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Looks really do matter, especially in the US presidential race

In the age where botox and selfies have become the norm, how should presidential hopefuls present themselves?

Robert Dorfman John Kim
6 November 2016
Donald Trump. David Zalubowski/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump. David Zalubowski/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Looks really matter, especially in political campaigns. Donald Trump’s hair and Hillary Clinton’s suits both made headlines, and with 40% of Americans now identifying as independents (among the highest percentage of independents in more than 75 years of public opinion polling), image and appearance may play a larger role in this coming election than ever before.

This raises a not-so-trivial questio​n for future political candidates and their advisors; namely, should those considering public office use Botox or other cosmetic medical procedures to enhance their appearance?

Could public perception of competence and trustworthiness in a political candidate have as much to do with image as actual experience and ideology?

For if, as the ancient Roman poet Horace affirmed, “what we learn only through the ears makes less impression upon our minds than what is presented to the trustworthy eye,” could it be possible that public perception of competence and trustworthiness in a political candidate has as much to do with image as actual experience and ideology?

History has shown that appearances can influence politics. In 1960, seventy-seven million Americans, or over 60% of the US adult population, watched John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon face off in the first-ever, televised presidential debates. Despite Kennedy’s inexperience, the Great Debates made him look like a winner. Well-rested and tan, Kennedy appeared youthful, charming, and confident. Nixon, the more experienced and favoured candidate, appeared exhausted, thin, and anaemic. His physical appearance was so unappealing that Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly exclaimed, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

Though Nixon strived to look better for the following three debates, the damage had been done. Polls revealed that the debates had influenced over half of all voters, with many claiming that the debates alone had guaranteed their choice.

While the Kennedy–Nixon debates played a pivotal role in influencing the 1960 presidential election, they also marked the start of a new era, in which public image and media exposure are essential components for winning political campaigns. Two years following the Great Debates, Nixon admitted in his memoir Six Crises, “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”

Speaking of pictures, Donald Trump is reported to have demanded that a Washington Post photographer not take his portrait using a wide angle, as he felt it would make him look chubby. Hillary Clinton too made headlines when her campaign spent $2,500 for two hairstyling sessions and called it “media production expenses”.

Will America’s choice for president be based on merit, or perhaps something else?

In 2008, Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov described how specific facial characteristics could make political candidates look more trustworthy to others. Professor Todorov found that he could predict election results by identifying candidates who physically appeared more trustworthy. In his study “Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Todorov found that 70% of congressional candidates who appeared more trustworthy to research subjects, based on their looks alone, actually won the election.

The ideal politician must put a lot of effort into looking natural and effortless.

According to MIT political scientist Chappell Lawson, it turns out that people who rely on their physical assessment of trustworthiness tend to be those who know less about politics, but watch a lot of television. A large number of Americans may be judging the character of a political candidate by glancing at things like their jaw line and eyebrows. Does this imply that candidates should consider facelifts and fillers a political necessity?

Not so fast. A recent Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that only 17% of American adults thought favourably of the increasing use of plastic surgery and Botox injections in this country, while 49% were opposed. So politicians face an aesthetic paradox of sorts: they are expected to look a certain way to win votes, but face public scorn if this look is obtained by artificial means.

It seems politicians have been grappling with this aesthetic paradox for centuries. In his The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, Count Baldassare Castiglione defined the appearance of the ideal Renaissance Era politician with one word: sprezzatura, which translates to “studied carelessness.” According to Castiglione, “nor to anything must we give greater care than to conceal art, for if it is discovered, it quite destroys our credit and brings us into small esteem.” In other words, the ideal politician must put a lot of effort into looking natural and effortless. To win elections, politicians must avoid being perceived as flawless. In hindsight, this may explain why many questioned whether Mitt Romney was “too handsome” and “too perfect” to be president back in 2012. Americans identify with imperfect and thus 'natural' politicians like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. What are Mitt Romney’s flaws? According to Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post, “Nada. Which is precisely the problem.”

Though seemingly counterintuitive, this paradox explains why plastic surgery remains such a hush topic among politicians and public figures, alike. Modern society equates artlessness with elegance and affectation with poor taste. Many iconic American figures – James Dean, Grace Kelly, even Hansel from ‘Zoolander’ – seem to share that one thing in common: sprezzatura.

In an age where botox and selfies have become the norm, the timelessness of sprezzatura nonetheless prevails. Perhaps Trump could benefit from some wide angle photos, and Hillary from a few loose strands in her hair. For what is true of our cultural icons is true of our politicians: pursue your au naturel aesthetic because the public wants you to look good – just not too good. 

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