02/12/2014 02:13 EST | Updated 04/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Being Polished, Being Plain, and Being OK With Both

Now when someone fixes my collar or warns me about the lipstick on my teeth before I go on TV, I'm only a little mortified; mostly I'm grateful. Because they aren't trying to attack who I am or tell me I'm not good enough. They're trying to help me get my point across by helping me clear away distractions.

When I was home with my family this weekend, I felt drowsy, dozy and lazy. If I hadn't had to take my son to a birthday party on Saturday, I'd barely have left the house or gotten out of my pyjamas.

When I got a last-minute call from a TV network on Sunday evening asking if I could get there in an hour for a taping, I hadn't showered yet! How do you explain to a television producer that yes, you can be there, but you're going to look like...well, like you've had a very idle weekend?

This question was still on my mind as I quickly brushed my teeth, made hopeless motions with a flat iron and read up on the topics we'd be discussing. What did it say about me that I was more worried about the state of my hair than the state of my knowledge?

The answer, I think, is in a large part a statement on my feelings of competence. I've been complimented on my ability to handle ideas, but I've (quite rightly) never been complimented on my ability to style hair! But is there more to it?

It's tempting to say that people will judge me more on my looks than my ideas because I'm female. It's probably more accurate to say that as a female, there's a greater chance of my distracting from my message by being unpolished than there would be if I were a man. There's a certain level of refinement expected of everyone on television. Yeah, I've seen Duck Dynasty; I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. Generally, though, any time people go on TV looking less than decently groomed, they catch the viewer's eye, regardless of gender. As Tina Fey put it in her book Bossypants, "[I]f you look weird, it will distract from what you're trying to do." And once that happens, it's game over. The viewer becomes too wrapped up in contemplating the lint on the suit or the stubborn bit of hair pointing skyward to take in the intelligent words coming out of the mouth. Again, Tina Fey nails it: "If you look as good as you can, people will be able to pay attention to what you're actually saying."

But for men, the grooming and style minimum required to save viewers from distraction is fairly low, at least on the news side. In the world of male guest punditry, as long as you've got nothing in your teeth, an unwrinkled shirt and glasses from this decade, you're usually good to go. For female pundits, more is expected. The potential scrutiny extends to nail colour, makeup application, skirt length, hair style (too big, too flat, oh my god is that a scrunchy) and even wrinkles and weight. I'm not saying every woman on TV is expected to be a gorgeous style icon. Just that a pundit's distance from gorgeous style iconography is more likely to be noted -- and have an impact on that pundit's success -- if the pundit is a woman. There are plain women on TV commentary shows and amazingly polished men. But you've got to admit that both such species of talking heads stand out. Because they're not the norm.

But norms can change. So on Sunday I worried about the fact that my hair screamed I-barely-moved-this-weekend-and-certainly-moved-nowhere-near-a-stylist. But I didn't worry about it enough to turn down an opportunity to express my thoughts on national television. Looking as good as you can is a flexible metric. It can include bad hair when you only have a half-hour to prepare.

So did anyone notice my inelegant 'do?

Of course not; my wise insight was all anyone was really after. Okay, that's not true; at least not entirely. Everyone at the studio was very polite when I arrived. And I was politely directed to the hair implements in the makeup room. And politely helped with a curling iron when I was clearly making a hash of it myself. If I hadn't been helped in these ways, I would have stood out as sloppy on camera. Which may or may not have advanced the cause feminism. But almost certainly would not have advanced my modest TV career, such as it is.

So I try not to be as judgmental as I used to be about women who spend what I consider to be a lot of time and money preening and primping. Or about genuinely well-meaning efforts to get a woman who will be in the public eye to do the same. At least a little bit. Once upon a time, I was inwardly outraged and insulted when a PR person I was working with in my job as a lawyer gently suggested I style my hair before doing a television spot.

Have you seen your own head? Vidal Sassoon would not have kind words. Why pick on me?

That's what I thought to myself when I got the suggestion. SEXIST JERK also crossed my mind. But I don't think those things anymore. Not when the proposed change is reasonable (a quick blowout as opposed to a $300 set of hair extensions) and clearly not intended as a personal insult.

And so now when someone fixes my collar or warns me about the lipstick on my teeth before I go on air, I'm only a little mortified; mostly I'm grateful.

Because they aren't trying to attack who I am or tell me I'm not good enough. They're trying to help me get my point across by helping me clear away distractions.

If I had heard, in my 20s, the recent revelation about Margaret Thatcher getting her hair done every three days, I would have thought:

How she could she be so vain?

Why didn't she worry more about policy and less about something so frivolous?

Did she have nothing better to do?

Was she under the mistaken impression that she was a fashion plate rather than a politician?

And I would have thought less of her. Because her focus on an aspect of her appearance would have struck me as petty.

Today I think:

With all the public scrutiny she was under, why wouldn't she make sure she was as polished as possible?

Who's to say she wasn't spending her time in the stylist's chair reading important briefings on matters of national importance?

Do you think John Kerry's hair gets that way on its own?

How a person looks is one aspect of who that person is. We have to be careful not to put too much importance on appearance, especially in the case of women, since we've been unbalanced that way in the past and still are to some degree. But we do ourselves no favours if we pretend it doesn't matter at all. Or demand that others ignore it completely. In moderation, it's a valid consideration. The more time you spend publicly presenting things, the more useful the consideration becomes.

And there will always be cozy family weekends marked by pyjamas and bad hair to keep things in perspective.


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