Power and Prejudice

Scientific perspectives on power, subtle prejudice, and discrimination

When Are Appearance Compliments Objectifying Insults?

Context is critical

Who knew that suggesting a woman is hot could spark a wildfire of controversy with people wondering whether this was a sexist offense or harmless flattery. This is exactly what happened last week when President Obama remarked to a group of fund-raisers that Kamala Harris, the California attorney general, was the “best looking attorney general in the country.” Shortly thereafter, Mr. Obama apologized to Ms. Harris for his inappropriate remarks. But the damage was done. The comment and subsequent apology ignited debate in mainstream and social media outlets with people wondering whether this represented a harmless compliment or a sexist insult.

Should Ms. Harris be offended?

Was it necessary for Mr. Obama to offer an apology?

I believe the answers to these questions are – it depends. It appears that the President was objectifying Ms. Harris. He focused on her physical assets in a situation where they should be irrelevant – the workplace. Although they’re seemingly positive, appearance compliments clearly fall under the umbrella of objectifying behaviors. When people reduce women to sex objects, appearance commentary – both positive (if they’re hot) and negative (if they’re not) – often emerges.

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Yet, context is everything. Sexual objectification occurs when one’s appearance is regarded as capable of representing the entire person. This did not appear to be case with Mr. Obama, even with these seemingly titillating remarks. Before commenting on her appearance, he first noted that Ms. Harris was “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough.” You might argue that the appearance comments were still sexist because they would never have been directed at a man. However, in a smattering of other introductions, President Obama has made similar comments about men.

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So, is the President off the hook? Not so fast. Again, context is critical. 

Despite the fact that Mr. Obama may not have intended the comment to be objectifying and Ms. Harris did not appear to find the comment offensive, it was made in a larger context in which women have encountered extraordinary challenges as they try to gain equality with men in the workplace. And although there have been some female trailblazers, women have yet to find equal footing with men. The pay gap is still a reality and women continue to occupy fewer positions in the U.S. congress and a small minority of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. Although attractiveness tends to be an asset, for women in the workplace, being “hot” can be a two-sided mirror. In a classic investigation of this issue, Heilman and Stopeck (1985) presented more or less attractive women in managerial and non-managerial positions. When women were evaluated in non-managerial positions, attractiveness led to a bump in performance evaluations. Yet, the flip side was that for women in managerial positions, attractiveness became a liability rather than an asset, causing decreased performance evaluations. Attractive men were evaluated more positively, regardless of position. These effects are not only limited to those women we perceive as beautiful (one implication of Mr. Obama’s comments is that the other female attorney generals are not so hot). Recent research also reveals that simply focusing people’s attention on a woman’s appearance causes people to perceive her as incompetent (Heflick & Goldenberg, 2009).

Furthermore, people often look to those in positions of power (and it doesn’t get any more powerful than the U.S. President) as role models for appropriate behavior in ambiguous situations such as this. Although he may have not intended to objectify Ms. Harris, he still promoted the norm that focusing on a woman’s appearance in the workplace is okay. Thus, although probably not personally necessary, it was perhaps a wise move for Mr. Obama to offer Ms. Harris an apology and for the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, to state that the President “fully recognizes the challenge women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance.” And, research shows that appearance commentary –both critical and complimentary contributes to negative outcomes such as appearance shame for women (Calogero et al., 2009) and such behaviors at work contribute to less productivity and worse psychological well-being in women (Berdahl & Aquino, 2009).

The ripple effects continue. A conservative blogger is now taking a poll about who is the best-looking attorney general. And, no, he is not focusing on all 50 states. He is examining the 8 states who have female attorney generals. This is evidence that President Obama’s actions opened the door to evaluate professional women on the basis of their looks rather than their workplace competence.

What do you think? Do you think President Obama’s comment was hurtful or harmless? How would you feel if you had been the recipient of such a comment?

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Copyright 2013 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.

References

Berdahl, J. L., & Aquino, K. (2009). Sexual behavior at work: Fun or folly? Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 34-47. doi: 10.1037/a0012981

Calogero, R. M., Herbozo, S., & Thompson, K. (2009). Complimentary weightism: The potential costs of appearance-related commentary for women’s self-objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 120–132 doi: 10.1111/j.1471–6402.2008.01479.x

Heflick, N. A., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2009). Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that objectification causes women to be perceived as less competent and less fully human. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 598-601. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.02.008

Heilman, M., & Stopeck, M. (1985). Being attractive, advantage or disadvantage? Performance-based evaluations and recommended personnel actions as a function of appearance, sex, and job type. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 202–215 doi: 10.1016/0749–5978(85)90035–4

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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