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Women will always be judged on appearance, I was told I 'let the side down' by wearing pink

‘By reducing a woman’s worth down to her appearance, we slyly diminish her role and her value as a contributor to society’, writes Kate O’Connell.

Kate O'Connell

THERE ISN’T A day goes by that someone doesn’t comment upon my appearance.

Whether it’s my sister telling me I look tired (quelle surprise) or a friend complimenting my outfit/makeup/shoes, having my appearance appraised by others is par for the course.

Upon graduating, I was young (24) and I wanted to be taken seriously. So, I wore the best clothes I could afford and kept my hair sensible and my makeup neutral.

First impressions count, so it matters what someone sees when they look at you. It shouldn’t, however, define you as a person.

When you see the vast amount of column inches devoted to how women look, particularly in politics, it can be hugely disheartening. Rather than critiquing their work and contribution to society, often commentary focuses on their outfit choices and appearance.

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Take the recent piece in The Spectator about the female contenders for the Labour leadership in the UK, or the “Downing Street catwalk” spread in the Daily Mail last year, which referred to then employment minister Esther McVey as “thigh-flashing Esther” who “threw her blonde mane backwards as in a shampoo advert” while she was “sashaying” into No.10.

As a woman, you grow up knowing that at every turn you are being considered on your looks. In our house, we were strongly encouraged towards competing academically rather than for the approval or attention of others – something I think most parents try to do.

Our father was elected to local politics in 2004, and at a party celebrating his win, a prominent female politician came over to our table where myself and my three sisters were sitting.

“Oh Michael, aren’t they all such LOVELY girls!”, she exclaimed. We all raised a collective eyebrow at each other and turned to smile sweetly in her direction. “Oh they are, they are”, said my father, swiftly trying to change the subject as he saw the lightning flash in our eyes.

00152260 Kate O'Connell with her sister Theresa Newman, after being elected in the Rathgar-Rathmines ward. Source: Mark Stedman via RollingNews.ie

It didn’t matter what we did, or what we had achieved, we were lovely girls and that was that.

Ten years later, I decided to run for election myself.

Like motherhood, nothing really prepares you for politics. You can go on all the training courses and talk to all the politicians in the world, but until you do it yourself you can’t know the reality.

Despite my motivation to develop health policy and further women’s rights, my appearance shot up the agenda – what would I wear in the poster, what length should I keep my hair, what sent the right message?

No matter my merits as a candidate, what people would see first would determine my worth, and whether I was worthy of their attention – and their vote. Everything else seemed secondary.

When the posters went up, a leading feminist took to Facebook to slag me off – for in her eyes, I was letting the side down for wearing pink, and some costume jewellery I picked up in a second hand shop in town.

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Various commenters said the picture supported the idea that women were not to be taken seriously in politics, that I was trading on my femininity (what on earth?) and that my image reinforced the stereotype that women are “somewhat frivolous”.

I don’t think any of the commenters, or the feminist, have ever met me – though if they do bump into me in the future and I’m wearing a trouser suit with a crew cut haircut, I’ll probably be wrong then too.

It all feeds into the stereotype of what constitutes a “female politician”. You can either be seen as a domineering, ball-busting alpha, or you are criticised for not being serious, or “masculine” enough.

It’s ridiculous really, that women are automatically slotted into roles like Disney characters – you’re the witch or you’re the silly princess, and that’s your lot.

Do people ever look at posters of male politicians in suits and say, “Oh look at him there, trading on his masculinity – I’m definitely not voting for him!”?

This sort of judgement and criticism is primarily reserved for women, and it will always be there. We can fight it, and we can make progress – but we will never eradicate it. People love it too much. Whether it’s election posters or the Rose of Tralee, people will forever turn to each other and say, “What in the name of God is she wearing? The face on her! Oh, the tide wouldn’t take her out”.

As with most things, at the root of it all is power. By reducing a woman’s worth down to her appearance, we slyly diminish her role and her value as a contributor to society. People care far too much about how things look, rather than looking at how things are.

I’m proud of myself, my job and my achievements. I’m proud of the people I represent and I want them to be proud of me.

In my work as a pharmacist and as a Councillor, the things people most require from me are honesty, attention and assistance. Once I can provide those, they generally don’t give a damn what I’m wearing.

Kate O’Connell is a councillor for the Rathgar-Rathmines Local Electoral Area and a Fine Gael candidate in 2016 General Election. She is also a businesswoman, pharmacist and mother.

Read: ‘Photos of Jennifer Aniston and Cindy Crawford highlights ‘fat shaming’ of women, when will it stop?’>

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