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Beauty as a Barrier to Leadership

(below is the article I wrote for Antigone Magazine’s fall 2011 Body Image issue)


Feminism has opened many doors for women and girls in North America. Growing up in Canada, young women are encouraged to believe they can be anything. However, they will face an ever-present expectation to maintain a feminine, Western beauty standard while they follow their dreams.

The media’s treatment of female leaders is a prime example of the challenges that beauty creates for women attempting to be seen and heard in our society. The expectation of beauty before all else can have a silencing effect, especially on young women, who may respond by withdrawing or taking up less space.

To lead, girls and women must want to be seen and demand to be heard. If beauty is standing in the way, we must continue to critique idealized standards of women’s beauty and challenge its limiting effects.

You can be anything, but first you must be pretty

Barbie has long been a negative symbol of Western body standards within the feminist movement. What is not mentioned as often is that there are many versions of the Barbie doll. There is Doctor Barbie, Scientist Barbie, Veterinarian Barbie, Flight Attendant Barbie, Teacher Barbie… the list goes on. The variety of occupations for this single doll could be seen as supportive of women’s empowerment across many fields – there’s even an American President Barbie! – but it can also be argued that this example only serves to emphasize the importance of the Barbie body shape. A woman can become anything, so long as she is pretty doing it.

In her 2008 book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, Courtney E. Martin writes, “We are the daughters of feminists who said, ‘You can be anything,’ and we heard, ‘You have to be everything.’ ” The pressure for perfection has contaminated our society’s view of success. The apparent requirement of perfect beauty in order to achieve success takes a toll on many important areas of girls’ and women’s lives.

Leadership, Power and Self-Esteem

This year, the documentary Miss Representation has inspired conversations about the impact of representations of women on our ability to hold leadership positions. On the film’s official site, the documentary makers argue that “in a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader.” This is an important insight into the challenges facing would-be leaders in our communities.

If we define power for women as something that comes in a lipstick tube or dress size, is it surprising that young women are so focused on their appearance? If this is perceived as their only avenue to power, then it is logical that empowerment comes to mean making themselves attractive to men at all costs – and I do mean all costs.

The diet industry reportedly makes 40 billion dollars a year with help from this ‘logic,’ and the YMCA released a study in 2008 finding that American women spend a collective 7 billion dollars a year on cosmetic and beauty products. For young women it’s not surprising that diets, eating disorders, expensive beauty products, complex and sometimes painful beauty rituals, and the endless policing of beauty standards seem much more strategic than joining a club, volunteering, voting, or getting your voice heard. How can we expect girls and young women to desire leadership when we are constantly telling them to focus on being desired?

In addition, if a woman thinks she is ugly, or fears others finding flaws in her appearance, how likely is she to make herself seen or heard? Beauty, and the fear it causes, can actually impact how a girl may express herself and her abilities. For example, women in a study who were required to complete a math test while wearing a swimsuit scored worse than their sweater-wearing peers.

Leadership in particular can be a vulnerable position that requires the self-esteem to risk being the first to speak up, defend a position, or act bravely. The burden of the standards of beauty on self-esteem is a weight familiar to girls and women. The Dove Real Truth About Beauty research found that girls in Canada are more likely to avoid social activities that put pressure on them to be beautiful, and that by 14 years old just over half of the girls reported feeling the stress of beauty expectations. Studies typically find that women become more dissatisfied with their body with age, which shows that this isn’t just a phase. It’s a problem.

We ask women to step forward and take the reins, but we must also acknowledge that in doing so they are opening themselves up to further scrutiny of both their actions and their physical appearance than they might otherwise face. This may dissuade them from taking on leadership positions where they may be needed. During Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, her femininity was constantly questioned because of her choices of clothing and demeanour. What did her wardrobe have to do with her qualifications? She had failed at being a proper, attractive woman. Sexism revolving around appearances isn’t new to politicians, though. In fact, it’s one of the reasons this magazine was founded.

Too Pretty to Lead

An important further obstacle is that being too attractive also discredits women. Female politicians, like all women, are attacked from both sides: sexualized if they are pretty, but considered ugly and unfeminine if they aren’t. Leadership requires credibility and respect, but stereotypes of bimbos, tokenism and ‘dumb blondes’ can chip away others’ confidence in a woman’s abilities. Can you win a beauty pageant and still be taken seriously in a boardroom or a press conference?

Although there are many advantages to being perceived as pretty there are also many disadvantages. Take, for example, the media’s treatment of former MP Belinda Stronach who was thought to be stupid because of her blonde hair or the way that pop culture has fetishized Sarah Palin’s beauty, going so far as to make her the subject of pornography. This treatment makes it clear that catering to feminine beauty ideals can also get someone into trouble. A pretty woman may become a sex object instead of a respected candidate, co-worker or peer.

Redefining ‘Success’

Despite coming from different political positions and different political parties female political candidates all face the challenges of the beauty ideal and the barriers it creates for women who seek leadership.
Beauty is arguably one of the first social requirements of being a woman. We must be ready for the male gaze at all times, ready to be beautiful and attractive and properly feminine.

As judges, as janitors, as teachers, as athletes, we must be beautiful before we can be considered successful women. The constant physical and emotional energy, not to mention time and money, required to maintain the standard of beauty has been proven to be a drain on girls and women, impacting their self-esteem, opportunities, finances and views of their own abilities.

Imagine a world where that effort was put into working towards a better future for us all. While we encourage girls to dream big, enter new fields and take on leadership roles, we must also combat the beauty ideal that will make them targets, demand perfection and limit their potential.


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