When media mention a woman's appearance, her chance of being elected falls, study finds

Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann spoke at The Family Research Council Action Values Voter Summit in 2012. Of the candidates studied by the group "Name It. Change It.", Bachmann received the most appearance-based media coverage.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Any mention of a female candidate's appearance in the media — be it positive, negative or even neutral — damages her chance of being elected, according to a new study.

Read the post-show takeaway

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The study from "Name It. Change It.," the nonpartisan media-monitoring and accountability project of The Women's Media Center and She Should Run, presented people with articles about generic male and female candidates and asked them to judge how competent, in touch and qualified they were.

"The voters in our study, when they heard the different physical descriptions of the woman, they immediately started rating the female candidate as being less competent, being less in touch and being less qualified for the job," Rachel Larris from "Name It. Change It." told MPR News. "This is really dramatic. Being less qualified is the biggest issue in whether people will vote for a candidate."

Larris recognizes that the problem hasn't stopped women from winning seats. In fact, a record number of women won elected office in 2012.

"What we're saying is, we don't want this appearance coverage to be a barrier for women at all. What's happening now doesn't prevent women from winning and running this race, but they have to run twice as fast as the man next to them. We want to level the field," said Larris.

THE TAKEAWAY: Does the same thing happen to men?

Some of the comments on the show concerned appearance-based coverage of male politicians. A cursory search of the Web turns up plenty of examples of seemingly shallow coverage, of both men and women. But "Name It. Change It." has not studied the effect of such coverage on men's candidacies.

Here is just a smattering of those examples:

Suzi Parker, writing in the Washington Post: "While I'm a makeup addict, it's refreshing to see Hillary fresh-faced. She looked like a schoolgirl in the picture — the Hillary from her granola college days at Wellesley. It was the look that won her few fans back in Arkansas in her days as the state's first lady. After all, Southern women love their makeup, and Hillary wore little. As Hillary prepares to exit the high-wire of politics, are we finally seeing the real woman? It seems so. Hillary showed by going natural that she is more concerned about doing her job than with her image.

Brie Dyas, in the Huffington Post: "No, we didn't mess up and accidentally publish a photo of Sarah Palin from the '80s. That is indeed a screengrab from her election day appearance on Fox News, where Palin debuted a new look: sky-high mall hair, frosted lipgloss and Kardashian-level contouring. It's a departure from her standard kind-of-60s bouffants and (somewhat) more fresh-faced makeup choices. This is full-on, unapologetic '80s. What do you think? Is her look two steps forward... or two steps back?"

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger, in the Reliable Source blog at the Washington Post: "A remarkable feat, really: People obsessed over Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and Sarah Palin's open-toed shoes. Not so much with Bachmann, who created a signature look with done-but-not-too-done hair and makeup and clothes that were flattering but never flirty. 'She was able to convey power without the age-old power suit,' said style consultant Alison Lukes. 'She avoided being flashy but also avoided being boring or dowdy.'"

Carol Felsenthal, writing in the The Felsenthal Files blog at chicagomag.com: "If there were any pundits who didn't comment about President Obama's noticeably grayer hair after he delivered his jobs speech last Thursday, I missed them. The graying of Obama has become a theme of this presidency: to his supporters each patch of gray reflects another piece of the mess that George W. Bush left his successor to clean up; to his detractors the gray reflects the anxious condition of a man in way over his head — a head of once-pepper hair attractively flecked with salt to provide that all-important appearance of gravitas."

Mark Leibovich, writing in the New York Times: "President Obama had just finished taking the oath and the Marine band played 'Hail to the Chief' and the cameras panned to children waving little flags. Inaugurations are momentous things. And then, after the benediction, I opened an e-mail from my friend Matt, who had extracted another unalienable truth from the proceedings: 'Biden is a testament to the transforming power of successful hair plugs.' Well yes, he is, though the hair plugs are not a new Biden phenomenon. What's telling here is that at a spectacle so potent and on a stage so crowded, the eye would be so naturally drawn to the goofball understudy. In that sense, Matt represents a cultural wave."

Suzy Menkes, writing in the New York Times: "Yet Mrs. Thatcher, who died on Monday at 87, did not wear the pantsuits that later became the uniform of women in power from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. The British prime minister wore tailored skirt suits with padded shoulders. They were softened by pussycat bows, while luscious pearls played off against Iron Lady lacquered hair. A brooch was pinned to the left lapel (not the right, as worn by Meryl Streep portraying Mrs. Thatcher in the 2011 movie). As the first major female political leader in the West, Mrs. Thatcher had a look that was scrutinized like no male politician's who came before her. And the Thatcher look expressed precisely where feminism stood in the 1980s."

Roberts and Argetsinger, in Reliable Source: "The sight of Rep. Barney Frank wearing a casual t-shirt on the House floor Monday caused more than a few raised eyebrows — room temperature notwithstanding. The Massachusetts Democrat, who's leaving Congress next year, appeared on the floor not in the traditional shirt, tie and jacket but in a thin blue top and a jacket slung over his shoulders. C-SPAN cameras captured the ensemble, which highlighted Frank's less-than-buff torso, and the image quickly went viral, drawing snickers across the Internet."

Rebecca Dana, writing in the Daily Beast: "Many in the Obama administration could claim to be the brains of health-care reform, but the face is unquestionably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's — and the outfit is a lavender-colored Armani suit, with lavender pumps and Tahitian pearls."


How the "System of Beauty" Hurts Female Politicians. "In short, the moment a woman contending for power within the system of power gets talked about as if she's contending for top marks within the system of beauty, it diminishes her standing in the other power realm." (The Atlantic)

The Politics of Appearance. This 2007 New York Times article looks at appearance through the lens of Hillary Clinton's run for president.

Obama sorry for Kamala Harris "good looking" comment. "The White House was responding to criticism over the remark, which some found to be sexist." (LA Times)

The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly... "In social psychology, these seemingly-positive-yet-still-somewhat-unsettling comments and behaviors have a name: Benevolent Sexism. Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, benevolent sexism is both real and insidiously dangerous." (Scientific American)