Despite the fact that I live at the epicenter of American and world politics - inside the Washington, DC Beltway - and count many politicians, ambassadors and government officials among my patients, I'm probably one of the least politically savvy people you'll ever meet. That said, the recent gossip about Senator Hillary Clinton's aide, Huma Abedin, has made me sit up and take notice because it has an interesting side-story.
Even as the precise nature of Abedin's relationship with Clinton is being dissected by commentators of various political persuasions, Abedin's credibility and fitness for her duties have come under fire because of her attractiveness.
In response to a recent celebrity gossip blog about Abedin, a poster writes: "I'm a professional woman like Hillary. This may sound patronizing, but I'd never ever considered hiring a secretary/personal assistant who is that much of a knock-out. Extremely attractive people can be a distraction; in my field, I want the focus on me, on my work and my message... No fashion models need apply."
Then there's James Carville, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, who clearly bears Abedin no hostility when he describes her to the New York Observer as "... an unbelievably, stunningly gorgeous woman" and goes on to say: "Nobody in that position can be that good-looking; it just doesn't happen."
Over the past few years, we've been bombarded with the notion that beautiful people are more successful, both professionally and socially. The premise is that we assume a physically attractive person is also attractive in other respects, such as personality and skills. This has been cited as an example of the Halo Effect - our tendency to judge people highly overall if they possess one outstanding trait.
Besides beauty, the Halo Effect also applies to youth. A recent New York Times article on ageism and societal pressure to look eternally youthful cites a study showing that a younger female job applicant was much more likely to receive an interview than an older applicant with the same resume, and quotes the author of the study as saying that "seeming young can definitely help your economic status, and that pays the rent."
In addition to catapulting into blogs normally reserved for Hollywood's elite, Huma Abedin is also the designer dress-clad darling of Vogue. Although this has led to allegations that she's no victim, but instead the beneficiary of a well-orchestrated stealth PR campaign, I believe that she is in some regards a victim of the Halo Effect in reverse. It seems that her attractiveness has caused some to question her competence and trustworthiness.
Are there professional fields in which it's a disadvantage to be perceived as too attractive? We're familiar with the concept of the glass ceiling - the situation whereby a qualified person is prevented from advancing beyond a certain level due to covert discrimination, usually based on sexism or racism. Is there a variant of the glass ceiling - a looking glass ceiling, perhaps - that applies to those who are considered good-for-nothing because they are good-looking? I know for certain that you don't have to be as beautiful as Huma Abedin to be misjudged by your looks... because it's happened to me.
The first time, I was 17 and had traveled to the University of Cambridge in my native England to interview for a medical school position. One of my interviewers, a venerable professor whose face remains vivid in my memory to this day, looked me up and down and pronounced: "It's a waste of time training women like you for medicine; you'll only get married and have children".
I was devastated. I'd held the unshakable faith that my calling was medicine since the tender age of 6. Yet here was a man more than three times my age - and a man from one of the world's finest educational institutions at that - who apparently needed to spend only a couple of minutes with me to declare that I was mistaken.
Over a decade later, having graduated from Cambridge and emigrated to the U.S., I was stronger, wiser and perhaps harder when the Chief Nurse of the fellowship program to which I'd applied pursed her lips as she scrutinized mine and intoned, "We're all women in this department; we don't wear lipstick here." Resisting the urge to point out that I was actually wearing lip gloss, I sat politely through the rest of the interview, thanked her effusively for her time, and never contacted her or the fellowship program again.
Does the looking glass ceiling exist not only in obvious fields such as politics and medicine but also in less obvious ones? The common wisdom is that it's not just an advantage but a necessity for a woman in the media to look youthful and attractive. But look at the front-page coverage of Fox TV news reporter and lawyer, Greta Van Susteren, when she bowed to this dictum and had plastic surgery a few years ago. One newspaper report began with the Neanderthal "Duh..." and the suggestion that Van Susteren could no longer be taken seriously, given what she'd done.
The reaction in on-line chat rooms was even more savage; Van Susteren was excoriated for being shameful, pathetic, devoid of self-respect and "retarded". In an era where women's abilities are perhaps recognized as never before, why do we still position beauty and intelligence as polar opposites, as if by definition a woman's IQ must be inversely proportional to her looks? And why do we save our most strident condemnation for those who choose to enhance their beauty, labeling them traitors to the cause of feminism, shallow and vain?
These days, safely ensconced in my own dermatology practice, I don't have to worry about ceilings, unless the one in my office springs a leak. All that matters is my rapport and relationship with my patients and the results I can achieve for them. This is truly a luxury, and one that I fully appreciate.
But, even now, there are days when I close my eyes, see that white-bearded professor in the wood-paneled room in Cambridge and think of how I fulfilled his predictions regarding marriage and children to the letter. And I wonder if his scornful dismissal was actually intended as my call to battle - a trans-generational rallying cry exhorting me to prove myself. I've certainly taken it as such over the years - and, for that, I owe him my thanks.
Published On: January 31, 2008