Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is straddling a weight bench. He’s wearing his red baseball cap backward. Black earbuds flow down his neck. Iron is being pumped. The congressman spits a look at the camera that says, “My body’s saying let’s go—but my heart is saying no.” Time photographer Gregg Segal captures every rep.
The candidate’s P90X workout photos were shot late last year, but Time delayed their release to achieve maximum embarrassment: It published them online just hours before the vice presidential debate. When the pictorial finally hit the magazine’s website (“Paul Ryan: Pumped for His Closeup”) yesterday, a Ryan aide called the magazine’s decision “poor judgment.”
If Ryan were a woman, the aide would probably be calling that “sexism” instead. When I saw the Ryan photos, I was reminded of Marky Mark. But also: That 2009 Newsweek cover of Sarah Palin, the one that lifted a leggy glamour shot of the former governor out of Runner’s World magazine and grafted it onto its cover to illustrate a piece about why she’s “bad news for the GOP—and for everybody else.” Palin called the tactic “sexist.” Commentators were divided. Whenever a female politician’s image is leveraged to embarrass her professionally, we’re left wondering if there is a double standard at play. Would they do this to a man? And would a man’s looks be used to discredit his policies and intellect?
Now we finally have an answer: Yes! But are the Paul Ryan photos the great equalizer? Not quite.
In many ways, the response to Ryan’s gym-rat shots mirrors the way we talk about female politicians’ aesthetic choices, too. Though Time paired Ryan’s photos with a discussion of the P90X routine, the rest of the internet was quick to tie the body snarking to Ryan’s political persona. “Has the congressman been emphasizing his fitness too much?” the Christian Science Monitor asked. “We wonder: Did he not have any handlers around telling him that this photo shoot might not be such a good idea? Or is the congressman just so enamored with his own physical prowess that he won’t listen to naysayers?” (Ryan’s aide claims that “advisers to Ryan had been assured that the photos … would never be published.”) The meme ran wild. A mock OkCupid profile—“PaulieRVP/40/M”—was created (and disabled) within hours. Salon photoshopped Ryan’s muscular core over the neutered gold legs of Atlas Shrugged.
There is a long tradition of using images of male candidates—in most presidential races, the only kind—to illustrate their faults. Think of John Edwards fixing his hair, Michael Dukakis grinning from his perch on a tank, John Kerry windsurfing, and Nixon appearing in a televised debate smearing his chin with “shave stick” or strolling down the beach in a pair of wingtips. These photos gained traction because they conformed with the electorate’s sense of who these guys were: Edwards was all ego, Dukakis was a softie, Kerry was effete, and Nixon was the kind of unnatural creep you imagine has a secret closet full of clown costumes. And the Time photo shoot squares with Ryan’s vision of himself as Wisconsin’s own Randian superhero, living at the peak of emotional and physical control.
So if the men have been getting it for decades, why does it bother us when female politicians receive the same treatment? I have a theory: For every candidate, appearances matter. But before Obama, this rich cornucopia of presidential body shaming was centered on one very specific body type: The aging white dude (waistband size may vary). Because we’ve never seen a female body occupy a vice presidential or presidential seat, when a female candidate gets called out for her looks, the criticism always comes with the underlying question: Are we ready for a woman at the top?
Hillary Clinton was scrutinized for her masculine pantsuits, and when she showed a little bit of cleavage. (“There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable,” Robin Givhan reported for the Washington Post.) Spending too much time primping—a charge leveled against Palin—can make female politicians look unserious, but looking bad isn’t a good move, either. When Newsweek caught the normally perfectly-primed Michele Bachmann in an unflattering close-up, it used it to illustrate its 2011 cover story anointing her “The Queen of Rage.” One Boston stylist advised Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren to wear some lipstick to “embrace her beauty,” while sitting Sen. Scott Brown should “stick with the guy-next-door look.” And I don’t believe we’ve seen an obese woman begged repeatedly to run for president.
Yes, male politicians get reamed for over-the-top photo-ops. But otherwise, the bodies of fat old white guys and understated male beauties generally scoot by unscathed. Despite the build-up, Paul Ryan’s glamour shots didn’t seem to affect his debate performance last night. He was still free to join another white man to argue over whether women should have the right to control their own bodies. I hope that someday, my children will be free to ridicule the appearances of presidential candidates equally, regardless of gender. All we have to do is start electing female presidents, oh, about half the time.