OK, this post is going to be a tricky one, but I feel it's about time I had a bash at it. Tricky because I want to talk about women in public life and the extent to which physical appearance or, to be more precise, attractiveness should be the subject of comment. And in doing so, to illustrate my argument, I will have to repeat some comments I regard as offensive. Anyway...
Non-Bristolian readers may not be familiar with the output of Bristol's answer to Woodward and Bernstein, the Bristol Blogger, who hides under the clock of anonymity but I would wager is probably not quite as attractive as Robert Redford in his All the President's Men days. (Feel free to provide any evidence that proves me wrong!)
The Blogger spends most of his time railing against the goings on at Bristol City Council and one of his targets is the fairly new Chief Executive, Jan Ormondroyd, whom he has wittily dubbed Jan 'Bum Disease'. So far, so par for the course. But in a recent post about her he also felt the need to refer to 'saggy tits' and 'bad teeth' and called her 'a sad old moose'. His defence? That the Chief Exec 'uses' her appearance in her line of work and has put herself at the forefront of various publicity efforts by the Council, and therefore such criticism is permissible.
Through Twitter I asked him whether she 'used her breasts' and he said 'they have been noted'. I replied by asking, 'noted as in deliberately put on public display, or noted just because they exist?' (In which case virtually every woman would be fair game). I didn't get an answer. I don't think such comments are acceptable in any circumstances, unless someone is taking her top off for a living in which case I think it's fair to expect a degree of customer feedback. So yes, BB, as one of your readers says, you are a 'sexist old loon'.
But on a more general note... Like other politicians my job involves putting myself in the public spotlight. People need to know who their MP is, and that's means having name and face recognition. To be honest, I cringe at the thought of putting leaflets through strangers' doors with my pictures on them.... but it has to be done. And that inevitably means people will pass comment on those pictures, (with special thanks to the woman during my 2005 election campaign who said I looked like Sonia from Eastenders). But is that a case of me, or any other politician, or Jan Ormondroyd, 'using their appearance'?
I'd ask the Blogger this: if a man puts himself in the spotlight in order to promote an organisation, or publicise a cause - let's take Richard Branson as an example - would you regard him as using or exploiting his physical appearance? I don't think you would. So why does it apply to women with a high public profile? Or is that only permissible for young and attractive women? Should all middle-aged women only be allowed out in public with bags over their heads?
Seeing as it's inevitably going to come up, yes, I have seen the pictures of Caroline Flint, the Europe Minister, in today's Observer Women, modelling for a fashion shoot. They're nice pictures. Does doing this shoot make it open season for people who want to comment on her looks? I think that horse has already bolted a long time ago, judging from the blogs, but I suppose it makes it more difficult to sustain the 'judge what I say, not what I look like' line. But some - most - female MPs - aspire to nothing more than not looking too scruffy or too knackered (or am I just speaking for myself here?)
I accept it's unrealistic to expect not to be judged on appearance, to an extent. I asked my mother once what she thought of Barbara Castle and she said 'well she was always very smart'. A lot of women voters, including my mother, didn't approve of Shirley Williams because she was always rather dishevelled looking. That's to be expected, it goes with the territory. But there's a big difference between that and assuming that because we have our photos in the paper, fully-clothed, we're inviting public commentary on our breasts. (I say 'public'; I recognise the futility of expecting men not to talk about them at all!)