Women Can’t Do Their Jobs Without Getting Hate Mail About Their Looks

Reporters have been dogged by criticism about something that has nothing to do with their work.
(Photo: DreamPictures/Getty Images)
Mar 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

A columnist for the Chicago Tribune has been receiving a slew of hate mail—and it has nothing to do with her writing. Rather, the chorus of criticism is directed at the photo that accompanies her byline. More specifically, the author’s hair is what’s got readers so riled up.

“How could anyone take seriously anything written by an author whose accompanying picture makes her look like a tramp, with greasy, matted uncombed hair?” a man named David wrote to columnist Heidi Stevens recently. Stevens shared it, along with several other letters about her locks, in a Chicago Tribune essay that highlighted, once again, the degree to which women are constantly subjected to unwanted scrutiny of their looks.

As Stevens points out, her short, naturally curly mane is irrelevant to her job. She’s not a model, she’s not selling hair products, and she doesn’t work at a salon. “Is this really where we’re stuck as a culture? At a place where we drown out women’s voices with critiques of their hair?” she wrote.

Of course, the policing of women’s hairstyles is nothing new. First lady Michelle Obama’s side-swept bangs spawned a global debate and the accompanying Twitter hashtag #bangsfail when she gave a speech at a G8 summit in 2013. Beyoncé’s short bangs debuted to a Twitter backlash last year and then prompted full-blown conspiracy theories when the bangs disappeared several days later. Who can forget the colossal media storm that followed recent Fashion Police comments that Zendaya’s dreadlocks must have smelled like patchouli oil and weed?

As evidenced by the Zendaya controversy, comments about hair can often reveal deep-rooted sterotypes about race, gender, age, and class. Even women whose professions do not require them to make speeches, hold concerts, or walk red carpets become victimized by those stereotypes. Stevens’ colleague Pulitzer Prize–winning Tribune columnist Mary Schmich has received dozens of letters from readers who feel she’s too old to be sporting her long brown tresses. Readers have gone so far as to cut Schmich’s photo out of the newspaper and send it to her with new hairstyles scrawled on top of it, she told the Tribune.

The New York Times book review editor, Pamela Paul, who, like Stevens, sports short, blonde, wavy hair, is all too familiar with emails saying “Get a haircut” as the subject line. “What the hell is the matter with you? Why wear hair that covers your eye? You are an insult to women,” read an email she received after moderating a C-Span book-fair panel in Miami last November. Paul detailed the experience and took a broader look at the backlash over women’s appearances in the media in a column for the The New York Times on Friday—a week after Stevens published her Tribune essay on the subject.

“The outcome is that by focusing on women’s appearances, you take away from their accomplishments and professionalism,” Elisa Lees Munoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, told Paul.

It’s not just women’s looks that have become the target of gendered harassment—it’s also women’s voices.

A January episode of This American Life examined listener complaints about the vocal quality of young women reporters. “I think it taps into some deep part of people’s selves where they don’t want to hear young women, including me,” This American Life reporter Chana Joffe-Walt said. “I’m just trying to speak. Literally the way that the voice comes out of my mouth bothers you? What am I supposed to do about that?”