When Hilary Clinton appears on television, are we gripped by what she’s saying, or are we too absorbed with her clothing and makeup to hear her?
One would think that as the former secretary of state we would be listening to her words, but the number of articles cataloging her every outfit or haircut are testament to the fact that this is not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of this sort of judgment as well. When I watch a powerful woman speak, I am often horrified to catch myself judging her clothing instead of her words. This sort of attitude, that women are what they look like, has been an institution in the modern world for as long as I can remember. We’ve valued physical appearance over mental ability for years, with the result that we associate a woman’s power with how she looks.
Take, for example, the idea of “power dressing”. Power dressing is a style influenced by traditional menswear, with sharp angles, pants, and conservative colors. Of course, power dressing has earned this name because it’s seen as the look for “powerful” women. But these clothes don’t make women more powerful, because they reject the notion that women wearing “feminine” clothing can be powerful, thus a woman must reject her femininity in order to be seen as powerful. This doesn’t empower women, it reinforces the idea that they don’t have any, and must borrow from men in the form of “power dressing” to have any clout in the workplace.
There is a tacit, although sometimes uncomfortably blatant, rule in society that “girly” things—whether they be ruffles, the color pink or even traits like kindness or vulnerability—are significant of weakness. This doesn’t mean that we teach girls to avoid this weakness—instead girls are told to be “girly”, and accept this weakness as part of them. I remember clearly being in fifth grade and purposely raising my voice at the end of every sentence so everything I said sounded like a question? I wanted to be this feminine, pretty girl, but I thought that part of that meant also being dumb. I was choosing beauty over intelligence, because I saw even then that women who were beautiful were treated with more esteem than women who were smart.
The way that girls dress informs us of how they think about themselves, and how they create an idea of who they are. Some of this is natural—because figuring out who you are and starting to define yourself by the clothes you wear isn’t a bad thing. It becomes a negative thing when the clothes girls wear begin dictating and bounding who they are, especially when the people around them begin to make assumptions. Looking at a girl and deciding you know something about her sex life because of the cut of her shirt is not acceptable. Neither is deciding that a girl is dumb because she wants to wear pink or put on makeup or paint her nails. These ideas too easily affect the girl wearing the clothes, until she begins to believe that she is “slutty” or “dumb”. We need to disassociate a woman’s appearance with her importance, or we are at risk of damaging more young girls and ignoring important women.