August 8, 2012 / Sexism

Media Message: Judge a Woman By the Height of Her Shoes, not the Height of her Character


With the Olympics in full swing, one author at the Boston’s posited an intriguing question, what if all Olympics sports were photographed like women’s beach volleyball? The author noted that he had performed  a Getty image search for women’s beach volleyball. He found that overwhelmingly, the photos were of the women’s rear ends, not an action shot of a player making a dig or block. He then posted a photo essay of similarly cropped photos of male athletes—gymnast’s rear ends and diver’s torsos–noting the awkwardness of those photos (See here). The female athletes were photographed to highlight their physical appearance and sex appeal, not their athletic ability.

Similarly, there seems to be a difference in the way that female politicians are both photographed and written about as well. It begs the question, what if male politicians were photographed and written about the same way that female politicians are?  Too often female politicians’ physical traits are highlighted while their policy positions and experience are minimized. In 2007, then Senator Hillary Clinton famously spoke on the Senate floor and her blouse revealed a little bit of cleavage:

That incident provided not only late night fodder, but the basis an entire article the Washington Post about Senator Clinton’s cleavage and overall style. The article was 12 paragraphs long, and only one sentence even touched on the policy issue she was discussing.

Late last year, Congressman Barney Frank spoke on a the House floor wearing a not-so-flattering shirt:


To be sure, this incident became fodder for the political blogosphere, but it certainly didn’t become mainstream media frenzy that Hillary Clinton’s cleavage appearance did.

In 2008, much ado was made about vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s appearance–her glasses, her clothes, her shoes. In fact, this photo of her shoes in the foreground and a young male supporter in the background accompanied was an image captured by both AP and Reuters photographers:

What if multiple photographers decided to make Vice President Joe Biden’s legs and shoes the subject of their shot?

Of course, this image was not the subject of a photographer. It was an image that I had to crop myself, and it was difficult to even find an image that wasn’t a head shot of the vice president or from the torso up. There certainly weren’t any photos of the Vice President’s legs in the foreground and a young woman in the background:

 Earlier this election season, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann appeared on the cover of Newsweek with this bizarre, wide-eyed expression (not to mention biased, sexist title):

For photo shoots, many pictures are taken and with today’s technology can be immediately checked digitally for closed eyes and other imperfections. Why was this photo chosen of likely the dozens that were taken? Certainly a photo like the one below of President Obama never made its way onto a major news magazine:

Pictures are often worth a thousand words. They speak volumes about how the photographer, writer, or editor is trying to portray a politician–as a competent leader, a sex object, a crazy person, etc. However, focusing on a women’s style over her substance isn’t limited to photos.  Washington Post writer Diana Reese  used her platform at the Post’s “She the People” feature to criticize Sarah Palin’s clothes at a recent campaign rally/BBQ for Missouri Senatorial candidate Sarah Steelman:

When Palin took to the makeshift stage in the middle of a Missouri farm field, she was dressed more for the part of Hollywood celebrity than serious politician. I know someone’s going to remind me that just last week, I said it was sexist to focus on the wardrobes of women in politics.

But it was hard for me to take Palin seriously dressed as she was.

First, her shoes: Five-inch wedges. Her black capris weren’t quite skin-tight but tight enough, and her t-shirt with its Superman logo (a Steelman campaign shirt emblazoned with “Our freedom. Our fight.”) emphasized her figure. She never once removed her oversized sunglasses.

I’m sorry, but I’d like my minister, my doctor and yes, my politicians, to look and dress for their parts.

Palin stumped for Steelman at an event that took place at a blueberry farm and delievered her speech from a trailer that can be attached to a truck. It wasn’t a flashy event, and Governor Palin is known for her down home appeal. The candidate herself, Sarah Steelman, was dressed in jeans and boots herself. It was a very Midwestern, down-to-earth event. It wasn’t a big dollar fundraiser at a fancy location. Palin wore one of the campaign’s t-shirts– standing in solidarity with the Steelman campaign workers who were also wearing “Superman” ( man of steel–Steelman, get it?) shirts. Additionally, it was a hot, sunny evening, and Palin usually wears glasses. Was Palin supposed to wear her normal glasses the whole time and squint or take her prescription sunglasses off and not be able to see? Governor Palin gave a very solid stump speech focusing on Steelman’s plans if she was elected and noting her reformer credentials. All of these were apparently lost on Reese. She decided, as she notes in this piece, that she should call out sexism about the cost of a female political figure’s clothes if it’s Michelle Obama, but also apply a different standard to Palin by criticizing Palin’s choice of clothing at a low key, Midwestern campaign event.

Women can’t expect their counterparts in the media–be they writers, editors, or photographers–to stop being sexist in their portrayal of female politicians when they themselves focus more on the height of a political figure’s shoes than the height of her character or the weight of her words. As depicted above, the media’s sexist portrayal of women is bipartisan. In order to counter that, it would behoove all women to make sure the voice against sexism is a bipartisan one as well.

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  • hrh

    Great, great stuff.

    I looooooooove to read a well-researched and defended article.


    No wonder we never saw that pic of Obama.

    Thanks, Whitney.

  • Bes

    Great article. I don’t think any male photographers should be allowed to photograph women’s sports. I also don’t think the east coast old media can be reformed as their sexism is so ingrained, but they can and are being replaced or driven out of business.

    The women who succeed in old media do it by pandering to the men who run it which is why they seem inauthentic to the female audience in a primal but often hard to describe way. Women show different behavior patterns when interacting with men as opposed to interacting with women. In media women are recorded by men behaving as if they are interacting with men and it comes off as fake and inauthentic to girls and women who are watching. Then of course there is the problem you bring up where camera men and their editors always try to photograph women as sex objects. The situation is so bad and distracting I can hardly watch. I really don’t care to see the world through the dull and distorted vision of male eyes and that is all Corporate Media is.

  • Linda Anselmi

    Whitney — Excellently said and presented! The photos were perfect!

    Bes — you said “I really don’t care to see the world through the dull and distorted vision of male eyes and that is all Corporate Media is.” I’d only add I don’t want to hear it either.

  • Great article, Whitney! Media focuses so much on women’s bodies and clothing and so little on their messages, it’s no wonder none of us has a clue what they really stand for or are capable of.

  • BevWky

    Great summary of the problem, Whitney, because it is all about visual perspective or loss thereof – literally. And if we don’t keep reminding people of this by making these comparisons, who will?

    I can’t remember what event it was after several weeks ago but someone in the media made the comment in an article somewhere about Palin’s “un-Presidential shoes” and I couldn’t stop mentally rolling my eyes and thinking that considering all our Presidents have been male, that was beyond an idiotic thing to say even for the Palin-obsessed press.

    Then again, maybe they know something the rest of us don’t but I seriously don’t want the image of any the past male Presidents in any type of heels in my head either – unless, of course, we actually are talking about George Washington or someone else from the early eras of the country. 😉

    Thing is, I’m not even talking about choices in fashion here. Not really. I mean, honestly, do people think a female President is going wear dark business suits and regulation pumps every single day and hour of her term if and when we ever do elect one? Even when the situation doesn’t call for it?!? How nutty would that be?

  • blackbird

    Excellent article Whitney.

  • Michael

    Well done, Whitney. You are one of the greats along with Stacy Drake, Tony Lee,and Steve Flesher

  • raf

    It is about being appropriate. NO one expects a three piece suit at a BBQ, but those heels showed Palin’s cluelessness. Her husband and Steelman practically had to hold her up so she wouldn’t break an ankle on the rough ground. Steelman’s jeans and boots outfit was fine for the occasion; Palin’s was silly – if she can’t dress appropriately to be capable for the task at hand – walking across rough ground and dishing up food for the occasion, I sure as heck want her nowhere near political office.

  • Excellent piece, Whitney. You have highlighted the hypocrisy and double standard very well, including from women like Diana Reese. Do these people never read what they wrote and see that they are doing the exact same thing abt which they just complained? Astonishing.

    Thank you for the great post!

  • BevWky

    Seriously, Raf? I’m sure you have the links to the video to PROVE this all happened?

    ‘Cause I just can’t imagine something like that happening and someone NOT getting it on video for the entire world to see.


    Now let’s go back and look at the picture of Barney Frank and let’s talk about appropriate dress when addressing the House…

    Oye. I feel like I need my eyes bleached every time I look at it.

  • Julie

    “But those heels show Palin’s cluelessness” – With the problems this Country faces you are worried about a woman’s shoes? Seriously? No wonder our Country, run by men, is in such terrible shape. Millions out of work – nothing to worry about – but did you see the shoes Sarah Palin was wearing? The horror! It’s sad that woman like Diana Reese have such low self-esteem that they will find any little silly detail to bash another woman. All to be accepted into the good old boy network. Sad thing is – the good old boys will never respect her. First because she is after all a woman and second because she has no loyalty and is willing to demean herself to fit in.