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There’s so much not to like about the recent dustup over Hillary Clinton’s cleavage that it is hard to know where to start. The kick-off event was Robin Givhan’s July 20 style column in the Washington Post. In her painstaking investigation of fashion faux pas among presidential candidates, Givhan unearthed a C-Span clip of Clinton sporting a “subtle, v-shaped” neckline while addressing the Senate. It was nothing “unseemly,” Givhan acknowledged. But after years of seeing Clinton in her “desexualized uniform” of black pantsuit, it was a “provocation,” like “catching a man with his fly unzipped.” Whatever the “provocation” of Clinton’s half-inch exposure, it was nothing compared to the impact of Givhan’s column. The bloggers had a feeding frenzy. The Post received thousands of angry letters. And the mainstream media’s “coverage of the coverage” became a diverting sideshow from the ho-hum education issues that Clinton had been addressing at the time. Underlying the controversy is not only a dispute about whether d�colletage in a political setting is a legitimate subject of news analysis. The incident also raises deeper questions about gender bias and how much it matters on issues of appearance. An ongoing scrutiny This is by no means a new concern for women in general or Clinton in particular. As first lady, she faced incessant criticism for frumpy fashion and unflattering hair. During her first Senate campaign, a Larry King Live segment featured a spirited debate over whether her “fat legs” and “bottom heavy” figure might affect her election chances. Nor is she an isolated example. Condoleezza Rice’s dress size (6) and Nancy Pelosi’s designer suits have all received extensive attention in the mainstream media. “But so what?” That is the response of many observers, including Steve Reiss, the Post‘s deputy managing editor for style. In denying that the paper had “anything to apologize for,” he emphasized that as long as politicians’ appearance matters to voters, it is “fair game” for commentators. And as he and others pointed out, men no longer get a free pass. Consider the handwringing over Rudy Giuliani’s “comb-over,” John Edwards’ $400 haircut, Mitt Romney’s make-up expenses and Al Gore’s ill-fated foray into “earth tones.” Yet when men are penalized on appearance issues, it is generally for caring, or appearing to care, too much. For women, cultural demands are more exacting and conformity is more important. In effect, female workers face a double standard and a double bind. They risk seeming too feminine or not feminine enough. Those who focus too much attention on appearance are seen as vain and frivolous; those who focus too little are seen as dour and dowdy. The result is that women worry more about their appearance than men, and also worry about worrying. In a representative study profiled in Nancy Friday’s The Power of Beauty, three-quarters of women rated attractiveness as the most important quality affecting their self-image. Of all the problems targeted by the contemporary women’s movement, those related to appearance have shown among the least improvement. Indeed, by some measures, our preoccupation with women’s appearance has grown worse. It is a shameful irony that in a country where a fifth of the population lacks basic access to health care, cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing specialty. Americans spend $20 billion annually to have tummies tucked, breasts enlarged, wrinkles reduced and related “problems” addressed. About 90% of the consumers are women. Our cultural fixation on attractiveness imposes other costs as well. Discrimination based on appearance is common and in all but a few states and localities, legally permissible. A cottage industry of studies documents the extent of workplace bias. Unattractive individuals are less likely to be hired or promoted, and they earn lower salaries than their more attractive counterparts. As a study by Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh in the Journal of Labor Economics suggests, these earning disparities are apparent even in fields like law, where looks generally bear no relation to job performance. In a society committed to merit principles, our aim should be to make appearance matter less in contexts where other qualities should be critical. Columns like Robin Givhan’s push us in precisely the wrong direction. It is inevitable that in a media-saturated culture, politicians will need to worry about their looks. It is not inevitable to have the mainstream media play to the public’s worst instincts in judging political performance. There’s too much at stake in this campaign to worry about cleavage and comb-overs. Deborah L. Rhode, an NLJ columnist, is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.

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