Caring less about looks: are women making any progress?

Three women about my age, all slim, recently told me that they won’t be seen in a swimsuit. I don’t recall ever hearing a man say he would not wear swim trunks in public.

I’m not criticizing my gender but the societal norms that still make appearance so important for women.

Donald Trump’s weight falls in the obese category on the BMI chart, but his wife would probably catch hell if she didn’t keep her fashion-model figure. Every time Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle step out, their outfits are judged, while Prince William and Prince Harry look ordinary when they’re not in formal wear.

I’m also not claiming that I’ve stopped caring. Putting on a swimsuit is a dispiriting reminder of the pounds added since my jogging days. Although my current BMI is healthy for a senior woman, according to, that doesn’t stop me from resolving to lose 10 or 15 pounds.

I recently thought about how often I compliment another woman on a haircut or new item of clothing. Do men similarly compliment one another?

You would expect appearance to be a feminist issue, but it’s actually divided feminists. Those who defied conventional standards got pushback. Didn’t feminism mean every woman’s right to make her own choices? Couldn’t fashion be fun and an expression of self-identity? I can’t entirely buy the contention that it’s only personal choice. Whether or not we realize it, our choices are never void of societal influence. Cultural expectations help shape our supposed preferences.

Some people make the argument that attractiveness has unfortunately been shown to correlate with workplace success, so it behooves women to make the effort. What would happen to the career of a female newscaster, for instance, if her ratings went down because she spurned mascara? It’s a legitimate concern, but how can the cycle be broken?

Another case in point: Influential women aren’t dumping their stilettos, the ultimate in discomfort. The how-high-can-they-go heels are part of the power look, we’re told. Last year Nancy Pelosi made news for standing on the House floor for eight hours in four-inch heels. Self-proclaimed feminist Markle isn’t providing an example of favoring flats.

In her Sunday Chicago Tribune column, Ellen Warren repeatedly advises women against wearing capris because they make our legs look stumpy — even as she writes that there are no fashion rules anymore. No rules, but a bad choice if we let comfort trump attractiveness.

I’d like to feel more hopeful about younger women, but my nieces, ages 19 and 20, care every bit as much about their appearance as my generation did. These are young women who excel in school, aren’t pining after boyfriends, and expect high-powered careers. Yet one of them, who wears a size 2, taped this goal to her bathroom mirror: “Get skinny.”

A reason for hope did occur to me during the Chicago mayoral campaign. Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle wore pretty much the same thing every day, and I didn’t hear anyone, either newspeople or my acquaintances, comment about that. It was refreshing.

Presidential candidate and senator Elizabeth Warren’s appearance is similarly encouraging. She wears black pants, a shell, and a tailored jacket all the time. Warren looks like she has only one decision to make when she stands in front of her closet: what color jacket today? It’s uniform dressing, just as men have always dressed. Warren looks fine. More to the point, she looks like has more important things to be noticed for than her clothes.



Women who would like to get in the water but feel unattractive in swimsuits might look for swim dresses or swim shorts and tops that offer more coverage. They cover up as much as shorts and a tank top. If you don’t like to bare your arms, there are even swim dresses with cap sleeves. (Haven’t I just been arguing that we shouldn’t have to worry about how we look? Telling ourselves not to care doesn’t make it so.)

Google swim dresses and swim shorts and you’ll find numerous choices.

A few years ago I bought a one-piece, black-and-white swimsuit with shorts on the bottom. I just bought a multicolored swim dress to switch off. Neither makes me look 20 pounds slimmer, but I’m not competing with the 20somethings in bikinis.

I’m ready for the pool — and fortunately, so is the weather.



“It's not as easy as just going and, you know, bringing a hot dish over the fence to the dictator next door.”
— Democratic presidential contender Amy Klobuchar on Trump's meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un

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