Want a Female Candidate to Lose An Election? Talk About Her Appearance

Having recently lost 25 pounds, she looked svelte in a nubby black-and-white suit that paired a short tailored jacket with a narrow skirt. Not a strand of her copper-colored hair was out of place. The spiked heels of her pumps sank into the pile of the new carpeting.

When I read the above description of New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn last April, I envisioned a woman entering a room with great confidence. The description penned by Rebecca Mead in these lines portrays her in an attractive light, setting the stage for the rest of her in-depth portrait of Quinn before she had formally declared her candidacy.

But a new study from the Women's Media Center (WMC) suggests that no matter how complimentary a description may seem, outlining a woman candidate's appearance in the media in any way diminishes the likelihood that she will be elected. According to Name It, Change It, the new campaign from the WMC started in light of this research, "when the media focuses on a woman candidate's appearance, she pays the price at the polls."

The survey of media coverage featured three descriptions — one positive, one negative, and one neutral — of female candidates lifted from actual news stories in the 2012 election. Survey participants read profiles of two hypothetical candidates, one male and one female, and read a series of news articles about both. In the stories and profile about the female candidate, the WMC inserted the various physical descriptions. 

Any and all descriptions of a woman candidate's appearance damaged her chances of being elected, while "the male opponent paid no price for this type of coverage," according to the survey's key findings. The study also found that when a woman candidate responded publicly to sexist coverage in the media, she could regain the ground lost with voters who read the physical descriptions.            

There is no arguing with the fact that frequent, overtly sexist, and largely irrelevant descriptions of female candidates' appearances in the media abound. The damage done by this kind of commentary is indisputable — not just at the ballot box, but for women everywhere. The disproportionate emphasis on the physique of women running for office in the news, rather than their political platform, is a gross disservice to any semblance of gender equality we've begun to approach in politics.

But while this survey is an important inquiry into a very real problem, the results leave something to be desired. The sample articles and profile about the hypothetical male candidate included no comparable physical descriptions. What if, for example, the survey had depicted the male candidate as obese, echoing the media's enthusiastic bullying of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie? How might the respondents have been swayed, if at all?

The evidence that a woman candidate can regain lost ground by responding directly to sexist coverage is a small bright spot in the WMC's dismal data, but this information puts the onus on the candidate rather than the media. Name It, Change It is clearly not implying that this should be the sole responsibility of the female political contender, but the possibility that the results could be interpreted this way does exist.

Name It, Change It is tackling the problem faced by female candidates by tweeting, blogging, and emailing action alerts every time a woman candidate endures sexist attacks or remarks in the media. This awareness-raising campaign seeks to draw attention to this insidious habit the mainstream media just can't seem to break. The campaign's website even invites journalists to take a "Media Pledge of Gender Neutrality."

Now that the results are in, journalists must grapple with how best to write interestingly and accurately about male and female candidates without veering into language that unnecessarily isolates one from the other. The Media Pledge of Gender Neutrality explicitly encourages writers to identify and avoid sexist language, and to avoid "posing questions or using language for one gender that [they] would not feel is equally applicable to the other."

This is unquestionably a desirable objective and a reasonable demand on the part of the campaign. But I can't help but wonder what journalists are supposed to do in the face of the knowledge that even an allegedly neutral physical description can be detrimental to a woman's candidacy. If this is truly the case, a quest for neutrality in language may be no more effective than simply avoiding sexist language.

Many compelling profiles of politicians draw readers in by humanizing their subject, and part of that process often necessitates the inclusion of a candidate’s physical appearance. In the face of this new survey, should we abandon that writing tactic altogether?