A woman makes a point. A man doesn’t like it, so he attacks her appearance.
Is there any woman out there who doesn’t know the plot of this particular story?
In President Trump’s latest Twitter foray, he lashed out at Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski, utilizing the go-to weapon for silencing women we don’t agree with: a critique of her looks. Trump suggested that he witnessed Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a facelift.” I have no idea whether Brzezinksi had a facelift or whether, if she did, it was bleeding. What I do know is that this type of bullying is nothing new, particularly for women in the public eye. Your appearance will be judged if you dare to show the signs of aging. Your appearance will also be judged if you hire a surgeon to fight the signs of aging. You can’t win when the topic of debate is how you look.
When we want to silence a woman, we know how to hit where it hurts. And we know how to hit in such a way that the focus of an argument immediately turns away from an exchange of ideas and toward a view of that woman as a sexual object. Nothing she says is of concern anymore. Is her appearance pleasing? That’s all that matters. Of all the pieces of evidence that we still live in a culture that views women’s worth primarily in terms of their appearance, this is one of the strongest.
As a psychologist and body image researcher, I have interviewed dozens of women about their experiences navigating a world obsessed with women’s appearance. Nearly all had stories of men attempting to silence them simply by demeaning their looks. “‘You’re ugly’ is one of the biggest weapons you can wield around women,” one of my interviewees explained. It immediately deflates the substance of a disagreement and replaces it with the all-too-familiar feeling of having your looks on display for others to evaluate. It turns you from a human being into an object.
We don’t have to look far to see evidence of the ubiquity of this strategy. After the Women’s March in January of 2017, Nebraska lawmaker Bill Kintner (who has since resigned), retweeted a photo of three middle-aged women protesting the president’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward sexual assault. The caption read, “Ladies, I think you’re safe.” In other words, we don’t need to listen to what you have to say about sexual assault, because you’re too ugly to be assaulted. Indiana state senator Jack Sandlin retweeted a meme about that same march that read, “In one day, Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in eight years.” In other words, “Never mind any pressing political concerns you have, the shape of your bodies doesn’t please us, so be quiet.”
For those who might be tempted to use these examples as evidence that this type of sexism is limited to the right wing, consider the ferocious barrage of attacks from the left concerning White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s appearance. The comments are all too cruel, too petty, and too irrelevant to anything Conway says or does to be worth repeating in this space. This is not a political point I’m making. Both sides of the spectrum are guilty, and women of all ideological persuasions have been targets.
It is not most women’s job to be pleasing to the eyes of others. Focusing on women’s appearance isn’t just rude and inappropriate. The relentless beauty pageant women face in their everyday lives also has consequences for their mental and physical health. At an individual level, being treated like an object by others is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. At a societal level, when we ignore what women say in order to focus on how they look, we stifle meaningful debates and feed a culture that is already too saturated with appearance-driven commentary.
We have more important things to talk about than how women look. If a woman’s argument has no merit, attack the argument, not how the woman making the argument looks. Otherwise, we will all be left wondering if you had anything of substance to say at all.