April 1997 and Tony Blair's New Labour was launching its manifesto for a May general election. The scandal-ridden Tories were on the run so there was a keener than usual interest in the opposition's manifesto. But it took an intrepid male and female reporting duo from the Daily Express to spot "the biggest surprise": "Besides a new bob haircut, Mo [Mowlam] was also sporting a new shape. Her weight has soared from 11 to 13 stone . . ."
The paper devoted a full page to the then shadow Northern Ireland secretary’s shape, two-thirds of it dominated by close-ups from “then” and “now” of the woman who would shortly become a key player in the peace process. For readers who still didn’t get it, the huge caption explained: “She’s the Labour frontbencher who put on 2 stone in just 3 months – and doesn’t it show.” Framing the story as a health issue, they decided for themselves that it had all gone downhill when she gave up smoking, so thoughtfully added a panel: “Top tips to beat the flab and the weed.”
Naturally the Daily Mail also ran with the sad warning, accompanied by a full-page picture. ". . .When [the shadow Northern Ireland secretary] sat next to Jack Straw at the Labour Party's manifesto launch some speculated that Mr Blair had found himself a new frontbencher". The female reporter's assignment was to point and laugh: "Why is she so big?"; "Look what she's done to her hair". A female columnist on the paper also weighed in, saying Mowlam had "shoulders like Frank Bruno [with] an undeniable resemblance to an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker".
Why the need for such a personal, nasty and unkind article?— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) September 12, 2021
An article written in an attempt to demean women who take politics seriously, and work hard to make people’s lives better. https://t.co/dDCIUBCb0B
This was how Mo Mowlam was forced to reveal that she had the brain tumour that eventually killed her and that the treatment which included daily radiotherapy and steroids caused near total hair loss.
Among the oddities of the journalists’ sterling work was that not one of them noticed that the “new bob haircut” was a blindingly obvious wig. For their editors the shots of abuse were so addictive that they missed the real story. And none of them paused to question the poison being gratuitously infused into their voracious readership’s veins.
Mowlam's experience may be at the extreme end but most of us are aware of the worries, sadness and struggles many people – with or without money and prominence – have to park before starting the day. In her response this week to a vacuous point-and-laugh piece about parliamentarians including herself at a Fianna Fáil think-in, Senator Erin McGreehan hinted at it. "None of us knows how hard it is for any person to get up in the morning, to drag themselves out of bed to face the world . . . Words matter," she told RTÉ's Claire Byrne. The point-and-laugh piece included tired old tropes such as outrage/hilarity at false tans, hairstyles, outfits, shoe-shapes and to avoid the woman-bashing rap, a mention of male bellies and boring blue suits.
It's notable that many of the commentators are women, notable because there are plenty of male pundits prepared to do the job unpaid
Unusually, McGreehan went public about her upset. That took gumption in view of the expectation that politicians will suck it up because we all know they have the skin of a rhinoceros – all of them – and they put themselves out there after all, airing their views, making screamingly public mistakes, debating and contributing to public policy and getting money in return for it and so deserve anything that’s coming to them.
Did Mo Mowlam care about the personal abuse? She once said in response that she was “bad at colours” and disliked shopping to the point that she asked her security people to help her choose clothes – “but I don’t like looking a mess because I represent people and therefore I should look as smart as is possible”. So yes, even Mo Mowlam cared.
Angela Merkel was well aware of the waspishness surrounding her style in the early days and built her political persona by downplaying her female identity, sticking to near identically tailored jacket and trouser outfits. That and her growing power meant pundits stopped commenting about her clothes, her hair and her cleavage. Even so, "some things just attract attention", she said in an interview with Zeit. "For a man, it's no problem at all to wear a dark blue suit a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times within two weeks, the letters start pouring in." When Hillary Clinton settled on a campaign uniform of rotating pantsuits she was routinely eviscerated for it.
It’s notable that many of the commentators are women, notable because there are plenty of male pundits prepared to do the job unpaid. And not all those commentators – paid or unpaid – have the excuse of youthful insouciance; they should be intimately acquainted with the effort to control unruly or ageing hair or to fit vaguely acceptable clothes over an imperfect body. There’s a reason why we don’t zero in on people’s appearance and it’s not down to shruggy fearlessness. Erin McGreehan makes the point that if we want politicians to be empathetic and to be human, the worst thing we can do is to desensitise them. We will also deprive ourselves of good people in public roles. One way or another, it will come back to bite us if only because in 20 years’ time that piece will still be there for all to see.