Why, why, WHY do we feel a constant need to comment on the appearance of women in public life? How can Sharon Ní Bheoláin’s choice of jacket on the Six-One News actually make headlines? Why is Miriam O’Callaghan’s jewellery choice on Prime Time a topic for public discussion? Where are the corresponding comments on David McCullagh’s tie, for example, or the colour of George Lee’s shirt? Last January, Christine Lagarde, one of the most powerful women in the world, visited Dublin. A national newspaper carried a photo of her with Enda Kenny, with analysis and comment on Ms. Lagarde’s jewellery, boots and handbag. Was there any such reference to Enda Kenny’s clothing? No prizes for guessing the answer to that one.
Before simply dismissing this as another feminist rant, stop and think about the message this incessant commentary on women’s appearances is sending to the younger generation. Sadly, many of the critical Twitter comments on Sharon Ní Bheoláin’s jacket and Miriam O’Callaghan’s choker came from women, and this is the nub of the problem.
Through such behaviour, we are teaching the next generation of women that what they have to say is secondary to how they look when they say it, that unless they meet society’s expectations in terms of appearance, the quality of their work is irrelevant, and most depressingly, that men and women are judged by completely different standards.
As long as a female news anchor’s jacket generates more comment than the news she is relaying, we can forget about equal pay and conditions for men and women. As long as a female world leader is reduced to a fashion plate, equal representation of men and women in politics remains a pipe dream. As long as a simple piece of jewellery worn by a female tv presenter can create a social media storm, we will never have gender equality.
On a more disturbing note, our appearance-based judgement of women is often manipulated into victim-blaming, particularly in cases of rape and sexual assault. A woman was wearing a short skirt or a revealing top, ergo, she was asking for it. This has to stop. According to Rape Crisis Network Ireland, “attitudes that blame victims of rape excuse perpetrators and reduce the likelihood of the prosecution of rapists. Such attitudes thus increase everyone’s vulnerability to rape.”
We can’t control the behaviour and attitudes of others, be they men or women, but we can control our own. Next time you are tempted to publicly comment on the appearance of another woman, ask yourself one question: why?
*First published on the Irish Country Living website on April 3rd, 2015