Appearing Political: a brief assessment on the role of fashion, beauty and appearing in politics today

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It is an unfortunate fact that one of the greatest outpourings of casual sexism in politics is the media’s fascination with female politician’s appearances; from the clothes on their back to the intense scrutiny that they might have split ends. Likewise, it is not simply that women face judgement about their clothing choices but rather there is a far greater emphasis on the relationship between the time spent on their make-up and their capability as a public figure: it is a battle where no one is a winner. If you take pride in your appearance you are vain and self-serving, but if you couldn’t care less about the clothes you wear, then you don’t care for yourself and certainly cannot care for other people. The impossibility of such a situation epitomises the difficulties women face in politics and how the fight that has been going on for decades needs to be taken seriously. 

Yet, this being said, the importance of appearance in politics should not be underestimated, especially in a world fuelled by social media. As a recent BBC documentary illustrated, the power of not just social media but equally reality TV in voting choices is becoming unprecedented, and this does not simply refer to Trump. The celebrity reality TV trope is not something that should be underestimated. Reality TV, though it doesn’t demand many critical faculties, engages and elicits powerful responses, be it negative or positive. Political lobbying can therefore come through sideways, even if people are aware of a political presence on social media, aware of targeted advertising and fake news, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are aware of the impact of seeing, for example, Stanley Johnson on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. In this technologically savvy world, we don’t need to be aware of the explicit political messaging for it to have an impact. So, as politics continues to make use of a variety of media outlets, appearance will only become more important. 

There have been studies that looked into the beauty of contestants and while that is not the focus of this particular article, the findings do illustrate something more essential about the way people interact with political candidates. Uninformed voters use appearance to not simply gauge political ideology from the appearance of people but can also use it as a guide for whom to vote for, preferring an appearance that they find favourable even if it goes against their own needs and beliefs. If beauty and appearance are so crucially tied together then, however worrying this might be, there is not simply a link between appearance and competence but more pressingly a direct cause and consequence between appearance and voting habits. So while such an observation is often dismissed, especially with women, as being the thoughts of someone who is somewhat neolithic in their beliefs, the existence of such ideas are actually prevalent in the political sphere and even if it isn’t an active association, the ever-increasing power of media governed merely by aesthetics and not thoughts could be disastrous for a population’s ability to make informed political decisions. This though cannot be an excuse for outright sexism but we should equally be aware of such influences in our, and others’, decision making. 

I think though this goes deeper than simply assigning a level of competence to someone and more to the adjectives we use to describe someone. Largely the only true way that we can understand the personality of a public figure, especially when we discount their words as part of an ideological plea, is their clothes; and as a result, our judgements on their character come, in part, from their appearance and personal ticks. For example, Boris Johnson, when he is attacked for a failure, is often accused of being ‘ineffectual’, or ‘misguided’ rather than deliberately manipulative; which can be linked to his slightly unkempt and messy appearance. Jacob Rees- Mogg though, for a similar mistake would probably be accused of making such a decision purposefully and with malice. The same logic can be applied across the political spectrum. I simply chose these two as an example of the diversity of image within one party, but think also about Jeremy Corbyn and Kier Starmer.  These are by no means perfect descriptions and they are largely stereotypes however the presence of such judgements and the link to appearance is, at the very least, enough to make one think. 

The other side of this issue, to bring it back to the feminist angle, is that while Vogue or Elle may refrain from an in-depth analysis of AOC’s beliefs they are appealing to a new demographic who may otherwise have not been interested. Though the 10 best outfits of *insert politician’s name here* is hardly great political journalism, it nonetheless may have a unique part to play. Naturally, there is the concern that such an article may continue to inform sexist decision-making, that it may encourage uninformed voters to make decisions on such superficial matters, but we should also consider that such coverage may be getting younger people interested in politics. With the turnouts for voting generally being a chief concern in the run-up to an election and the persisting belief that ‘my vote won’t matter’ such efforts can change things: likewise, the rise of celebrities encouraging voting has a similar impact. I do though acknowledge that Vogue has, over the past few years, increased the ‘seriousness’ of some of their writing, which is a welcome change. I just hope that they continue to remain impartial as they do so: it would be a shame to encourage readers to engage in politics, only to find that the subversive messaging across a multitude of platforms has led to young people not making up their own minds, and not wondering fully the implications of their vote with decisions not based on manifestos and doctrines. 

Appearance and clothing choices will continue to have a far-reaching impact upon our political lives and it is impossible to remove its prevalence. However, I do fear that it is becoming too much the bedrock of un- and semi-informed political decisions, a fact that political advisors are undoubtedly aware of. So, when we next have to make a decision about public figures, let us just take a step back and observe the way that fashion and beauty choices impact our judgements of someone, male or female. 

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