What we say about Hillary is what we are saying to our girls
There has been much ado made recently of the comments dogging Hillary Clinton in the midst of her trip to Africa, a trip focused on her promise of making women’s issues central to our foreign policy. It seems that the media still can’t take its focus off her proclivity for pantsuits or the way she styles her hair. Media mainstay, Tina Brown, even went so far as to say that Hillary looks like she needs to go to the gym.
You’re not hearing these comments made about President Obama or Vice President Biden. Sure, Obama took some flack for the jeans he wore at a recent baseball game, but he brushed it off by remarking that they are comfortable and he’s not a skinny jeans kinda guy. And that was that. When it comes to Hillary, why can’t we let it go? Why do even other women insist on belittling her and focusing more on her appearance than her work? As the blog Jezebel.com so astutely asked “How is Clinton supposed to make good on her promise to make women’s issues ‘central’ to foreign policy, if the US media keeps making her looks and her husband central to her policy?”
Girls growing up in America right now just witnessed the first woman to have a legitimate shot at the US presidency, a woman who is one of only three in history to be appointed Secretary of State. What we say about Hillary is what we are telling girls regarding our feelings about women and power. We are shaping the future for them—and it is bleak. When we focus on Hillary’s hair, her clothes, or her weight, we are telling girls that these are ultimately the only aspects of their being that will ever matter, that their accomplishments will inevitably be overshadowed by their appearance.
But we can change this by changing the conversation we are having with girls. Some advice that we gave to our Big Sisters earlier this year explores this topic and offers great ways you can talk to girls in your life about her accomplishments instead of her appearance:
If opportunities to model a focus on character, talent or effort over appearance occur; seize them! Say for example you happen to be with your Little Sister as she flips through a magazine or surfs the web and the “issue” of Oprah’s weight fluctuation shows up; why not mention how you admire Oprah’s savvy business sense. If Angeline Jolie is being worshipped for her body, focus on her commitment to charity or her Oscar nomination. If you meet a new person comment on their actions or behavior “The other matches we met at the Halloween party seemed friendly and were great at Twister!” Bring your curiosity to your match relationship and encourage your Little Sister’s curiosity as well. Wonder out loud why people were more interested in Aretha Franklin’s hat than her historic performance at the 2009 inauguration. Ask your Little Sister what she thinks about the fact that people seem more interested in what Michelle Obama is wearing than the fact that she graduated from Harvard Law School or that the President of the United States said she is the smartest person he knows. What does she think about Jessica Simpson getting more attention for the shape of her body than the strength of her voice? Finally, be mindful of the well intentioned reflex to comment on appearance when greeting your Little Sister or others. Rather than “you look great” comment on her spirit and energy: “you seem very excited to go for our hike”. This seemingly small shift can expose your Little Sister to a different perspective while simultaneously sending the message that you are much more interested in how she is than how she appears. By acknowledging society’s focus on appearance and its potential for negative impact you are arming your Little Sister with information that may assist her in honing her critical thinking skills. You are also suggesting that she turn inward for feelings of self-worth and value rather than turn on her external self. Remember, you are an important person in the life of your Little Sister–she is watching what you do and listening to what you say (even if she doesn’t admit it!). By merely modeling a different approach to our culture’s focus on appearance you can have a big impact on your Little Sister and how she makes meaning of the world she lives in.
In being aware of what we are saying about women, we can ultimately work toward a time when the color of a woman’s pantsuit will be the furthest thing from our minds.