(WOMENSENEWS)--For the first time that I can remember--in some four decades of observing national politics--a male candidate's body has become the subject of serious criticism by pundits.
Some have raised the issue of whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's weight makes him ineligible to run for president. (Christie's dropped out for now and endorsed Mitt Romney, but he's seen as a prime candidate for 2016)
Michael Kinsley, a columnist for Bloomberg View, recently wrote, "Look, I'm sorry, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat."
Kinsley says that we should judge presidential candidates on character and he thinks that Christie just hasn't shown enough discipline. "With a determined, disciplined effort, Christie could thin down, and he should; because the obesity epidemic is real and dangerous. And the president inevitably sets an example."
At The Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson urged the governor to "eat a salad and take a walk."
And Scott Brown's nude torso has become a factor in his Massachusetts senatorial race against Elizabeth Warren. When Warren replied to a question about how she got through college, she joked, "I didn't take my clothes off."
She was of course referring to Brown's nude posing for Cosmopolitan Magazine to help pay his way through law school.
This is indeed a new chapter in U.S. politics. In the past, men's bodies were pretty much off limits.
Of course, fit and attractive pols have found ways to display that fitness, usually in the guise of the sporting life.
JFK was often photographed swimming, sailing and playing touch football. Ronald Reagan chopped wood and rode horses. George W. Bush rode his mountain bike and cleared brush. Barak Obama shoots hoops and swims in the ocean in his native Hawaii. John Kerry windsurfs.
But many pols simply stay buttoned up.
You rarely saw Richard Nixon in anything but a shirt and tie. Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson never wore Speedos in public. And I doubt you'll see Ron Paul, Herman Cain or Chris Christie in one any time soon either.
Specific male body parts are rarely the subject of scrutiny in politics. (Yes, there was that news flurry over ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner sending photos of his private parts to random women. But that was about inappropriate sexual behavior, not physiology.)
The lone exception may be Mitt Romney's hair, too perfect and too immobile.
Double Standard of Aging
In our culture, women's bodies are commodified far more than men's. Susan Sontag pointed this out in writing about the "double standard of aging." Men, she observed, have two standards of attractiveness. There's the Boy, with a slim waist and full head of hair, and the Man, who can show signs of age and still be considered handsome and sexy.
Sean Connery, in his 60s, was People Magazine's "sexiest man alive." For women there is only one standard of beauty, the Girl. The leading-lady careers of most Hollywood actresses end at 40, and after that it's playing Moms, DA's and finally, "Driving Miss Daisy." On men, wrinkles and gray hair can be considered appealing, but not on women.
Hillary Clinton is a case in point. Her hips, her ankles, her pantsuits and even her cleavage were an ongoing part of the political discussion during her presidential run. When she appeared on the Senate floor displaying a very modest décolletage, you'd have thought she had appeared in the chamber in a bustier and spike heels, so immediate and huge was the reaction.
According to Media Matters for America, on one day, MSNBC gave 23 minutes and 42 seconds to segments discussing Clinton's "cleavage." CNN devoted three minutes and 54 seconds to the story.
CNBC's John Harwood thought it was all part of some master plan. "When you look at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil," he said on Meet the Press.
Conservative women seem to get a bit more latitude in the glam department, but there's an underside to that as well.
As Newsweek writer Julia Baird noted, while the media seem to applaud conservative women such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann for being sexual objects, it bashes progressive women leaders for their supposed failure to be hotties.
Progressive figures such as Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor and, of course, Hillary Clinton, faced countless sexist attacks in their rise to high profile media attention.
But the "smokin' hot" conservatives are subtly put down.
Baird noted, "It's odd to see how some men insist that when women start to grasp power, we should think of them primarily as playthings and provocateurs. Is this the best way to explain their success? They aren't challenging the status quo. They're being wild! They're not trying to lift the ban on offshore drilling. They're being naughty!"
Few political women--liberal or conservative--escape this male gaze. I hear many comments on Nancy Pelosi's youthful-looking face. Have any male pols have had similar enhancements? Who knows? It's never--or at least barely--mentioned.
When Evelyn Murphy ran for governor of Massachusetts, she was photographed jogging, and there were a raft of stories about her thighs. Did anyone ever mention the thighs of Bill Weld, Mike Dukakis or Paul Cellucci?
When a Boston radio host recently asked Scott Brown, "Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off?" Brown responded, "Thank God!"
The message was very clear. While Warren is very attractive, she is no longer a "girl" and therefore subject to the double standard of aging. Scott Brown's nude photo probably enhanced his image; he won handily when he first ran for the Senate.
Could a woman who had posed naked for a national magazine in her youth ever get elected to the senate? Would she even try? Women are aware of the ridicule they will face if they run for public office without supermodel perfection.
In the past, men never had to worry. Is the coverage of Christie's girth a step forward towards equality? Or does it just put men in an uncomfortable place where women have always been?
Whatever the answer, the "body politic" is getting reshaped.
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Boston University professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Dr. Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis, of "The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children."