Why even mentioning a female candidate's appearance can hurt her campaign

Note to men: Calling a woman like Kamala Harris pretty isn't going to help her political career

Kamala Harris
(Image credit: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for TheWrap)

When President Obama called California Attorney General Kamala Harris "the best-looking attorney general in the country," the reactions ranged from liberal outrage to shrugged shoulders. Little did anyone know that Obama may have hurt her future political career.

That's because when the media focuses on a female candidate's appearance — whether it's positive, negative, or neutral — it drags down her poll numbers, according to a new study conducted by the Women's Media Center and women's advocacy group She Should Run.

The researchers asked 1,500 likely voters about a fictional male and female candidate. Some voters got information about each candidate without a physical description. Others got one of the following descriptions, taken from real campaign coverage during the 2012 elections:

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Neutral description: Smith dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel…

Positive description: In person, Smith is fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heels….

Negative description: Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails. [Name It. Change It.]

It turns out that the female candidates with neutral, positive, and negative physical descriptions garnered 46, 43, and 42 percent of the vote, respectively. When there was no physical description, the female candidate scored 50 percent of the vote, leading the study's authors to conclude that paying any attention to a female candidate's appearance "hurt her likability" and made "voters less likely to vote for her."

The results have serious implications for American elections, writes Amanda Hess in Slate:

When Obama pointed attention to Kamala Harris’ looks, Politico media reporter Dylan Byers asked, "How did it become so difficult to call a woman good looking in public?" Name It. Change It.’s report suggests that it’s relatively easy for media commentators like Byers to call a woman hot — they just make it very hard for that woman to win. [Slate]

The study also suggests "that male candidates may have a big incentive to get their female opponent's looks talked about by the media," says Elizabeth Flock in U.S. News & World Report. Flock points out that "last week, a South Carolina GOP official noted that Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democrat facing former South Carolina Gov. Republican Mark Sanford in a special election for a South Carolina congressional seat, was 'not a bad-looking lady,' resulting in some 100 news stories on the comment."

How should female candidates respond to appearance-centric coverage? The study also found that voters react positively to candidates defending themselves against superficial coverage. In that respect, female politicians can follow Hillary Clinton's lead. She once won political points by saying, "If we ever want to get Bosnia off the front page, all I have to do is change my hair."

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