This week saw the UK begin the process to leave the EU. A big day with major implications for all of us in Europe. Amongst many potentially messy issues, Brexit could lead to another Scottish independence referendum.
So on Tuesday Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the leader in Scotland met to discuss the future.
The Daily Mail, the biggest selling paper in the country chose as its front cover a picture of the two women, seated, angled to show their legs. The headline hilariously noted, “Never Mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”
There was up-roar as a result. Lots of people who don’t like the Daily Mail were offended by its demeaning representation of two influential women. One politician tweeted, “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back. #everydaysexism”
Others saw the absurdly unequal treatment of men and called for similar photos of male politicians (eek no, not Boris Johnson’s legs!)
Many women and men were offended because the photo and headline WERE sexist and though the full article was actually quite insightful about the two women, we should not have to put up with the repeated references to women’s shoes, legs, sexiness or dowdiness when their appearance has nothing to do with the person’s competence.
It happens way too often. Three weeks ago, Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer with a famous husband, was at the UN with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was a slave of IS and talks powerfully of her horrific experiences. She is incredibly brave to share her story.
But what did the media talk about? That Amal wore a wonderfully fetching yellow dress (Bottega Veneta, in case you want to know) and pulled off “an enviably flawless maternity style as she carries twins.” Some chastised her for wearing high heels when pregnant, however if she had worn sensible flats, she probably would she have faced other critics.
Nadia Murad, who does not wear designer clothes and is not married to a celebrity, was mostly ignored.
Do you see a pattern here? These women have been reduced in value to their outward appearance and even though every parent stresses to their daughter that looks are not important – ‘it’s character that counts, darling and you do not want to go out of the house dressed in a way that is only about looking sexy’ – that is all nonsense if the media continues to fetishise over Amal Clooney’s heels or Theresa May’s legs.
Sometimes the references to a woman’s fashion sense are actually fun and quite admiring, or at least harmless, but when intelligent capable women are judged purely on their looks, it is demeaning. And if we make a fuss, we are accused of not being able to take a joke, or of being menopausal and a bit erratic.
Julia Baird is an insightful Australian journalist and broadcaster. Fascinated by the pressure on women in politics to be ‘likeable’, she has commented, “What we often fail to portray is the incredible complexity of women in powerful roles, and what we’re capable of. [This is] largely because we are so blinkered by expectations of female behaviour – of what a powerful woman or a feminist looks like.”
So I don’t think it’s good enough to dismiss the sexist headlines as a bit of fun or a light-hearted (can’t you take a joke) look at women of influence.
Such language is part of a bigger picture of discrimination that blinkers us to the rich variety of women in our world – women who wear high heels, women who wear trainers or women who have only enough money for a pair of plastic sandlas. To put us all in a box labelled, #looksareallthatmatter, is not much of a joke.
 Like Carol Midgley, in The Times