Emma Watson had to defend her feminist credentials when she posed on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair in a top that left little to the imagination.

Alicia Glen, New York City’s strong deputy mayor, is unapologetic about her hair appointments. Men leave the office to play golf so she can go for touch-ups.

Debora Spar, the outgoing president of Barnard College, wrote about her sense of hypocrisy, saying she thinks women should do whatever they want and age the way they like. Yet she ponders “medical ways to look younger as she takes up a new job.”

In a seminal moment for me, long forgotten by my mother, we were having lunch in a restaurant while I was still in school and I told my mother that Paul Newman was sitting behind her.

Her first words were “and I have a run in my stockings”.

Underlying the ridiculous sentiment that Paul Newman would notice was an awareness of how external events are perceived through our own filtering – and how often that filtering is clothed literally in how we look.

For decades, women have been defending their attendance to appearance. Will it ever stop?

The research in Social Stratification and Mobility Journal, based on data from more than 14,000 adults, noted that grooming for women will result in higher pay for women. The statistics show the irony that looking well helps achieves a feminist goal of better pay. “The Beauty Shift,” or the time women are required to put in every day to look well-groomed and professional may result in higher pay, but certainly not equal pay.

At Medill, a top journalism school where I teach, this juxtaposition of feminism and appearance becomes pronounced in some of the magazines that our student graduates end up working for. In Cosmopolitan magazine a story on sexual harassment can be side by side with lip liners’ value. Many magazines mix style stories with front page-like discussions of tough subjects.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her recent TED talk, “We should all be feminists” speaks about being a feminist who wears high heels and lip gloss.

The wearables are symbols for the contradictions of being an attractive woman who is ambitious, smart and creative.

Academia is filled with women who do not dye their hair, or spend 20 minutes in the morning applying make-up, and don’t have time to go shopping for fun. Yet Dr. Laurie Zoloth, a colleague recently appointed dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, rails against hair dying and Botox for intellectuals. For her, these behaviors point to a silly desire to recapture youth that is unnecessary and inappropriate.

Zoloth writes, “Hair is dyed to deny the body itself. Here we have the widespread phenomena of intellectuals, academic, public leaders, simply pretending that they do not have the gray hair that is a normal concomitant of adults, and they can chose to return to the color, which is to say pretend that they are the self they were at, say, age 17.”

Recently we, academics at a prestigious university, had a conversation about this, sparked by a colleague’s comment that she used to go a Nordstrom personal consultant to get appropriate outfits for her television appearances but her consultant had left. Instantly we offered to take her shopping. Dr. Margaret Danilovich is an instructor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, with a doctorate in physical therapy and a Ph.D. in public healthcare sciences and board certified in geriatrics physical therapy wanted to take all of us to Sephora for makeup lessons.

The notion that as accomplished women we needed to defend or keep secret an affinity to liking shopping for clothes and makeup is not new. We have all joked about retail therapy, a juxtaposition of words that makes shopping seem a cure, thus indicating some disorder such as depression. Shopping for me is like the pleasure of going to a bookstore or a library and taking the time to find something fun and interesting, but the acceptance of shopping for shopping’s sake is less comfortable for many.

“Smart women should be finding something else to do with their time” seems to be the unspoken refrain.

We do it to ourselves even though we know we shouldn’t. We wonder why a friend doesn’t wear makeup or hair dye or we wonder why she wears too much. We have an unconscious first appearance reaction. The old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” seems quaint alongside the reality that women are forever judged by their appearance and assigned belief systems accordingly — and have been for most of history.

But how a woman looks doesn’t determine if she is a feminist. We rail against the stereotypes, yet we internalize them too. I wear a suit many days, not because anyone expects me to, but because I feel more business-like when I am dressed according to my self-vision. I don’t want to control others’ self-image. I want us all to be judged by our values and ideas. I don’t bring less to a cerebral exercise because I went shopping the day before.

-Dr. Candy Lee

Dr. Candy Lee is a Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. She advises in the graduate program in Sports Media and is an NU Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.



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