Even praise to a female politicians’ appearance may hurt her campaign

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. President Obama,...
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. President Obama,...
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The mere mention of looks can kill a female candidate’s political job prospects.

According to a new study by the Women’s Media Center and advocacy group She Should Run, news coverage of women candidates’ appearance—even if it’s positive—demonstrably brings down poll numbers.

“While this appearance coverage is very damaging to women candidates, the male opponent paid no price for this type of coverage,” the study found.

The report comes mere days after President Obama apologized for calling Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, the “best-looking attorney general in the country.”

Of course, skewed physical description of women candidates isn’t new. Several groups criticized news organizations for zeroing in on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s looks during their bid for the presidency and vice presidency, respectively, in 2008.

And that hasn’t faded. Just this past weekend, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pointed to Clinton’s new hairdo in a piece in which she declares “Of course Hillary is running” in 2016.

Dowd writes:

Hillary jokes that people regard her hair as totemic, and just so, her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention: she has ditched the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a K.G.B. villainess in a Bond movie and has a sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous.

In a hot pink jacket and black slacks, she leaned in for a 2016 manifesto, telling the blissed-out crowd of women that America cannot truly lead in the world until women here at home are full partners with equal pay and benefits, careers in math and science, and “no limit” on how big girls can dream.

Judging from the study’s results, even that type of rhetoric could hurt. The Women’s Media Center study was conducted by presenting 1,500 likely voters with a hypothetical congressional contest between a female candidate, Jane Smith, and a male candidate, Dan Jones. Voters read a profile about the two candidates and then heard news stories about each one. While some got a physical description, others did not.

A neutral description depicted Smith in a “brown blouse, black skirt and modest pumps with a short heel.” A positive description: “Smith is fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt and fashionable high heels…” And the negative description: “Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman…”

According to the results, Smith received 46% of the vote for a neutral description, 43% for a positive one, and 42% for a negative one. Meanwhile, without a description, she received 50% of the vote.

The study also found that the voters most responsive to the coverage of women’s physical appearance were independents, a “key to any candidate’s victory.”

Even praise to a female politicians' appearance may hurt her campaign