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The cover with Kate Ellis

Sunday Life received a sizeable spike in reader mail after the Minister for the Status for Women, Kate Ellis, appeared on the cover of our June 26 issue. Ellis was interviewed for our story on why women were still not breaking through the glass ceiling in business and politics. But the responses were not about the story.

More than a few of our readers (almost all of them women) viewed Ellis’s make-up, clothes and, in particular, her shoes as inappropriate. The responses ranged from mildly concerned – “I found it disconcerting to see MP Kate Ellis … perched on the edge of a table and with half the front cover taken up by her legs and skyscraper heels” – to vitriolic: “The wearing of super-high stiletto heels represents women as vain, attention-seeking, foolish and potential victims.”

A few saw a glaring irony: “If you are railing against discrimination, why intentionally dress somebody up like a model to illustrate the article, which has the result of demeaning Ellis and all those other women who try to be taken seriously in a discriminatory world.”

This is not the first time Ellis has been taken to task. As the then minister for sport, she posed for a fashion spread in Grazia magazine last year, and the outcry was similar, albeit more vocal. Indeed, it’s not a new topic: when a female politician wears anything other than a sensible suit, outrage ensues.

“The message came over loud and clear,” wrote one reader. “If you want to get press coverage, girls, you’d better frock up.” And this, from another: “I would find it hard to take anyone in business seriously who was wearing those shoes. An article about successful women and this is what the stylist comes up with?”

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But Kate Ellis informs us that the clothes she wore for the cover shoot are no different to the clothes she wears every day to the office. As she explained on ABC TV’s Q&A in March this year, “We accept that we need to have a more diverse parliament but quite often we want to get people and then fit them into the existing mould of what parliamentarians have always looked like.

“I was 26 when I was preselected for the seat of Adelaide and I had really well-meaning people within the party who wanted me to do well, but who were advising me, ‘Cut your hair off. Stop wearing high heels. Is it possible that you might need glasses?’ And when I said no [the response was], ‘Can you maybe get glasses with just plain glass in there? Because we don’t want people to be focusing on the fact that you’re a young woman.’ ”

“Kate Ellis might appear too frivolous for some,” says feminist author Emily Maguire. “But for many  of us, she appears perfectly normal – the kind of woman we see in our workplaces every single day.”

Dr Natalya Lusty, senior lecturer in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, says, “While the research on wearing heels is certainly not conclusive – some research shows that it actually strengthens a woman’s pelvic floor! – all risk-taking behaviour is an individual choice. We know that there are long-term effects associated with men playing body-contact sports, even at an amateur level, but no one is out there harassing men about the injuries. Women’s behaviour is always subject to more scrutiny than men’s.”

This time, the scrutiny seemed unusually acute. A woman on the cover of Sunday Life wearing make-up, bright clothes and high heels is not unusual – in fact, it happens almost every week. So what is it about Kate Ellis that seems to draw out such fury?

“Women are as guilty as men – sometimes more  so – of wanting women to conform to particular stereotypes of appropriate feminine behaviour,” says Lusty. “My sense is that women’s frustration about the nature of women’s powerlessness in the world often gets translated into a series of judgmental or programmatic scripts about how women ‘should’ behave – and the stakes are obviously higher when that woman happens to be a politician.”

Jacqueline Maley, a political sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, says, “Gillard has been criticised for not wearing flattering enough clothes. Ellis is now criticised for wearing clothes that are too flattering. So perhaps we should set out a prescription for female politicians, so they don’t stuff up again: your clothes must be neat and pleasing to the eye, but never sexy.

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“But hang on, how do we define sexy? Do men get to define it? Because sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, right? Isn’t that akin to letting the male gaze define and direct female behaviour?”

Says Maguire, “I can’t imagine there being the same reaction if she happened to be older or shorter or fatter or less photogenic – many people still assume that serious women cannot be conventionally attractive or interested in fashion.”

Sunday Life 24th June

“We are still just getting used to the idea that women can be politicians, despite the fact the  Prime Minister is a woman,” says Lusty. “And  when a politician happens to be young, attractive, fashionable and smart – and sticking up for  women’s rights – then it is expected that she  will look a certain way and conform to a certain stereotype of feminism.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Ellis herself, who summed up the conundrum on the Q&A panel in March. “If you go out and … be yourself, yeah, you get judged,” she said. “But in the end there is no point electing young women to parliament if we’re going to pretend that we’re middle-aged men.”

What IS too sexy? Can a woman be in a professional position and still wear heels?

Is being fashionable a crime?

This was originally published in Sunday Life magazine, June 24.

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