Attacked for their looks
When I was a seventh-grade teacher, I confiscated a note written by a girl named Jennifer. It was titled “Everyone Hates Melissa,” and Jennifer was collecting signatures.
Melissa, a quiet and gentle girl who was the smartest in the class, was described as “a nerd,”ugly” and “weird.” Her hair, her clothes, her looks were brutally criticized — but not her demeanor or her academic skill. After all, there was nothing to criticize there.
Too often we see this same seventh-grade behavior among adults. While healthy civic discourse involves disagreement on issues of policy, too often people are prone to bully and harass their opponents with attacks on physical appearances when they are unable to articulate a valid and logical opposing argument.
Consider the criticisms of the president’s new nominee to the Supreme Court. John Roberts has impeccable legal credentials, so what can the pundits attack? Why, the clothing of his wife and children, of course. A fashion maven in the Washington Post looked down her nose and mocked the family as “a trio of Easter eggs, a handful of Jelly Bellies, three little Necco wafers.” They were then duly admonished with a sniff: “Please select all attire from the commonly accepted styles of this century.”
Condoleezza Rice, our dignified secretary of state who started college at age 15 and earned a doctorate in her early 20s, is one of the most powerful women in the world.
Nonetheless, she has been mocked and ridiculed — not for her intellect or knowledge of international diplomacy, but for her hair. It has been likened to that of June Cleaver, but her critics are not content to stereotype her as a dowdy relic from the supposedly subservient ’50s. She has also been criticized as a “dominatrix” who oozes “sex and power” for wearing fashionable boots and a fitted black coat.
Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state whose crime was correctly interpreting Florida law in the 2000 election, was described by Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson as Cruella De Vil. An article about Harris in the New York Times was subtitled “Mascaragate 2000,” and the Washington Post suggested that she “applied her makeup with a trowel.”
And then there is Linda Tripp, whose appearance became a national joke. She looked like anyone you might bump into at the grocery store, but suddenly her looks and her weight became fodder for late-night comedians.
Her role in revealing President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky would have made her a villain in the eyes of far-left partisans regardless of what she looked like, but for some reason her lack of a fashion-model appearance gave critics self-permission to attack with a viciousness that should have been a media embarrassment.
The attacks were relentless and clearly demoralizing to Tripp. In one interview she said: “I didn’t realize how ugly I was until I saw the pictures. I was horrified as well as the rest of the nation.”
Tripp underwent major plastic surgery to remake her physical appearance, only to receive more ridicule. According to one person: “It looks like she’s had a head transplant.” And that was a friend. Clearly, the stigma of “bad looks” remains even after a physical transformation.
The hateful barbs being hurled at Star Tribune columnist Kathy Kersten from sources such as City Pages fall right into this genre: “Her online mugshot vaguely reassembles the witch from the Wizard of Oz.”
Sadly, bullying and belittling by adults is alive and well in Lake Wobegon.
The fact that women fought for many years to be taken seriously in the arenas of government and public policy makes the “lookism” attacks on successful women reveal a deep double standard — not of men against women, but of women against their own gender.
Where are the feminists? Their silence speaks volumes about their convictions and partisan leanings. After all, it is mainly conservative women who have been the victims of this sort of media slashing. Sad to say, with few exceptions, the circling vultures are left-leaning women.
Has our culture become so shallow, and our sensibilities so numb, that we will accept from adults the sort of vicious behavior that we would never accept from our children?
As for Jennifer, we ran into each other at a football game after she was out of college, and she told me there was something she had wanted to say for years. You see, on that day so long ago, after the rest of the class had left, I had Jennifer read her ugly note aloud — but I made her substitute “Jennifer” for every time she had written “Melissa.”
She told me that this incident was the turning point in her life. From that point forward, she was determined to become a teacher so that she could prevent such bullying as she had once dished out.
In other words, Jennifer grew up. It’s a shame so many people in media and politics haven’t.
— Cheri Pierson Yecke, Ph.D., is Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education and Social Policy at the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis, and a Republican candidate for the U.S. House.
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