Plastic Politics

By Christine Cupaiuolo — October 26, 2006

Today’s New York Times looks at the disparaging remarks Republican John Spencer, who is running against Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate race in New York, made about his opponent’s appearance.

Spencer has since apologized, but not before re-opening the discussion over the relevance of a candidate’s looks, and even the lengths politicians will go to conceal their makeovers — though public perception toward plastic surgery has changed dramatically.

From all the denials, it appeared that Mr. Spencer recognized that criticizing a candidate for her looks was beyond the pale, even in a campaign in which a challenger is lagging in the polls by more than 30 percentage points and is in desperate need of some attention. But looks have always mattered in politics, and in an age of 24-hour television news, it has become even more relevant.

What was especially intriguing about Mr. Spencer’s off-the-cuff remarks, as reported in The Daily News, was his speculation that Mrs. Clinton had evolved from an ugly duckling to the presentable 59-year-old woman she is today with the help of “millions of dollars” of “work.”

And if she had: Would it matter?

With Americans spending $12 billion a year getting injected, stapled and snipped, cosmetic surgery long ago went mainstream. Yet there is one arena in which an accusation of having work done still stings, and that is in politics.

Interestingly, all the politicians quoted about their looks, or cited for having been scrutinized for undergoing Botox injections or plastic surgery, are men. Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Kerry, Phil Gramm, Richard Gephardt, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi … writer Marc Santora even includes an excerpt from a letter in 1860 to show that appearances — and the integrity of appearances — have long been of concern to male candidates:

With a beard, “You would look a great deal better, for your face is so thin,” wrote Grace Bedell, 11. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be president.”

The reply came back promptly four days later:

“As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?

“Your very sincere well-wisher, A. Lincoln.”

The only woman mentioned — besides Clinton, who has denied having any work done — is Janet Reno, who dared others to ridicule her looks by appearing with Will Ferrell in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.”

By not recognizing how “looks” have always haunted women (Condoleeza Rice’s dress size, anyone?), the NYT fails to properly contextualize what Spencer was doing to Clinton. It’s not a gender-neutral act.

Plus: Scrutinizing public figures for their supposedly cosmetically altered looks isn’t just confined to politics, it seems. According to Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is even occurring in the most “manly” of arenas — on the football field. Oh, dear!

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