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How to Talk About a Woman’s Looks

April 6, 2013 in Blogs

By Irin Carmon, Salon

There were, perhaps, stupider things said recently than “How did it become so difficult to call a woman good-looking in public?” but I didn’t happen to hear them. So congratulations, Dylan Byers of Politico. Your commentary on the president calling California Attorney General Kamala Harris “by far, the best looking attorney general” made my brain hurt.

It is not “difficult to call a woman good-looking in public,” not in a world where women’s looks are considered public property, to be commented on, uninvited, whether it’s on the street, in a job interview, or in the press. Many people find it quite easy to do, many of them men, and many people who should know better, like Barack Obama.

This is hardly the first time Obama has been smarmily sexist under the guise of paying a compliment. In the same New York magazine story on Christine Quinn in which Mayor Michael Bloomberg was notoriously quoted saying, “Look at the ass on her,” Obama got a pass for a more politely phrased brand of creepiness. According to the piece, Obama said to a Republican legislator, 32-year-old Nicole Malliotakis, that she didn’t look a day over 23. Quinn promptly joked that Malliotakis should become a Democrat, and the president chimed in, “Come on, honey! I said you’re pretty! I said you look 23!”

Yes, women who seem young and are considered pretty by men obtain certain advantages in our society. That doesn’t mean that the purportedly progressive president of the United States needs to do his part to enforce all that. (Don’t get me started on “honey,” or “sweetie.” No, I can’t take a fucking compliment.) Yes, people notice and appreciate attractiveness in men and women, which is not incompatible with being smart or successful. But women, above all, are subject to a can’t-win calculus in which the desires of men, rather than their objective qualifications, determine how they’re treated — for better or worse. It applies wherever women exist in public, even when looks are entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Almost as obnoxious as the men talking about how put-upon they are by p.c. harpies who aren’t interested …read more

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