Richard Nixon is getting squirmish in front of the camera. It is September 26, 1960, and this is the first nationally broadcast Presidential Debate. He looks uncomfortable—the broadcast opened with him pressed into his seat back. He fidgets, not knowing what to do with his left arm. His competitor is John F. Kennedy, who sits cool as a cucumber until it is his turn to speak to the American people.
Looks win the night. Kennedy becomes a star, mainly for being young and handsome, while Nixon, decimated by a recent illness, essentially loses the election. We know this because viewers thought that Kennedy won the debate. Routed Nixon, in fact. But, according to a Time.com article remembering the event, “those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won.” For the first time in history, voters were given the chance across the country to gaze upon candidates in real time, and things haven’t been the same since.
Fifty-five years later, we are faced with the fact that appearances matter in presidential elections. Libby Copeland, writing for Slate, collated scientific studies and found that the data suggests that Americans are as vain in choosing their leader as they are in choosing their partner. From a Princeton study, she noted that the researcher Alexander Todorov found “almost 70 percent of the time, the face that subjects judged as more competent-looking actually won the election.” Strong Jaw-lines, prominent cheekbones—the same features that might describe Don Draper were being favored when it came to Presidential nominees. The findings gained additional support when two MIT political scientists found that the less a voter knew about politics, the more likely they were to base their vote on looks alone. These are “voters who don’t know much about politics but watch a lot of television.”
With the 2016 Presidential race officially underway, contenders have been zipping around the country shaking hands and kissing babies (but really just fundraising). Part of their job while campaigning is to appear as normal humans—basically how every person acts on their first date. They laugh at all the right parts of the movie, try to say all the right things, all trying to get you to go steady with them for the next four to eight years. And when they’re in Iowa, they eat meat on a stick. Lots of it. But is weight going to be an issue for the candidates?
The BBC recently asked the question and found that while many said it didn’t matter in getting the job done, almost all candidates attempt to lose weight before going out campaigning. The reasoning is obvious: “Pop culture, 24-hour news, movies and magazines encourage a “halo effect” around the thin and attractive, she adds. This means voters can ascribe positive qualities to a candidate which they may not in fact possess. The opposite can also hold true for heavier candidates, who may be unfairly perceived by voters as lazy, impulsive or unhealthy.”
Americans have shown they will ascribe values based entirely on facial features. Combine this with a long-standing tradition of weight-ism that goes back decades, and this bias will have infected even our highest democratic principles. This despite the fact it’s obvious that any negative or positive qualities correlated with weight are merely perceived by the voter, and aren’t necessarily true. And yet, “according to [UCLA sociology professor, Abigail] Saguy, none of these 2016 contenders will face as much scrutiny over their appearance as a female candidate.”
Historically, most Presidents have been men. In fact, all of them have been men. And while women have run campaigns for the presidency before, none of them have been as assured as that of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid. Certainly, some of the scrutiny is undue (Benghazi), and some of it just (e-mails), she will be subject to more of the voter gaze than any other candidate. In some areas as the consummate politician, she’s been able to control the conversation. Her first instagram photo was of her famous fashion choice: the pant-suit. But you certainly get the feeling if she weren’t going to poke fun at herself, someone else would take it too far.
And someone else did try to talk about her hair with opponent Bernie Sanders, but he was having none of it. In a much publicized interview with the New York Times Magazine, Sanders was asked by Ana Marie Cox whether he thought it was “fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?” His response was laced with incredulity that this was the question being asked: “When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.” But is it the media that does this to the people, or are the people just getting what they want?
It’s been 55 years since that first televised broadcast, and since then the race to be President has been partly a beauty pageant. It’s no wonder then that one of the frontrunner candidates on the GOP side ran the Miss USA pageant. There’s realpolitik to knowing how these things work—voters that know nothing about politics probably know a bit or two about Miss USA, and also Dancing With the Stars, The Biggest Loser, American Idol, Survivor, and the rest of the reality competition shows that crowd prime-time television.
Not every voter will keep these reality shows in mind at the polls. Personally, either Clinton or Sanders is getting my vote for President, maybe Biden if he has to step in to save the day. I vote Democrat because as a social progressive and a socialist, their platform aligns most closely with my beliefs. I’d like to think their level of political competence isn’t measured by their looks, but even with me who follows the national debate I’m afraid it is.
Sanders is my ideal candidate, but the pundits suggests he won’t win, and it’s partly because of the way he looks. Clinton seems much more able for the task of being President. Her polished presentation strikes me as overtly political. His messy hair and too long pants scream liberal arts professor more than politician. And maybe for all the work he’s obviously put into his platforms and message, he was a fool to think that the American voter was ready for a candidate without style. We want a president that looks like a president, not your town’s retired mailman, no matter how qualified he may be.
For in the America’s democratic pageant, there appears to be one thing for certain: the voters have the presidency in their hands, and beauty is in the eye of the voter.