The Politics of Personal Appearance

September 6, 2009 | NeW Staff

Beauty has always been and will continue to be an attribute of our sex.  Socrates called beauty a short-lived tyranny.  Plato thought it was a privilege of nature.  Aristotle declared that beauty was better than all the recommendation letters in the world.  In this age, whether tyrannical, natural, or functional, beauty has definitely become political.  

My first ever college lecture was comprised of my professor announcing to the class that she will never wear high-heels because she didn’t want to be “on her tip-toes for a man.”  It was an introductory philosophy course.  She was a feminist.  It was my brief and unexpected introduction to a kind of feminist ideology.  Having been guarded by my aegis of rural naiveté, I had assumed that I lived in a land where girls wore dresses, families ate together, love comes first and then comes marriage, and wives and husbands made each other happy.  When I started college, I didn’t know anything about feminism and how it was going to affect my generation of young women.  I didn’t know there were sides to take, and colours to declare.  I only knew where I stood.  

Now, thinking back on my professor’s refusal to wear heels, it seems rather contradictory.  After all, wasn’t it the voices of the 1960s feminists that announced new expectations of womanhood, beauty, and sexual expression by encouraging women to sell their sexual allure and their safety and comfort along with it?  Yes, it was.  During the 1960s, when the second wave of feminism emerged and paved new avenues to drive women out of their homes and into the workplace, working women lost interest in women’s magazines that were aimed at the housewife.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vogue made a “breakthrough” by focusing as much on the female body as on clothes.  The feminist movement perpetuated the view of feminine beauty as an object.  Traditional beauty, on the other hand, has always been associated with moral worth.  A well-educated mind, joined with good sense and virtue is beautiful.  But how does one wear moral worth?  This is not an irreverent question.  The symbolic can be as important as the substantive.  

Some might think it’s frivolous to be wondering what to wear to the debate, however, appearance is relevant.  Linda Scott, a professor of advertising and gender studies, wrote “In every generation, the women with more education, more leisure, and more connections to institutions of power – from the church to the press to the university – have been the ones who tried to tell other women what they must wear in order to be liberated.”  With more women in college, professional schools, political office, and in the workforce than ever before, women have become more visible, and what they wear in that visibility has become important.  

What did people notice about former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin right away?  She seemed to be a woman who took personal appearance into consideration.  She had long hair, she wore skirts and heels, she was pretty.  She brought lipstick into the discussion.  It was a refreshing change from liberal politician, Hillary Clinton, who has worn a stern, androgynous look for most, if not all, of her political career.  See how women have responded to Michelle Obama’s appearance.  Magazine stands are scattered with little booklets featuring her style.  Liberal women care about personal appearance, too.  In this climate, it’s important to acknowledge that feminism is not just a movement or political philosophy, but that it has also been presented as a system of “values” that directly countervail traditional values.  If it’s possible to wear our values on our sleeves, then we must.  If conservative women want to reach out to this generation of young women, we must address the notions of beauty and personal appearance that are taking shape in their lives.  

It happened in law school that a young man told me he didn’t think women should wear pants.  From that day forward, I stopped wearing pants.  I wore pants very rarely anyway.  Even though I like a good pair of well-worn jeans as much as the next person, I don’t wear them.  I don’t wear them because I want some visible way to stand out as a conservative woman in a liberal environment.  If pants are somehow an emblem of feminism, then I will not wear pants.  My feminist professor wouldn’t wear heels.  As a young conservative woman, I won’t wear pants. 


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