Study: Female Candidates Become Less Electable When Media Mention Their Appearance

The study showed both positive and negative comments about a women’s appearance hurt her.

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Democratic congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch speaks to reporters outside a nursing home in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, April 4, 2013.
Democratic congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch speaks to reporters outside a nursing home in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, April 4, 2013.

Just days after President Obama came under fire for calling Kamala Harris the best-looking attorney general in the country, a new study from the Women's Media Center found that comments on a female candidate's appearance can seriously affect how likely people are to vote for her.

But it's not just negative comments that can hurt, according to the study. A neutral comment on a female candidate's appearance – such as: "she wore a purple Vera Wang dress and blue heels" – or even a positive comment – "the Vera Wang dress looked fabulous on her, the heels even better" – also damaged her ability to get elected.

After voters read media stories mentioning the female candidate's appearance, they saw her as less in touch, less likable, and even less qualified. Her male opponent, the study showed, was not damaged at all by the looks-based coverage.

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"What's really stunning is, we have dial groups, and you will see the minute you mention appearance, the dials start down," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted the study for the Women's Media Center.

"So commenting on women's appearance diminishes their qualification for the job, trivializing their candidacy – even when it's meant to be neutral or complimentary."

Lake also says the study suggests that male candidates may have a big incentive to get their female opponent's looks talked about by the media. Just 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.

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The study also showed that a female candidate is far more likely to recover if she responds to the appearance-based coverage instead of ignoring it.

Fifteen hundred likely voters were surveyed across the country for the study, which was conducted as part of the Women's Media Center's "Name It. Change It." campaign, a project intended to end sexist coverage of female candidates in the press.

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