Vogue on Kirsten Gillibrand: Just Plain Sexist

The first three-quarters of Jonathan Van Meter’s recent Vogue profile of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is a mostly substantive look into her rise as a politician.  Then, Van Meter delves into a 500 word report on what he says “the readers of Vogue will want to know:” How much weight did she lose?

Van Meter’s thesis is that Gillibrand defies stereotypes as a smart and talented – and young and attractive – Senator.  Rather than citing her as proof that looks are irrelevant to political skill, though, he focuses on her looks to reinforce harmful tropes about women being measured aesthetically, rather than substantively. The fact remains that Vogue is a women's fashion magazine, but the amount of "weight" this profile on a national leader placed on Gillibrand's weight only serves to hurt female politicians by placing their worth on their attractiveness and heralding weight loss equally alongside national political leadership.

Exhibit A:

Here is something you don’t see every day: a United States senator, looking like a million bucks in a little black dress and high heels, jitterbugging in a Manhattan department store.

As modern and young as Gillibrand is, this is one part of her job that remains fuddy-duddy; it seems unlikely that she will blaze a daring fashion path on Capitol Hill. Which is too bad because these days, she could pull it off, having lost a lot of weight since she became senator. I first ask her about it back in August over breakfast in Hudson. How much did you lose?

“Should I tell you? Really?”

I really want to know.

“Can I tell you off the record?” she says.

“The readers of Vogue will want to know this,” I say.

Are you back in all your skinny clothes?

Further down, after quoting a friend who praises Gillibrand's healthy habits and self discipline so that "she can be the best mom and the best senator," Van Meter adds "And no doubt remain attractive to her husband of nine years, who is two years younger than she is."

Thankfully, a very telling conversation about women's participation in politics made it into print - Gillibrand's quote is one that media outlets should take seriously:

At one point Gillibrand told me that one reason she thinks there are still not that many women in politics is that “very few women want to be in a profession where you will have an opponent who says mean things about you every day, where the news may not be fair on a given day. It’s such an adversarial profession.” This struck me at the time as the sort of thing that Hillary Clinton would never say. Standing in the supermarket, I bring this up again. “You have to remember,” she says, “that most women are the protectors of their family. They look out for not only children but also the elderly. A lot of women, we see that as our first job. Many women don’t want to expose their family or their children to something so rough and so aggressive and unfair and not honest.”

While the substantive pieces of this well researched profile retain their merit, the focus on a national leader's figure further perpetuates the idea that women are worth more if they're attractive. Tell us Ms. Wintour, is it not enough to just be a successful female New York State Senator?

Published by Kate McCarthy on 10/25/2010

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