Fixating on a woman politician’s appearance isn’t kosher. Complimenting a colleague’s appearance is considered gauche. But Hillary Clinton’s staffers and admirers don’t seem to have received the memo. The Wall Street Journal recently published several admiring messages sent to the personal email account the Democratic presidential front-runner used during her State Department tenure. “Rare is the response that offered a whiff of constructive criticism,” write Peter Nicholas and Colleen McCain Nelson. “Employees tell Mrs. Clinton she is doing a ‘spectacular job,’ that she has many admirers and that her remarks were ‘pitch perfect.’ ”
One frequent flatterer, former State Department director and current gender-politics commentator Anne-Marie Slaughter, told Clinton that the Singapore prime minister thought highly of Bill Clinton’s presidency—“although, in my humble opinion, an HRC presidency would be even greater :-).” “Great, great speech today,” read one subject line; “you go girl!” went another. Her confidence in Clinton’s leadership appears absolute. “You are shaping a tremendous legacy,” she wrote in 2012. And in another note: “All my students can talk about is Texts from. Hillary. They absolutely love it and you played it perfectly! (you also look s0000000 cool!)”
Flattery abounds in the Clinton email archive, but is that a surprise? Show me an employee who criticizes her boss more often than she compliments her, and I’ll show you a frigid, unsustainable work environment at best and an employee out of a job at worst. What may seem unexpected to the lay-feminist observer, though, is the extent to which these kindly emails revolve around Clinton’s appearance.
After public appearances and magazine spreads, Clinton’s staff is quick to offer a verdict on her looks. Top aide Huma Abedin sent Clinton an email about her 2011 Newsweek cover. “You look beautiful!!” was the entire message. “You look just gorgeous,” wrote State Department employee Maria Otero while watching a 2011 broadcast of Clinton dining with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Slaughter had similar praise for Clinton’s “gorgeous pic on the front page of the NYT!” Philippe Reines, one of Clinton’s senior advisers, called her 2009 sitdown with Henry Kissinger and Jon Meacham a “fascinating meeting of two eras that are very different but very the same.” “His spiel at the end about the goal should be more than ending the war will translate well,” Reines wrote. “And most importantly, the photos look great.”
For the most part, Clinton ignores the notes on her beauty in favor of substantive discussion, which can read as delightfully blunt. On Clinton’s July 2009 stint on Meet the Press, Abedin noted, “Lots on twitter chatter on how good u looked!” “Great—thx,” Clinton wrote back. “What about Geithner?” When Slaughter emailed to call Clinton’s “gorgeous” New York Times photo “one for the wall,” she added, “For what it’s worth, I am VERY dubious about arming the Libyan rebels.” Clinton responded only to the latter remark: “Why are you dubious?”
For the average boss and underling, comments on physical appearance are best avoided, if only because one person’s friendly compliment can be another’s uncomfortable focus on non–job-related performance. Then again, Clinton and her closest advisers spend far more time together than the average colleagues; Abedin, for one, has been around since she interned for Clinton in 1996. Perhaps they’re more like best friends than co-workers, and they trade affirmations on each others’ looks on the regular. Check your nearest woman’s Facebook profile picture, and you’re bound to see a lengthy thread of heart-eyed smiley faces and cries of “BEAUTIFUL!” in the comments. That’s not because friends think beauty is more important than brains or character. That’s because it’s a picture, and they want to make their friend feel good.
Clinton’s appearance is very much pertinent to her public perception as a political figure, too, which makes an evaluation of her looks somewhat professionally relevant. Maybe there’s a lot of talk behind the scenes about her wardrobe and makeup choices, and her appearance is just another PR point to manage. Maybe Clinton is self-conscious about how she looks on TV and in magazine shoots, which could hamper a confident public demeanor. If Clinton and her staff are concerned about her looks, it’s for good reason: Her appearance has been scrutinized and picked apart far more deeply any of her male counterparts. (And, as readers can see elsewhere in Slate today, her appearance has inspired in one painter a rather startling body of work.)
Both Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for an end to the public’s obsession over the private email account Clinton used for official State Department business. Journalists and Republican operatives (and certainly, Clinton’s own staff) have spent hundreds of cumulative hours poring over the messages, but we’ve yet to uncover any wrongdoing more severe than the simple act of operating a personal email account for government work.
This means the most interesting parts of Clinton’s email archive—which is still growing with each monthly State Department release—are the personal dynamics it reveals. It’s hard to imagine combing through the private email account of, say, John Kerry and seeing David Wade gush, “Just saw your Rolling Stone cover. So handsome!” Aides for male politicians are concerned if their boss is pictured with a double chin or his fly open, but generic statements about beauty are far more rare. If the emails in Clinton’s account had been directed at a man in power, outside readers might have ascribed them with more sexual significance or ladder-climbing power politics.
That’s because men don’t typically bond that way. Mainstream masculinity can’t handle anything that might seem homoerotic, so looks-based compliments are a no-go. Studies have shown that men get less emotional support from their same-gender friendships than women do, which could also explain why women are more forthcoming with this kind of praise.
But women are also conditioned, from the time they’re young girls, to rank physical beauty as one of the greatest qualities they can achieve. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most ubiquitous forms of female bonding, like the kind peppered throughout Clinton’s emails, is a compliment of a friend’s appearance. Of course, there’s no shortage of applause for Clinton’s intellectual fortitude or diplomatic savvy in the emails, either, and those kinds of compliments can affirm a woman’s power. But it’s not surprising that even if your pal is secretary of state, you’d still want to give her a little confidence boost.