I have a distinct memory from around the time my writing career began in the early-2000s, and, strangely, it involves Greta Van Susteren.
Van Susteren had come to fame during the O.J. Simpson murder trial years, when she worked as a CNN legal analyst. Later, she was promoted to co-host of CNN’s “Burden of Proof.” But in 2002, Van Susteren moved to Fox News Channel to premiere her own show, “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren,” and during the transition, while she wasn’t on air, she had plastic surgery.
Social media was not yet a thing, and the first iPhone was still five years away, so the masses were not getting political and media gossip at the tap of a screen first thing in the morning. Still, rumors swirled in magazines that Van Susteren had had plastic surgery in order to compete on television (Van Susteren has always denied this claim).
My column was just a couple years old, and I had just had my second baby. I was 26 years old. It was the first time I deliberately thought about how my looks or weight might affect my career in media — as in, “Wait, I have to look a certain way to do this?”
Back then, I was just a black-and-white headshot in newspapers. It would be a few more years before I was interviewed live on television. But sure enough, when I was, I heard about it from readers.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my female critics and male critics attack different things.
According to the women, when I was on television, I had on too much makeup. My hair was too stiff. Or I needed more color around my face.
According to the men, I looked like I still had baby weight. I looked old.
And later, after I had published “Dinner with the Smileys,” I looked like I had had one too many lasagna dinners.
Last week, freelance writer and law student Meredith Simons wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled “ Don’t like what a woman is saying? Call her ugly.”
“It seems that any woman who has the audacity to speak in a public forum will be evaluated not only on the substance of what she says or how well she does her job, but on what she weighs, what she’s wearing, and what her hairstyle says about her,” Simons wrote. “Needless to say, men hardly face similar critiques.”
She’s not wrong. But I disagree with Simons when she uses the phrase “will be evaluated not only on the substance of what she says,” because often times, there is no mention at all about what the woman has said or done.
Women, of course, seized upon Simons’ article. It spread rapidly on social media to cheers and amens from women everywhere. We all seemed to be saying that we will not stand for this kind of harassment and degradation.
But then something curious happened. After Simons’ article went cold, the newness having worn off, a new story began to circulate. This one, unfortunately, made fun of Kellyanne Conway, President Donald Trump’s counselor to the president.
Conway, it seems, wore a dress to the inauguration that angered the fashion police, and now she was the brunt of jokes, memes and harassment — mostly by other women online, likely the same women who had cheered for the Simons article.
Amid all the jokes and ridicule, I didn’t see many people, not even other women, mention the fact that Conway was the first woman ever to run a successful presidential campaign. Perhaps this is because she is on “the other side.” Likewise, maybe Van Susteren lost sympathy when she went from CNN to Fox News. But if we are going to march for women, shouldn’t it be for all women, not just the ones we agree with politically?
In Simons’ article, Democratic strategist Celinda Lake said: “When women’s ideas are threatening or women’s power is threatening, you often see them referred to in terms of their appearance. It’s a way to distract, to trivialize and to divert attention from the important things women are saying and doing.”
If you believe that and you also are a woman, then you need to deliver the antidote equally to all women. Acknowledge Conway for her accomplishments, don’t make fun of her clothes. Applaud Van Susteren for her work, not her plastic surgery. Recognize Hillary Clinton’s achievements, stop focusing on her hair.
To do anything less reflects back on us as women and, as Lake notes, implies that we are threatened, not encouraged or inspired, by the women who have come before us.