Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.
Peggy Drexler: Talk of Marissa Mayer's Vogue piece focused on her appearance
Drexler: We can't blame Mayer, or Vogue, for society's obsession with appearance.
She says Mayer has no say over the fact that looks matter, pretty people succeed more
But it's unfair, she says, to expect Mayer to sit for a photo that wasn't going to be flattering
Yes — Marissa Mayer posed for Vogue. Her skin is creamy, her hair perfect. She looks gorgeous. It’s not surprising; it’s Vogue.
It’s also not surprising that the conversation about Mayer’s Vogue piece – the first major profile she agreed to since becoming CEO of Yahoo – has remained squarely focused on how she looks in the accompanying photograph.
Most criticisms, my own included, have examined Mayer’s role in this: At a time when women in the workplace desperately need role models, why did she allow herself to be depicted in a manner so far removed from most women’s realities?
On CNN.com, Pepper Schwartz writes that “a significant number of women … were less than thrilled at the idea of one of the few women of real power still needing the affirmation of a Vogue fashion shoot,” and “here’s a woman who has made it to the top because of her brains, does she still need to self-validate by having a beautiful fashion gig?”
But what’s so inexcusable about a woman wanting to look her best? How is it self-validating to let a respectable magazine profile you in the way they know how? Or is the issue more about the audacity of a powerful woman sitting for a portrait that might be – gasp – flattering?
The truth is that we can’t blame Mayer, or Vogue, for society’s obsession with, and response to, appearance. Women, especially women who happen to be both beautiful and brilliant like Mayer, are very often reduced to, or at least measured by, their looks. This was a reality before Mayer’s Vogue spread, and it will be a reality after. The debate over Mayer’s culpability in agreeing to be sexed up for a fashion magazine implies that she has some power over the fact, some ability to change the truth, that looks matter, and that pretty people succeed more.
Because they do, with or without the “affirmation of a Vogue fashion shoot.”
According to a 2007 paper from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overweight and obese white women face a significant “wage penalty.” According to research by Daniel Hamermesh, author of “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful,” the top one-third of attractive females earn about 10% more annually than those in the bottom sixth of the genetic pool.
And in her groundbreaking 1999 book, “Survival of the Prettiest,” Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff argues that good-looking people get better jobs, are better paid, and have an easier time in life. The evidence is in: Evolutionarily speaking, pretty people win.
Mayer’s looks likely helped her get ahead in some manner throughout her career; as such, it’s unreasonable to expect that she’d do anything but agree to play them up for a national audience.
For women, who are faced with any number of disadvantages in the workplace, why not use what you can? That’s not to say Mayer isn’t brilliant or hardworking; it’s not an either/or in business or in life. But it’s unrealistic, and unfair, to expect that Mayer wouldn’t sit for a photo that wasn’t expected to turn out at least somewhat flattering. That’s not self-validation, or even narcissism. It’s nothing more than completely human.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.