President Obama apologized last week for introducing California’s Kamala Harris as “by far, the best-looking attorney general” in the country. But the president isn’t the only one who recognizes an attractive politician when he sees her. This election cycle, a prominent South Carolina Republican feels threatened by congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch: “Everybody is really concerned because she’s not a bad-looking lady,” he said. When Ashley Judd briefly considered a bid for the Senate, Dave Weigel noted one of the actress-turned-politican’s main advantages: “readers of popular websites like to click on photos of attractive women.” And Maureen Dowd thinks Hillary Clinton’s fabulous haircut is indicative of her chances in 2016: “her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention,” Dowd says. Hillary “has ditched the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a K.G.B. villainess in a Bond movie and has a sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous.”
The implication is that the better a woman looks, the better she’ll fare in the horse race. Today, Name It. Change It. released a study showing that when the media focuses on a female politician’s appearance, voters actually vacate her in droves. This spring, the organization staged a “hypothetical congressional contest between female candidate Jane Smith and male candidate Dan Jones,” presented a series of fake news stories about each candidate to 1,500 likely U.S. voters, then asked participants how they’d cast their vote. Voters who heard a pair of mundane stories that detailed Jane and Dan’s responses to an education bill split their votes pretty evenly between the two candidates. But when voters heard stories that sneaked in references to Jane’s physical appearance, Jane lost serious ground to Dan.
Even when discussion of female politicians’ appearance is coded as a “compliment,” it damages her chances. Voters lost confidence in Jane whether the coverage of her looks was neutral, ostensibly flattering, or just plain mean. In the control group that didn’t hear about Jane’s appearance, she earned the support of 50 percent of voters. When the news story included a neutral appraisal of her appearance—“Smith dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel”—she lost four points. The flattering coverage—“In person, Smith is fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heels”—lost her six points. And the negative coverage of her looks—“At the press conference Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had sealed into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails”—lost her seven points. Voters who heard news reports about Jane’s looks rated her less “in touch,” “likeable,” “confident,” “effective,” and “qualified.” That was true even among Jane's base—though young women initially supported Jane by a huge margin, focus on her blouses and heels and nails turned them off from their candidate.
Name It. Change It.’s report didn’t run a similar experiment for coverage of Dan’s looks, so we don’t know how praise of his cuticle maintenance would have affected his chances. But we do know that despite President Obama’s commitment to equal-opportunity physical flattery, female candidates contend with far more superficial coverage of their campaigns than do men, and that seriously undermines their success. In Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns, Erika Falk examined media coverage of every female presidential candidate in American history, from Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Female candidates were subjected to four times the appearance-based coverage that male candidates were. And the trend didn’t budge across the 136-year sample: Journalists in 2004 described Carol Moseley Braun’s body more frequently than journalists in 1872 touched on Woodhull’s looks. Independent studies have found similar gender discrepancies in media coverage of 2008 vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, and 2000 presidential contenders Elizabeth Dole, George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, and John McCain.
This type of coverage is a media problem, not a Jane Smith problem. But Jane can help reverse her losses when she refuses to take these “compliments” about her looks. Name It. Change It. went on to find that when Jane and outside media commenters point out that looks-based coverage “has no place in the media and that her appearance is not news,” Jane can regain most—but not all—of her losses from the physical fixation. And “even voters who had not heard the appearance descriptions respond positively to the woman candidate standing up for herself.” Dan’s support, meanwhile, remains constant throughout the kerfuffle.
When Obama pointed attention to Kamala Harris’ looks, Politico media reporter Dylan Byers asked, “How did it become so difficult to call a woman good looking in public?” Name It. Change It.’s report suggests that it’s relatively easy for media commentators like Byers to call a woman hot—they just make it very hard for that woman to win.