Is it sexist for reporters to salt their profiles of powerful women with descriptions of their fashion preferences? It's a question that's been raised more than once recently, and I've mostly agreed with those who argue no. After all, style is a deliberate, conscious choice full of all kinds of signfiers. A journalist who ignores this isn't doing his or her job. In July, The Atlantic's Molly Ball sharply, expertly dismantled "the idea that any mention of a woman's appearance constitutes sexism." I tend to agree: You can say what a woman is wearing, and what it means. It's just good writing. So why did this, from a New York Times Style section profile of Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, shock me so much?
Ms. Weymouth’s penchant for showing off her athletic figure — she arrived for a photo shoot in a crisp white sleeveless sheath and four-inch lime green Jimmy Choos — provokes titters in the newsroom. Then again, she works hard for it; Ms. Elkin said the two spend Sunday mornings doing free weights and “boy push-ups” with a personal trainer.
In a word: judgment. The author, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, theoretically pushes the raised eyebrows off to Weymouth's employees, all of whom, supposedly, are laughing at the fact that their boss chooses not to drape herself in a roomy tent each morning before work. This is not remotely sourced/attributed to anyone specific, it should be noted. But the description of what Weymouth wore to her photoshoot is what irritated me more than the newsroom sniping. Wouldn't you want to look your best if you were being photographed for a national publication? And if you were being profiled in the Style section—unlike, say, the Media section, where you might have landed coverage had your gonads made you male—wouldn't you also want to break out your most killer shoes?
What Stolberg (or, I guess, some cabal of Post employees) is judging is the idea that a woman might care what she looks like, that she might work very hard to remain and present as attractive past the age when newspapers and their employees automatically find women attractive. This age, I would wager, is somewhere juuuuust shy of 35. (And we wonder where women get the idea that they are being judged for how they look.)
Sure, it's somewhat telling that Weymouth is apparently concerned with appearance. The rest of the profile nods at the publisher's relationship with her New York socialite mother, Lally Weymouth, which might explain the source of such concerns. But the word "titters" deliberately introduces the insidious idea that this might be laughable. Somehow, it is the idea that she tries to look good that both justifies and seems to undermine the description.
I asked a friend, a woman who writes frequently about gender issues, if she'd found the paragraphs as surprising as I had. She didn't, and cited Paul Ryan as a ready cognate. Didn't many profiles of him contain discussions of his gym-rat ways and pretty eyes? Sure they did, I acknowledged. But does anyone really think less of Ryan for his PX-90 obsession? Men who work out are presumed to be obsessed with strength, an admirable preoccupation. Women who display similar predilections are assumed to be worried about fitting into "crisp white sleeveless sheath[s]," no matter if the pushups they do are "boy" or "girl." Until that changes, there are instances (far from automatic) in which describing a woman's attire is undermining, and upsetting.
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