Powdered and In Power

Sam Garzillo | guest writer — American University

At nearly every conference I attend, there is one thing I can guarantee — I am wearing pink heels.

When pre-teen, pre-feminist me saw Legally Blonde for the first time, I thought, “Great, another pretty blonde, cutesy-ing her way to the top.” The film’s main character, Elle Woods, is over-the-top bubbly, highly concerned with her appearance and bases her aspirations on her love interests. Any time we use the phrase “I’m not like other girls,” this is the “other girl” we think we’re so much better than.

It would take me until high school to realize her femininity made me ignore that she was also brilliant, hard-working, and unyielding. Since she looked and acted a certain way, I had decided she couldn’t be any of these other traits, preventing her from being as dynamic as she was.

When I too was becoming a female leader, I was heavily concerned with what I had to be like:

I wanted to be warm, but I didn’t want to be walked over.

I wanted to look presentable, but I didn’t want to be considered vain.

I wanted to be confident, but I didn’t want to be aggressive.

I wanted to be a woman in power, but I didn’t want to be an Elle Woods.

The women of power who are respected are often stripped of their sexuality and femininity. They inhabit this sort of non-gendered space. Men can be macho and handsome and still be in command, often times more so because of their masculinity, but women have to be beyond their gender. They have to be the Margaret Thatcher type, who demanded her gender be treated as irrelevant, or an Eleanor Roosevelt, a brains over beauty rather than a brains and a beauty. Appearance is not the most important part of female leaders, a female leader should be heralded for her abilities not her beauty, but every female leader has the right to value her appearance and be proud of her gender without having her authority or character questioned.

While I respect the right of women, trans or cis, to express their gender as they please, the lack of positive Elle Woods-type role models is a problem. When we’re presented with a feminine, gender role-abiding woman, we have a harder time accepting her intelligence and leadership. Instead, she gets labeled shallow, bitchy, slutty, meek, or dumb.

In my journey to fill this role model hole, to stand at a podiums in a skirt and heels, hair curled, and makeup done, I’ve sought to deliberately show that I am feminine and in power, and one does not negate the other. While I’ve largely obtained positive results, it hasn’t been foolproof.

I’ve had people I managed try to sleep with me.

I’ve had participants at conferences treat me like I’m stupid, or directly call me so.

I get more questions on what makeup I use than the work I’m doing.

These responses highlight numerous other issues,

we can’t look at beautiful women beyond their sexual appeal,

we believe beautiful women are vain and stupid,

we assume if a woman cares about her appearance, that is her highest priority.

But regardless of how sexualized or discredited I am, I worked to get where I am and I do not have to assume an exterior that supposedly better suits my credentials. I will continue making an example of myself until these harmful narratives end.

We need to respect female leaders of all types for the quality of their work, not the way they look or carry themselves. Whether their skirt is tight or floor length, their lipstick bright red or their face untouched, their hair bouncing or pixie cut, their demeanor warm or down to business, we need to stop looking and start listening.

Whether you’re an Eleanor or an Elle, there is nothing more damaging than thinking you can only be one in order to be taken seriously, or criticizing which person other women choose to be. For every female leader, be proud of your gender and how you choose to express it, and know that your abilities alone take you from a woman in power to a woman empowered. ♦

Photo: “Pink” by idreamlikecrazy from Flickr. Released to public domain.

Samantha Garzillo is a Law & Society major at American University, focused primarily on public policy. She also enjoys making ranty Facebook statuses about sexism.

Check out more from our March 2016 issue!