Is Clinton Scrutinized About Her Looks Too Much?

Clinton's looks focused on more than her opponents', political gurus say.

February 06, 2009, 8:43 PM

Jan. 28, 2008 — -- From the color of her suit to her latest choice in hairstyle, Hillary Clinton and her appearance is a common topic of conversation, and according to political analysts, the female presidential candidate is scrutinized for her looks more so than her male counterparts.

"There's no doubt that [Clinton] is held to a different standard — the evaluation of appearance has always been traditionally different for female candidates," said Sarah Brewer, the associate director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.

"It's really very sexist," Geraldine Ferraro, a former vice presidential candidate, told "Nobody is going to say they don't like how [Illinois Sen.] Barack Obama looks and nobody is going to say that about [former South Carolina Sen.] John Edwards."

Throughout the campaign season, Clinton's appearance has made headlines — particularly after an unflattering photo was featured on Matt Drudge's Drudge Report in December 2007 — zooming in on every line and wrinkle on the New York senator's face.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spoke about the photograph in December, posing the question that was on many people's minds: "Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"

"And that woman, by the way, is not going to want to look like she's getting older, because it will impact poll numbers," Limbaugh said. "It will impact perceptions."

While political gurus told that it's too soon to tell whether a droopy physical appearance will translate into drooping support at the polls, they said that gender bias is responsible for the media's willingness to openly discuss Clinton's Botox options while hardly mentioning Obama's worn-out appearance.

"Male candidates can get away with a few more wrinkles than women can," said Ben Shapiro, author of "Project President: Bad Hair and Botox on the Road to the White House." "Obama looks a lot more tired in the past few months, but it tends to show up more on Hillary."

In past elections, male contenders have been critiqued for their appearances, but not to the same degree as Clinton, added Shapiro.

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was forced to deny rumors that his Lincolnesque face looked suddenly youthful because of Botox injections. And his running mate, John Edwards, was derided by Republicans as the "Breck Girl of politics," a reference to a popular woman's shampoo and Edwards' notorious $400 haircut habit.

ABC News' off-air reporters who spend months on the campaign trail said that every candidate has symptoms of campaign fatigue — even if Clinton's telltale signs are the only ones discussed.

Eloise Harper, who covers the Clinton campaign, said that at the end of the day the senator will start saying "loopy" or funny things she otherwise wouldn't, and will also begin to lose her voice.

After the Iowa caucuses, Obama lost his voice so badly that doctors advised him to take time off, according to ABC News' Sunlen Miller, who said he clearly went against the doctor's orders.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee often comes off planes with messed-up hair, evidence of in-flight naps, according to off-air reporter Kevin Chupka.

"One of the reasons Fred Thompson's campaign fell apart is because he didn't look like the guy on 'Law and Order,'" Shapiro said. "He looked a lot older and droopy."

"Women absolutely have it worse and Clinton is the most scrutinized because she's the most visible female candidate in the history of the United States," he said. "For me to be ugly is much easier. Clinton has to look matronly without looking beautiful, tough without looking harsh."

Ferraro, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, said her experience on the campaign trail was very different from Clinton's.

"I was only doing it for four months. These people have been doing it over a year," Ferraro said. "I had all the trappings of a national campaign, my own plane and I stayed in the best hotels and had Secret Service — it's very different."

"You really have to have the drive and the energy and the desire to do something like this," added Ferraro, who has endorsed Clinton.

American University's Brewer said she hopes voters realize it's not a candidate's appearance, but rather their stance on issues that should matter most.

"This is not a beauty pageant and it becomes distracting when people begin to think all that matters is looks," Brewer said. "An unflattering photograph of Clinton or any other female candidate does not qualify her for being credible and willing to serve."

"I don't know if we can avoid [discussing it], but it would be better if everyone was taken on their merit — everything else is just a distraction," she said.

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