Magazine

Glass Ceiling

Is America Ready for a Frank Discussion About Skincare?

Female politicians are suddenly comfortable talking about makeup and hair. What changed?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks with members of the media after a campaign event, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Derry, N.H.

As the 2020 presidential campaign approached, the editors of Cosmopolitan gathered to discuss how to cover the race, delivering political news in a manner befitting their audience of millennial and Generation Z women. They hatched an ambitious plan to make Cosmo a part of the conversation: invite each candidate in for a half-hour video interview with Jessica Pels, the magazine’s editor. From a tufted velvet chair atop an animal-print rug, Pels grilled the candidates on issues that had bubbled to the top of reader surveys, from health care to college debt to equal pay. And at the very end—a standard time to ask light, personal questions that knock politicians off their talking points—she posed the same query to everyone: “What is your skincare routine?”

The “famous Cosmo skincare question,” as it has become known, has gone viral more than once this election cycle, thanks to some eye-popping answers. In October, an uncharacteristically flummoxed Pete Buttigieg declared that he washes his face with soap and doesn’t moisturize—drawing a gentle rebuke from Pels and a correction from Buttigieg’s husband, who tweeted a photo of the moisturizer they keep at home. In January, a far more confident Elizabeth Warren announced that the only product she uses is Pond’s Dry Skin Cream and that, based on some 50-year-old advice from her cousin Tootsie, she never washes her face. The internet exploded with reactions, from praise of Warren’s preternaturally smooth complexion to fact-checks from dermatologists, prompting one political reporter to tweet, “Politics Twitter is Skincare Twitter today.”

But what might be most noteworthy about Warren’s response is the fact that she willingly answered the question at all. It wasn’t long ago that female politicians avoided talk of anything so frivolous as appearance, summoning anything from a bitter eye roll to righteous outrage if anyone tried to bring it up. “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters,” Hillary Clinton deadpanned in a speech at her alma mater Wellesley College in 2001. “Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.” In 2013, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake complained to Slate about “reporters who ask questions like, ‘Tell me about your favorite handbag, senator.’” Female politicians try their best to avoid that kind of subject, Lake contended: “I don’t know any congresswoman who wants to talk about her handbag instead of her economic plan. I’ve never heard a woman politician spontaneously say to a reporter, ‘Let me tell you about my bag.’”

Today, though, it’s not hard to find a prominent female politician who won’t just accept a question about skincare, but will bring up beauty, fashion or appearance entirely on her own. On Instagram last year, in response to a query from one of her millions of followers, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered a lengthy description of her own skincare regimen, urging readers never to sleep with makeup on and touting the benefits of cutting back on dairy. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand peppered her short-lived presidential campaign with workout videos posted on social media and, years earlier, shared her weight-loss secrets with SELF magazine. And recently, Representative Ayanna Pressley filmed a video for the Root, describing her struggle with alopecia—and talking frankly about how much her hair has meant to her and to black girls looking for aspirational symbols. Commenters called her “fierce” and “formidable,” and the outpouring on Twitter was just as effusive. “You’re my hero,” tweeted a state representative from Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts. “And—obviously—also stunningly gorgeous bald. … You are the future of beauty, leadership and politics, visiting us in the present. So cool.”

What changed? How did we go from one feminist icon ridiculing questions about her hair to another insisting on its importance—and in doing so, making a new kind of feminist statement?

Perhaps it starts with a critical mass of women with a different take on beauty from Clinton’s generation. Many young women today don’t see embracing cosmetics or fashion “as an anti-feminist statement or as any kind of problem,” says Nancy Etcoff, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School who studies people’s perceptions of beauty. “They see it as something they can enjoy and they can have fun with and can express a bit of who they are and who they’re like.” To Pels, the Cosmopolitan editor, the merging of the two is a sign of progress: rejecting a sexist assumption that for women, superficial pleasures and intellectual substance are mutually exclusive. “We can care about a deep policy discussion and we can care about something cute like your birth chart—you know, your astrological sign,” Pels said in an interview. “And the one does not negate the other. And I think that’s such an important message now. It’s so regressive to think otherwise.”

The rules of campaigning have always been a double-edged sword for women, who have been variously scrutinized for being too feminine or not feminine enough. Early in the 20th century, the press treated female politicians as curiosities, denizens of the social pages who had dropped into a men’s arena. “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair,” read a 1917 Washington Post headline about Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. The article reassured readers that Rankin wasn’t a dowdy, “severely-gowned woman, with spectacles, straight-combed hair, stiff white collars and spats.” This coverage was the first indication that voters didn’t just want a smart, capable politician; if she was a woman, they wanted someone who looked good, too.

Over time, women who wanted to be taken seriously in politics had to adopt an new uniform. By the 1980s, they were encouraged to wear boxy outfits that downplayed their femininity—and to overprove their commitment to the job by downplaying their personal lives. “Women candidates were told that they had to essentially be men with two X chromosomes. They needed to wear the very professional suit, and they needed to tone down certain aspects of personality, and they needed to make very careful and conscious decisions about would they be shown with their family, should they be shown with children,” says Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of When Does Gender Matter?: Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections.

Back then, women were still a rarity in Congress: Throughout the ’80s, there were only two women in the Senate and just over 20 in the House of Representatives. Today, women make up a quarter of the Senate and nearly a quarter of the House. As their numbers have grown, Dolan notes, they’ve felt freer to express their femininity, their motherhood, and their individuality.

They’ve also been testing new ways to handle the age-old scrutiny. In her memoir in 2014, Gillibrand wrote about wrestling with whether to answer reporters’ questions about beauty. “As I see it, if people are talking about your clothes, hair, makeup or body, they are not talking about your ideas, message, or priorities,” she wrote at one point. But eventually, when a New York Post reporter reached out for a story about dieting, she decided to take part. “Eating right and maintaining a healthy weight are nearly universal struggles for Americans,” she wrote. “I wanted to connect with people, not hold myself apart. Why not tell my story?” Even Hillary Clinton eventually realized she could get political mileage from poking gentle fun at her pantsuits and her hair.

Professional advice to female politicians is starting to reflect that way of thinking. Recently, Lake researched “likability” with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which promotes the election of women, and found that voters prefer to see women politicians in relaxed, casual settings—and like hearing their personal stories. Now, the group’s “Essential Guide” for candidates advises women to talk about everything—presumably, even skin care. “Over the past several years, instead of running simply on their resume, women are running as what we call 360-degree candidates, bringing the whole of their experience as human beings into the job,” the guide says. By sharing the personal, “women are able to show they are in touch with voters’ lives.”

In other words, talking beauty on the campaign trail can be a tool, a way to convey relatability, just as male candidates connect with voters over sports or beer. When Warren posted a video of herself drinking Michelob Ultra last year, some complained—fairly or not—that she looked forced and inauthentic. Talking about appearance could be an alternate way in. Some voters are even asking for it. On a message board on the parenting website “D.C. Urban Moms and Dads”—the logo puts “Dads” in smaller print, as if the word is an afterthought—a thread popped up last spring about Warren’s skin, and one by one, people confessed their curiosity. “I am a supporter and don’t want to trivialize her candidacy, but she looks INCREDIBLE for not just her age—ANY age,” one anonymous person wrote. “I’m a professor too and, to be honest, we all support her but then we comment on how amazing and vibrant she looks. What are the secrets?”

In the hands of some public figures, beauty can also carry a political message. In her alopecia video, Pressley talked about the symbolic role hair plays for black women in public. Ocasio-Cortez has said she’s worn bright lipstick and hoop earrings in tribute to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to tone down her appearance during her confirmation hearings. Young women are open to those messages, says beauty influencer Shayla Mitchell. Her 2.8 million Instagram followers—most of them women between 25 and 35— seek her advice not just on makeup but on racial, political and personal issues, and they appreciate role models who can talk about it all. “I love when political candidates talk about beauty,” Mitchell wrote in an email. “It makes them seem more human, more relatable. I love seeing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing her signature red lip and owning it.”

Of course, Ocasio-Cortez has also gotten pounded, from critics on the right, about the intricacies of her wardrobe. And women running today might still face greater penalties than men for a wardrobe or makeup malfunction. The millennial magazine Refinery29 published a gripe after the January presidential primary debate, scolding viewers and some journalists for talking so much about Amy Klobuchar’s eyebrows. (The magazine did not lodge a similar defense of Tom Steyer’s necktie.)

But Dolan notes that, in this cycle, even stories about appearance that have gotten big attention haven’t overshadowed stories about substance. Whatever makeup challenges Klobuchar might have faced on that January debate stage, after all, didn’t stop her from getting some high-profile newspaper endorsements the following week. “Women are still treated differently, absolutely,” Dolan says. “But maybe the bit of progress is that we can say she had a terrible eyebrow job, but she still could be a great president.”

In an era of high-definition TV, when the camera captures every pore, it’s hard to ignore a makeup job—for women or for men. And here, Cosmopolitan could be ahead of the curve, making sure men get the same kind of scrutiny. Pels says Cosmo was determined to ask its skincare question to every candidate, male and female. When Bernie Sanders said he wasn’t sure if he moisturized, Pels offered to send him home with some free samples. “I do think we’re headed for a cultural time when I think we will destigmatize makeup for everyone—it will be OK for women to care about it and it will also be OK for men to care about it,” she says. “That’s what equality is, you know?”