This piece is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics called “That’s What Girls Do.”
In the opening scene of Netflix’s powerful documentary “Knock Down the House,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) carefully fills in her eyebrows and dabs foundation on her skin in the harsh light of a hotel bathroom. “Getting ready, for women, it involves so many decisions about how you’re going to present yourself to the world,” she says. “There’s kind of standard protocol for how a man running for office should dress. You either put on a suit, or you put on a light color shirt, slacks, and you roll up the sleeves.” For female candidates, physical appearance can be a minefield that is difficult and emotional to navigate, and that we rarely talk about.
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In 2017, the Pew Research Center polled 4,573 adults nationwide regarding the traits and characteristics that respondents believed that our society most highly valued in both men and women. While the most highly valued traits for men related to their honesty, morality and professional success, the overwhelming top response for women was “physical appearance.”
I hope I don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to convince you that this double standard is real. One stark example: Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are the country’s most well-known Democratic Socialists, and they often advocate for they same policies, but there is no denying that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez present themselves, physically, in very different ways. While Sanders’s sometimes-disheveled appearance and wild hair is often viewed as endearing — an outward manifestation of his passion and energy, and a signal that he isn’t like those other old white men in Washington — I doubt a woman would be nearly as successful presenting herself in such a way.
Ocasio-Cortez has embraced a look that is revolutionary in its own right: She famously wore red lipstick and hoop earrings for her swearing-in ceremony and tweeted, “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a congresswoman.” But even to a casual observer it is abundantly clear that Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance is much more heavily scrutinized and that she is required to put more thought and effort into her appearance than her male counterparts like Sanders, who seems to be able to roll out of bed and hit the campaign trail.
In an interview last summer, Stacey Abrams explained that when she ran for governor of Georgia she faced significant pressure from her campaign and even from her close friends to change her natural hair, fix the gap in her teeth and lose weight. Her response:
“I like who I am, and because I knew I was the best person for the job, I wasn’t going to wait until Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig turned me into the after picture. I wasn’t going to Invisilign myself out of looking like my mother.”
Abrams has risen nationally as a stand-out Democratic leader precisely because she is so willing to address uncomfortable topics and be vulnerable with voters. She talked about being in debt, having a son who had gone to prison and being overweight. When voters hear people speaking openly and honestly like that, they sit up and take notice: It resonates in a way that breaks through the usual distrust we naturally feel for politicians.
But for female candidates, talking about physical appearance is risky. A study released in 2013 shows that any mention of a female-candidate’s physical appearance, whether it is positive, negative or neutral, negatively impacts potential voters’ impressions of the candidate. The survey of 1,500 likely voters nationwide found that no matter what is said about a female political candidate’s appearance, “it hurt her likability and it made voters less likely to vote for her.”
While that study about the impact of talking about appearance is discouraging, there is a powerful new movement gaining steam across the country that has nothing to do with talking; it’s all about doing. It asks women to simply “run as you are.” This phrase, championed by groups like Vote Run Lead, conveys the idea that we can reshape public perceptions about what a political candidate is supposed to look like if more smart, passionate, talented people would run for public office just as they are right now — not after they lose 10 pounds, lose their accent and make themselves over with the help of political consultants.
Earlier this year, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) revealed that she is living with alopecia. In a brave and emotional video, she appeared for the first time without a hairpiece and explained why she made the difficult decision to go public with her diagnosis. Although some people told her, “it’s just hair,” Pressley explained that, “[t]he reality is that I’m black, I’m a black woman and I’m a black woman in politics, and everything I do is political,” so she felt that it was particularly important to speak out because the hairstyle she had become famous for, Senegalese twists, had become a part of her political brand. She talked about seeing little girls in her home district wearing T-shirts that said “My Congresswoman Wears Braids.” She knew that girls and women felt seen and represented because of her hairstyle, but she was burdened with a painful secret: She was waking up each morning to devastating and traumatic hair loss.
Ultimately, Pressley decided to go public about her alopecia. “It’s about self-agency,” she said. “It’s about power. It’s about acceptance. Right now on this journey, when I feel the most unlike myself is when I am wearing a wig. So I think that means I’m on my way.”
For me, Pressley’s decision to take power over her situation hits home. I used to think that the political candidates, elected officials and advocates that I saw on the nightly news must really love all that attention. The caricature we see is always of a politician preening for the cameras. But then I got very involved in advocating for the return of the Little Rock School District to local control and found myself in a more high-profile position, and I pretty quickly began to truly dread seeing clips and photographs of myself on TV, online and in the paper. I became severely self-conscious and embarrassed about how I looked . . . but I still had things I wanted to say. Over and over again, I felt the push and pull of wanting to advocate as publicly and forcefully as possible on an issue I am passionate about while also not wanting to be on camera. I finally just had to make peace with feeling insecure about my appearance but prioritizing my desire to do the work and get my message out. I still try to avoid watching those news clips or seeing those photos because I worry that doing so might make me hesitate to stand up and speak the next time something needs to be said.
I wish I didn’t have to write this particular piece. I wish Ocasio-Cortez didn’t have to answer as many questions about her lipstick as her legislative agenda. I wish that social pressures and basic human decency had prevented internet trolls from harassing Pressley and calling her “Mr. Clean” after she revealed her alopecia, and I wish that Hillary Clinton was not defined by her pantsuits. But wishing won’t change anything, so this a call to action.
Being pretty is not the rent we must pay to exist in the world as women, and it should not be a prerequisite for meaningful participation in our own government. Whether we fit into someone else’s arbitrary beauty standards does not determine the merits of our ideas nor does it limit how hard we are capable of working. So, in a society in which entire sectors of our economy are built around fueling women’s self-doubt about our appearance, let’s decide together that the most revolutionary political act we can commit is loving and accepting ourselves enough to run exactly as we are.