In her essay In the Name of Beauty, from her award-winning book “Thick,” Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wrote: “Beauty is not good capital. It compounds the oppression of gender. It costs money and demands money. It colonizes. It hurts. It is painful. It can never be fully satisfied. It is not useful for human flourishing. Beauty, like all capital, is merely valuable.” If being aesthetically pleasing to others is power, then fashion and money are tools by which a person can make themselves more beautiful, and as a result, more powerful. Black and brown women are keenly aware of the complex calculus they must learn to navigate Eurocentric beauty standards, notions of respectability and professionalism, and the need to be seen as capable in their jobs—especially in a place like Washington, D.C.
In a profession like politics that is largely old and white with a conservative dress culture, what your body looks like and how you adorn it can impact access to opportunities, development, and growth. Too much and you will be seen as overdoing it, too little, and you are unserious about professionalism. Black and brown women have the added challenge of combating unwarranted stereotypes about their natural hair and physical features.
When they were elected to Congress in 2018, the constellation of progressive political rockstars known as “The Squad” — Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — shifted what political power looked like, literally and figuratively. That year saw a historic number of women and people of color elected to the U.S. House. Their presence optically diversified the staid white establishment of Congress and also reflected the growing political power of Black and Brown people in the country. Necessarily, the commentary on how they looked would follow.
“You have women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are going beyond a nude lip and they’re wearing a red lip to work, which I think makes a statement,” says Kayla Greaves, the Senior Beauty editor at Instyle magazine. “So we’re seeing women being able to bring their personalities and who they are to these jobs.”
Physical appearance, gender, and race intersect to create unique challenges for Black women and women of color who work in politics. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), who revealed in January of 2020 that she has alopecia, rose to power with iconic twists and braids, which is already a revolutionary statement for a Black woman to make. Now, she is navigating the world as a beautiful, bald, Black woman, determined to unapologetically bring her full self to all spaces she inhabits. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is known for her red lip and large gold hoop earrings, a departure from the more demure stylings of Congresspeople.
Similarly, when Rep. Rashida Tlaib opted to wear a traditional Palestinian thobe to her Congressional swearing in ceremony, it communicated what she describe in Elle as “an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country.” Congresswoman Ilhan Omar literally changed the game as the first person to wear a hijab to Congress. Her choice to honor her religious beliefs meant adjusting the rules of a 1837 ban on head coverings in the governing body. These may appear to be small shifts, but they signal that this generation of female politicians are willing to step outside of outdated ideas of professionalism to stand in their own authenticity.
These differences can also make you a target, as was the case for Representative Pramila Jayapal and other women of color politicians during the Capitol siege. In The Cut she recounts her harrowing experience when domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol in effort to overthrow the election, and had a stark realization: that she couldn’t “blend in” the oncoming crowd the way that her white counterparts could. “[W]hen I saw that description, I thought to myself … that’s not an option for me. That’s not an option …” The ongoing revelations about the scope of violence that was implemented and planned for that day also uncover the incredible vulnerability that women of color elected officials face, and the work that must be done to protect them.
Madam Vice President
Even Vice-President elect Kamala Harris has not escaped people’s reactions to her physical appearance. Though she is conventionally attractive and straight sized, she is still a woman of color who is navigating politics through a carefully sculpted personal image. Whether her freshly pressed wrap or the cream suit she wore to her victory speech or opting for Chuck Taylor sneakers on the campaign trail, her body and how she adorns it are always under scrutiny.
Her recent cover photos for an upcoming issue of Vogue drew negative reactions for their lack of respect for the gravity of the moment and what it represented for people who share Harris’ various identities. Robin Givhan, the senior fashion critic at the Washington Post, put it this way: “The cover did not give Kamala D. Harris due respect. It was overly familiar. It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation.” If it were a male politician on the cover, he would have likely worn that time-worn staple of a dark suit, a white shirt, posed in a way that conveyed power and intelligence. Instead, Vogue botched an opportunity to debut the Vice-President Elect in a way that honored her historic moment. As a fashion magazine, surely they understand the power that images are able to create and communicate about women and power.
No room for error
Loryn Wilson Carter, a communications professional at The Raben Group who previously worked in politics, makes it plain that Black women are not given the space to be anything less than perfectly put together. “The first thing people want to talk about is our clothes and what we’re wearing. I also think that there is sometimes a concerted effort for the way they style politicians, particularly Black women, to hide their bodies,” she says. The concerns about attracting the “wrong kind of attention” are real challenges for Black and Brown women.
For Aneesa McMillian, Director of Communications and Voting Rights at Priorities USA, fashion and presentation is a source of joy, even though her political start began in working in a congressional office, which has a highly conservative dress culture. “As a plus size black woman, I especially felt the pressure to conform which was difficult because the fashion and beauty communities are still figuring out how to cater to women that look like me. This meant that in addition to focusing on my professional growth, I also had to prioritize my personal appearance because if I fell short, I knew I’d face harsher judgement for doing so.” Fashion is still something McMillan enjoys because it is inspired by the women in her life that she loves most.
Ashlei Blue, a political strategist from North Carolina, has been meticulous about how she shows up in the workplace. She’s worked with organizations like Swing Left and Obama for America. While working on Congresswoman Kathy Manning’s first electoral campaign, Blue was faced with the common challenge for black women: managing her hair. “I moved from Charlotte to Greensboro to work on that campaign as the field and political director, and I wasn’t willing to change my hairstylist. So I was driving back and forth from Raleigh to Greensboro 90 miles to get my hair done every other month.” Blue later had to explain to her boss the stakes of making sure her hair wasn’t “tore up” by an inexperienced stylist — this was an important job for her, and she needed to be sure she was expertly groomed.
Now a campaign vet that rocks locs, Ashlei prioritizes comfort, and for good reason — campaign life can be fast paced and grueling. “It’s all about comfort, it’s all about me showing up as my full self, and being able to address whatever is going on in that room, and completely ignoring any preconceptions that folks may have about you,” she says. “One of my first acts of rebellion, especially as a short woman, was not wearing heels. I can wear heels, but heels hurt!” She says that managing a candidate for long hours in heels or uncomfortable clothes is not appealing, and it’s something that men don’t really have to consider in their work.
Trends in Professionalism
Whether they are elected officials or political operatives, the choices Black women and women of color make at the individual level have an impact on those that come after them.
Jessica Byrd is the former campaign manager for Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial run and founding partner of Three Point Strategies, an electoral firm. She finds that the role of style and presentation shows up differently for each of her clients. “Every candidate I’ve worked with, from Tishaura [Jones], Stacey [Abrams], Yvette [Simpson], to Anita [Earls] and many others – they all have really different personalities and styles. I don’t micromanage any of that, I just want them to be fully heard.” Byrd notes that slowly but surely, the old politician’s uniform of a dark suit is giving way to more flattering and personalized style choices. “Sometimes that means wearing more minimalist attire to focus people on your words, other times it’s remembering to put on tennis shoes so you can cupid shuffle at the local festival. What I love about style is that confidence and strength are the side effects of looking and feeling like yourself.”
Though politics continues to skew conservative, women of color are making both political and aesthetic choices that open up new worlds of possibility.
An essential theme from these women that continues to surface is the importance of being yourself, not the idea of what other people think you should be. This is doubly difficult for Black and Brown women, but it is possible. As women like Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ashlei Blue, Jessica Byrd, Aneesa McMillian and more continue to show up authentically in the political arena, it creates more space for others behind them to show up authentically too.
Cover Art: Christa Forrest
Creative Direction: Brandon Douglas
Cover Story: Terryn Hall
Deputy Editor: Shamika Sanders
MORE FROM OUR INAUGURATION ISSUE: