HRC: And One Other Thing

by Cara on July 24, 2008

in beauty myths, fat-shaming, feminism, gender, media, misogyny, objectification, patriarchy, politics, sexism, stereotypes

I’ll be entirely honest: when I saw Hillary Clinton, one of the first things I thought after “wow, that’s Hillary Clinton” was “wow, she’s so pretty.”

Hillary has been attacked for her appearance an awful lot throughout her career. She’s been called ugly, “too” masculine, fat and so on. Allow me to be clear: even if I personally found Hillary Clinton to be the ugliest person on the face of the planet — and obviously I do not — that’s still no good reason for anyone to debase because of her physical appearance. And mocking someone’s features is not only juvenile and mean-spirited, it’s about as far as you get from a genuine political argument. On the other side, if a politician is someone who would be considered very conventionally attractive, “hot” even, it would not be okay to debase her because of her appearance either — you know, calling her stupid because she’s pretty, or making crude sexual comments. None of this is okay — and it’s something that is done far, far more often to women in politics.

The question of why our culture mocks and judges women based on their appearance is a well-worn one. I think we know those answers: it’s a means of keeping women in their place, outside of political discourse and rendering them nothing more than sexual objects for public consumption. Basic stuff.

But when considering this, my mind went elsewhere. The question is not why Hillary Clinton is judged on her appearance, it’s why she’s judged so negatively on her appearance. Why is she called ugly? What’s up with all of those “fat thighs” jokes?

(FTR, I wear a size 10, and Hillary was definitely thinner. I’d say that she wears a size 8 at highest, but more likely a size 6. And I note this only because while using “fat” as an insult is never okay, and neither is using weight as a measuring stick of worth, it’s frightening that this is what now passes for being “too heavy.”)

I write this post — and this is why I was wary of putting it in the other one — not to try to flip the coin and judge Clinton on her very nice appearance. I also realize that we’re at risk here of slipping into that territory. But I’m using her as a case study, because simply seeing her in person — even though I’d certainly never agreed with the “ugly” remarks — so powerfully hit the point home for me. Those of us reading this may be aware of and critical of concepts of conventional beauty, but I think it’s important to acknowledge, as I’m trying to do now, that we still see appearance, we still feel sexual attraction based on looks, and we still admire beauty without sexual attraction. I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. But it’s interesting and important to ask where our opinions on these matters come from beyond the obvious “the media tells us that only women who are thin and have big boobs are attractive,” and to recognize our own biases. (That I’m writing this, I think, is evidence that I’m becoming more consciously aware of my own.) I’m just asking some questions about “why?”

Once the shock of having met Hillary Clinton wore off, all I could think of is how we as a culture devalue the sexuality of “older” women and don’t know how to appreciate beauty based on anything other than youth. The idea is seemingly not a part of conventional thought. And it’s not only that we don’t appreciate such beauty — no, that’s not enough — we have to actively and preemptively reject it.  I’m usually pretty bad at judging ages, but I’d say that Clinton more or less looked hers. Up close, you could tell that she had a lot of fine lines on her face. And you know what? Still radiant. Truly, I’m not exaggerating or complimenting for the sake of complimenting — she was lovely. But all of those anti-aging commercials and the lack of women with lines being portrayed as attractive people suggests that something ought to be unusual and/or confusing about this.

Furthermore, I think that the physical appearance of women in power is also regularly degraded. Women who are assertive, who don’t take shit? Women who can outsmart most people around them, including the guys? Well, they’re just bitter because they’re so damn hideous — regardless of how they actually look. Yoko Ono, another incredibly beautiful woman who has regularly been derided for her appearance (I will discuss this more in the Yoko posts if I ever finish them) springs to mind.

And like with Yoko, while understanding that such comments wouldn’t be appropriate no matter what I thought of Clinton’s looks, I just had to ponder “how the hell does anyone call this woman ugly?”

This is my answer. What’s yours?


1 Pop Feminist July 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Well, it’s a wonderful way to knock a woman down a peg isn’t it? So much of our worth on all levels is tied in one way or another to our appearance. If you call a woman “fat” or “ugly”, you’re in essence making a comment on the whole mosaic of her person as being not good enough.

If the media can convince the world that Clinton is ugly, they save themselves the trouble of convincing us of her other short-comings; it will simply go without saying. Same with Yoko. It’s hard to actually justify hating someone who John Lennon loved so much. By pointing out that she’s ugly (when Lennon could get any woman on earth), it’s a cake-walk to chalking her influence on him up to witchcraft, or a painting her as a manipulative bitch who wants only to control his income and break up the beatles.

Keeping women under the thumb of the beauty industry is a key weapon in undermining the accomplishments of feminism. Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth”, while out of date and often overly simplistic, does a good job in demonstrating the many ways in which beauty is used as a weapon against would-be successful women.

Ugh. It’s such a shame that something so small and boring as beauty is capable of dolling out so hard a blow on the lives and liberation of women.

2 boardincali July 24, 2008 at 6:28 pm

I think that it stems from an intimidation factor. When women become dominant on a male dominated environment, they make up petty excuses or attacks. Take Danica Patrick for example, after her victory, there were people saying that she had advantages, and they “let her win” because she was a woman. This woman is successful because of her mind! Fuel rationing and experience won it. Hilary is also recognized for her mind, looks have nothing to do with it, and never should.

3 Ryan July 24, 2008 at 7:14 pm

Gendered attacks are easy because no matter how absurd; they somehow retain their potency. You’re right about it being about as far from a legitimate political argument as you can get but our national political discourse is both polarized and vacuous. Most people seem to either love or hate Sen. Clinton and I think that goes a long way towards explaining why she is judged so negatively (and sexism goes a long way towards explaining why Sen. Clinton raises such strong feelings in people).

I doubt that for her detractors Sen. Clinton’s appearance is remarkable (in any way) but I do not think it is about how she looks. People usually have some idea of how effective an insult will be and they are selecting the one they think will land with the most impact.

4 Renee July 25, 2008 at 2:11 am

I was reading your post and listening to Chistian Amanpour on CNN.. It occurs to that any woman who takes on a traditionally male role is constructed as ugly and unfeminine. It is a form of castration really, a cruel and vicious unsexing meant to discipline us back into docility. When women succeed despite the best efforts of patriarchy I think that they find it threatening. If we can succeed despite the roadblocks against us what could we accomplish in a truly equal world. This more than anything keeps those hateful MRA`s up at night.

5 Niki July 25, 2008 at 12:54 pm

I think there is also an element of disbelief that an attractive woman would WANT to do anything but serve men.

6 roses July 25, 2008 at 12:55 pm

She is a very attractive woman. Of course, if she wasn’t, that wouldn’t make it okay to attack her for her looks. But the fact that she is really highlights the way it’s not about looks at all. It really is just a way to tear women down a peg. “You may be our next president, but I still have the power to judge whether you’re fuckable or not, and don’t you forget it.”

7 Jemima July 25, 2008 at 1:32 pm

I have a blog post up about the jokes and insults being flung about an Italian politician who happens to be an ex-model (nude model that is). Very much on the same topic as you talk about here, though somewhat shorter :P

8 Jen July 27, 2008 at 9:28 pm

What’s sad, at least, to me, is that when I say that I think Hillary Clinton is beautiful is that people deride my sense of aesthetics. The “is it fuckable?” standard doesn’t apply to Clinton when I look at her, simply because the force of her accomplishments and passion is truly awesome and beautiful to behold. It doesn’t hurt that physically, she is also very fashionable and pretty.

Then again, someone could be quite conventionally ugly, and if they recited beautiful poetry and heart-felt sentiments to me, they would be radiant. What is sad not only is that her success is derided for a lack of beauty (which, is false: Clinton wears her age like the latest Versace skirt), it’s that her personality and accomplishments are not factors of her appeal, they are detriments. Can you imagine a world in which Obama’s political successes made him ugly? I cannot. When someone tells me that sexism is dead, I assume they must be deaf, dumb, and blind.

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