Oh, the ways to be irritated are many. Here I am thinking about Elena Kagan, the fabulously historic wonders of having three women on the Supreme Court, when a friend said, “My teen daughter said, “She could dress a little better.”” Another friend said, “She’s not very attractive.” What’s wrong with these people? Nothing. Appearance and the pros and cons of it are debated twenty-four seven in our country. It seems that if a woman is pretty, she is probably dumb unless she is pretty without trying to be pretty: does she color her hair? Has she had Botox? Is she overweight? These topics and more are delved into in Deborah Rhode’s new and worthwhile book, The Beauty Bias. The lawyer in Rhodes comes out, too. She doesn’t just list the many instances of beauty bias (for and against beauty) but she offers some ways to counter it.
Reading Rhode’s book and thinking of my own love-hate relationship with my appearance has made me wonder about the burden of appearance judgments on women in leadership positions. I’ve never forgotten the words of a communication professor colleague who described a new administrator at her college as, ” an Avon lady, real estate salesperson type.” I wondered: what type is that? I realized that I’m probably one, too if it means preferring suits over separates, wearing mascara and lipstick and shoes with heels. Does that wardrobe make me look less competent as a college professor? I guess according to my colleague. Avon anyone?
When I research women in politics and I note their clothing choices, I think, this is a “war” drobe — they go to battle every time they show up in an outfit because they are darned if they do and darned if they don’t.
And this new writing project: women who “could” have been president. One of my colleagues said that appearance matters and we need to talk about it. What do I know about what they look like? What is attractive? OK: maybe many people will agree that Angelina Jolie is universally attractive, but let’s get real here. I think Elena Kagan looks great. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s try to remember that.
Nichola Gutgold is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She has written a review of The Beauty Bias for Senior Women Web and will share the link on Facebook once it is up!