Have you read about Karl Stefanovic, the Australian TV presenter who wore the same suit every day for a year? He decided to do it to prove that men escape the kind of scrutiny to which women are routinely subjected.
Co-host Lisa Wilkinson had given a speech last year about sexism, which prompted Stefanovic to try his social experiment. He turned up at work every day for an entire year wearing an imitation Burberry suit, with just some short breaks for dry-cleaning. Wilkinson, the recipient of much scrutiny and occasional criticism of her appearance – such as a letter from one viewer telling her to “get some style” – was let in on the secret after a month.
Throughout the entire year, not one viewer commented on Stefanovic’s suit – nobody noticed at all.
So what does this tell us? We know that women are judged on their appearance in a way that men are not, and this experiment certainly hammers it home.
But is it all that surprising that nobody commented on his suit? Do people ever comment on suits? Are suits really all that interesting? Is it not overly simplistic to put this down to sexism?
There are countless depressing examples of media reports in which what a woman wears takes precedence over what she says. Achievements are glossed over in favour of detailed descriptions of clothes and hair – talent displaced by looks.
Gabby Logan hit out last year at the treatment of female sports presenters as window dressing. Claire Balding spoke about the lack of older women in television, and the negative comments she gets about her appearance when she appears on TV, while male colleagues are judged on what they say. And worryingly, research shows that female politicians who appeal aesthetically are more likely to win out on election day.
Advertising and glossy magazines tell us that being beautiful is what’s valued most about women, and when it’s so pervasive, it’s difficult to counteract. We can tell our daughters that it’s what’s inside that matters, but as soon as they walk outside the door, they’re assailed by billboards showing beautiful women in impossibly glamorous clothes, in confident, powerful poses. They’ll buy magazines with page after page of “Who wore it best” features; gazelle-like and Gisele-like airbrushed models.
It’s also not black and white – we can rail against features showing actresses on red carpets, expounding on the dresses they wore, but really, isn’t that what the red carpet is about? Perhaps we need to accept that appearance is paramount on the way in to the Oscars, and focus instead on the disproportionately few female winners?
As for the viewer who wrote a letter to Lisa Wilkinson, telling her that her outfit was “jarring and awful” – presumably this represents one extreme reaction of a woman who has too much time on her hands, rather than the vast majority of normal people, who occasionally comment to a friend or on Twitter that they like or dislike an outfit?
Karl Stefanovic pointed out that most of the criticism came from women – that’s not surprising either. A large proportion of men are not terribly interested in what TV presenters are wearing – male or female.
The clothes women wear tend to be more colourful, more varied, and more interesting than the clothes that men wear (sorry men). So sexism aside, women’s clothes generate more comments. Women like clothes; women like looking at other women’s clothes, and some like commenting too. Some like sending letters directly to presenters, but let’s assume they’re the minority. And really, that’s the problem here – that Lisa Wilkinson had to put up with snide comments, and not that Karl Stefanovic didn’t.
Perhaps the experiment emphasises what we already know – that there is an unfair and unhealthy focus on female appearance. Or perhaps it just shows that we don’t really care about suits?