Kyrsten Sinema and the Politics of a Sleeveless Silhouette

Last week, I argued that it was useful to think about the clothes Kyrsten Sinema wears, because her presentation is part of her political power. I also invited readers to think along with me. Many of you wrote me to say that the very idea of talking about what a woman is wearing gives you, for lack of a better term, the heebie-jeebies. Some of you worry that this line of inquiry devalues Sinema’s credentials and office; others worry that talking about presentation is tacitly sexist because it opens the door to critiquing women for something that their male counterparts can take for granted.

Some took me to task for lowering myself — and the discourse — to something as trivial as performance, style and fashion. I addressed that criticism, which I find deeply unserious, in my last newsletter. Presentation matters to how we live. Serious people should be able to talk about that.

That’s why I talked with some serious people about Sinema’s clothes.

This week I turned to Maxine Craig, a friend of mine and a sociologist at the University of California, Davis. For decades, Maxine has written about the cultural meaning of seemingly innocuous notions like why men do not like to dance socially or how women navigate gender at the gym. One of the unifying interests of Maxine’s research is in the coded language of presentation, especially the ways we talk about contested notions about race, gender, sexual identity and class. I have also written about how racial codes are communicated through beauty and beauty rituals. Maxine and I are not alone in our interest: This is an area that draws attention from academics across many disciplines.

As I argued last week, politicians spend money and effort to construct their public image, making choices about everything from their clothing to their website photos. The audience for this performance — both the media and the voters — takes all of that in when we judge politicians’ authenticity, relatability and capability. The way that we interpret and respond to these framing decisions is sometimes surprising.

For instance, one study started with the observation that many politicians choose not to wear eyeglasses because they believe that glasses project infirmity and old age. But the researchers came to the conclusion that politicians might be making a mistake; they found that glasses seemed to actually help politicians because wearing them also connotes intelligence. And the audience mattered: Wearing glasses was a net positive for Western audiences, but it was a net negative for Indian ones. This study, though, did not address the ways that this could be affected by the gender of the politician.

Because of our shared interest, Maxine and I started with an obvious question. Would we have the heebie-jeebies talking about Sinema’s odd style choices if she were not a white, able-bodied woman?

While we talked, Maxine and I did a visual tour of the most searched images of Sinema online. If you haven’t seen some of those style choices, this article features some highlights. To me, her style is notable for its bright colors, tight fit and playfulness. Independently, these are all things that politicians generally eschew. So why does Sinema play against these expectations? The easiest answer is because she can. The harder answer is that she can because of who she is, which is to say that race absolutely matters to her style choices.

Maxine pointed out that Sinema’s physique is one that would “attract different kinds of attention” were it that of a Black woman. As a comparison, she brought up the way voters eviscerated Michelle Obama — who is a political figure despite not being an elected official — for wearing sleeveless dresses. On Obama, fitted sheaths without sleeves were a code for unruly behavior and thus disrespect for the president’s office. But unruliness is a reputation that Sinema can afford to cultivate. It was seen, especially early in her career, as positive: a mark of her independence, not a sign of her lack of respect. Sinema also gets a bonus: that sleeveless silhouette draws attention to her level of fitness. Love or hate her style, a lot of the commentary suggests, you have to respect Sinema’s fit physique.

Fitness implies health, and our culture elevates healthiness and fitness to the level of moral virtue — which means that being able to code as fit or healthy is an asset to politicians. This is why we know so much about Sinema’s fitness routine. It is also why we knew about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s push-ups and why those infamous photos of Paul Ryan working out exist.

Before Sinema became a wayward cog in the Democratic legislative machine, a lot of her press included fawning reports on her morning runs — as early as 3 a.m.! — and Spin classes and Ironman competitions. Like Ryan and other younger national elected officials, Sinema used her fitness routine to communicate strength and moral fortitude. Returning to the comparison to Obama: Sinema can be fit and morally upright, whereas Obama’s similar physique was not interpreted in the same way.

Sinema’s presentation as a young, fit politician bucks some gender conventions. Strength is often associated with men, and physically strong women are often demonized. But in another way, Maxine said, Sinema’s performance of physical fitness is conformist. Sinema is one of the few out bisexual members of Congress, and her style plays into the ideas that sexual minorities are inherently nonconformist.

Bisexuality is a marginalized identity, but the progressiveness associated with it, in other contexts, is a political asset. “This sort of presenting herself as someone who crosses and violates norms gives her kind of radical credentials while she undermines progressive aims,” Maxine told me. “The coolness that comes with being bisexual and the coolness with embracing sexuality and performing it with her clothes can create this perception that she’s down with the people. Being progressive on this one dimension of sexuality provides cover for her general political stance.”

Maxine said that Sinema’s style choices can be read as a type of pinkwashing: leveraging positive associations with gay culture and identity to distract from one’s negative actions. Sinema’s performance highlights that she is a minority in Congress. That minority status, in turn, gives her some progressive street cred that she then does not have to earn through actual progressive policymaking.

Playing with this conforming nonconformist look served Sinema very well when she played nicely with her fellow Democrats; that nonconformity was coded by media as moral fitness. As her politics have become more at odds with national Democratic priorities, her style choices have gotten a more mixed reception from Democrats. For her part, Sinema seems to know it. After all, she courts the most powerful capital a politician can have, other than corporate donations: attention.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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