. As I watched her during her grueling campaign schedule, I found myself thinking, "Wow, she looks great! How does she manage that?" I did not find myself thinking the same about Barack Obama. Men get to wear suits and ties. BOR-ing. But oh, so simple.

Enter Sarah Palin, an attractive woman with long legs who is not shy about showing them off by wearing skirts and perching on impossibly high heels. Again, I found myself thinking, "Wow, how does she manage that?" I last wore stiletto heels to my high school prom, where I quickly kicked them off under the table. And, like Hillary, I wear a lot of pantsuits. Probably for the same reasons. But the catty comments aimed at Hillary Clinton's appearance from the right over the years pale next to those aimed at Sarah Palin's appearance from the left in just the last few months. Palin may appear hypocritical for accepting 150 thousand dollars of the RNC's money for expensive outfits while touting her credentials as a woman from the "real America." There's no doubt that she would have been better off spending the money on more reasonably-priced attire, especially at a time when she is attempting to identify with struggling middle-class Americans. That part is certainly fair game for critics. But make no mistake: we have a double standard when it comes to men and women running for office. So if Sarah Palin is guilty of something here, I would call it a matter of degree. The fact that she needs to look sharp for daily appearances in front of those unforgiving high-def cameras is something all women in the public eye can relate to. How much you spend on that effort is a separate question.

I remember how shocked I was when I learned that the hair and makeup person who worked for one of network television's top news anchors was paid a yearly salary of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But there is a reason that particular female anchor looks fabulous, day in and day out. Does it have anything to do with journalism? Of course not. No more than stiletto heels have anything to do with politics. Except that we make it so. Until we can turn our culture into one that teaches our daughters that what you know is more important than how you look, hypocrisy will have a home here. And I'm not talking about Sarah Palin's.