Focus on Hillary Clinton's appearance sparks criticism

ByMartha T. Moore, USA TODAY
May 9, 2012, 7:27 PM

— -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is having a media moment, even by the standards of someone who has been in the public eye for more than 20 years.

Her hair, a perennial topic, and makeup, or lack thereof, have been in the news since the website Drudge Report posted a photo Monday of the secretary of State wearing glasses and no cosmetics other than lipstick during a trip to India. The faulty-French headline: "Hillary au Naturale." A story in the April issue of Elle magazine quoted Clinton's aides bemoaning her recent habit of pulling her hair back in a casual ponytail with a scrunchie, a fabric-covered hair elastic.

Asked about the attention in an interview on CNN, Clinton said she is beyond worrying about reaction to her appearance. "If I want to wear my glasses, I'm wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back I'm pulling my hair back. You know at some point it's just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention."

That led to a flurry of media attention from newspapers, morning news shows and blogs.

The chatter follows a wave of positive press for the 64-year-old former first lady, senator and presidential candidate, including the Elle profile; a "Texts from Hillary" website that assigned her a 007-level of cosmopolitan cool; renewed buzz about a possible presidential run in 2016; and a popularity rating far exceeding that of her boss, President Obama.

The attention to her looks is a familiar theme, not just for Clinton — whose appearance has been judged, often harshly, since she appeared in a velvet headband on 60 Minutes in 1992 — but for other women in politics, including Republicans Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says evaluation of women on their looks is driven by news media, not voters. "What is just absolutely amazing is how pervasive this is and how true it is even for women reporters and the degree to which even if women try to develop just a uniform for the job we can't seem to get off this topic," she says. In focus groups, "I haven't heard anyone mention her hair or her makeup for probably a decade. It's not the voters driving this at all. They could care less. It is reporters. It is both male and female reporters."

Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, says politicians of both sexes get evaluated on their looks, but women face closer scrutiny.

The Drudge Report headline, she says, is "really saying to all women, don't you dare step into the public sphere, we will savage you for what you look like." She praised Clinton for dismissing the criticism on ABC. "Eliciting that response from her and (airing) that response is a really important part of a national conversation," O'Neill says. "That is so empowering to so many women to hear the secretary of State say that."

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