The subtle ways women are told to change the way they look

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Imagine this scenario: a top ranking woman at ABC America invites an on-air contributor to breakfast to tell her to lose weight. Only she doesn't say that. Instead, after much deliberation (you’d imagine) and a good hour of chit chat, she tells the talent she doesn't look “as good as she could” and proceeds to recommend a stylist. Then, apropos of nothing, she casually throws in how much she likes to “work out”.  

Should the on-air contributor sue? 

She could, in theory. But for Tory Johnson, it was apparently "just the wake up call she needed". She went on to shed unsaid weight and wrote a book about it which she dedicated, without irony, to her boss. No hard feelings.

Tory Johnson with her book, 'The Shift'.

Tory Johnson with her book, 'The Shift'.

I admire Barbara Fedida -- the ABC exec in question -- for pulling it off. It can’t have been easy. No doubt it was decided the go-between should be a woman instead of a clunky bloke who might actually say what he means, and so she was sent in to deliver the blow. It’s a bothersome job hazard TV executives face the world over: how to tell talent that they’ve let themselves slip without getting into hot water. This is one of the most ingenious attempts I’ve seen.

The problem in TV-land is women don’t look like real women. There’s a disproportionate amount of pretty, thin and, in this country at least, blonde. In such an artificial environment it’s easy to lose sight of normal and there’s a tendency to pull deviants into line. Stylist-as-emissary is a classic tactic, an independent third person who can whip out a fashion euphemism without raising suspicion of ulterior motives. One former TV stylist tells me she’s been asked to take female presenters “under your wing so we can bring out the best in her.” Her way around it was to suggest they dress “for their look” or join a gym.

News Presenter, Tracey Spicer, hasn’t had the pleasure of such subtleties. The news that her then size 12 frame was causing offense in her first newsreading gig at 24, was delivered via a co-worker (another common tactic) who passed on excitedly that management had paid for gym membership. “At the time I was guileless”, Spicer says. “I thought ‘I guess it’s a requirement of my job’. I didn’t shrink but I understand that was the intention.” When, years later, Spicer was recruited to tell another colleague she was “porking up a bit”, she refused. 

Hair and makeup artists are also envoys, doing the bidding for wimpy bosses: One presenter friend is under a “curls embargo”. Publicists, also, are known to have a quiet word with presenters about their “image”.

This has never happened to me. Aside from the odd quip about my hair - ordered to wear a bob because of the chroma key (wayward hairs blur the shot), and once missing out on a job because I was blonde (yes, it happens to us too) - in more than 20 years on TV, I have never received a missive (indirectly or otherwise) to shape up. This is nothing to do with my dress size (which, like most women, has fluctuated) but that I have spent most of my career at the ABC and Sky News where skill and experience bear greater weight than weight. As they should. If TV is a microcosm of real life (which it’s not really but is more appealing to viewers when it is) then this is how it should be.

And it is starting to be. Perhaps by virtue of job scarcity where reporters must be able to cut the mustard, our screens appear to be dominated by authentic looking people. Women over 40. With curves. Who look like they might be your friend. (I’m talking news, people, not The Bachelor). Not that good looks should be a hindrance either. That would be just as dispiriting. A former ABC colleague, beautiful and blonde, was pulled aside by a senior female and asked, “Do you want to know why women don’t like you? Because of the way you dress.” She was wearing slacks and a button up shirt. “With eyelashes like that you belong in commercial TV”, I was told. This was not a compliment.

TV news decision makers have a great opportunity to shift things. To retaliate against what feminist author, Stephanie Coontz, calls the “hottie mystique”, the overwhelming pressure women feel to “look gorgeous every step of the way” (or not, in the case of my ABC friend). TV News Legend Peter Meakin might just be on that bandwagon indicating a move away from TV being a “cosmetic industry about how people appeared, rather than what they had to say.” In a win for normal people, Meakin recently told Cleo Magazine, “You don’t want reporters who look like they have just fallen off the cat walk.”

Which is a turnaround. I recall the frustration at news directors fast-forwarding through my showreel to get to the piece-to-camera. “You look alright”, one said. And what if I didn’t?

Tory Johnson may have a new lease on life after her “difficult workplace chat”. But most of us are happy as we are.

Jacinta Tynan is an author and a presenter with Sky News www.jacintatynan.com

Twitter @jacintatynan

25 comments

  • Newsflash: You're in an image business. Not a news business. You're there to generate ratings.

    As an old and very senior partner once told me: "image is everything".

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    September 25, 2013, 9:04AM
    • Your old partner is outdated. If you just want to look at pretty things, do a google image search of your favourite model/actress/singer/whatever. Let news presenters actually be about presenting news.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      September 25, 2013, 3:34PM
    • Read what Hurrow said below and DM's reply. They are right.

      Attractive female news readers bring in the ratings. Just as do male news readers but in a different way (either be attractive or be authoritative and worldly). That's all they are: people reading an autocue and giving us the idea they know what they're talking about by doing it in a stylised way.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      September 25, 2013, 3:54PM
  • Geez... would you prefer the non subtle ways men are told?
    Geez, you've GROWN.
    My god, look at the size of ya!
    Are you trying to look like a cave man?
    Get a *** haircut ya scruff!

    I need to know though.... is the author really upset that women in TV get comments/suggestions on their appearance?

    Commenter
    cranky
    Location
    pants
    Date and time
    September 25, 2013, 9:32AM
    • Are we really going to go through pretending that television presenters are really actual journalists rather than just talking heads who are there to look pretty and read out news again? Sure, there are some who actually know what they are talking about, but there are plenty who are there just for their looks. Therefore if you start to lose those looks, don't be surprised if you get told to shape up or you'll be shipped out.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      September 25, 2013, 9:34AM
      • Which must be why all of our male newsreaders are fit, hunky, conventionally attractive 35-year old men with a notable scarcity of paunches, bald spots, wrinkles and the like?

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        September 25, 2013, 12:54PM
      • "Which must be why all of our male newsreaders are fit, hunky, conventionally attractive 35-year old men with a notable scarcity of paunches, bald spots, wrinkles and the like?"

        People expect one of two things in men reading the news:

        * Attractiveness, in which case they are held to the same standards as women, or:
        * Authority, in which case attractiveness is much less of an issue, instead being replaced with an air of gravitas, authority and/or reassurance.

        Only the former is generally applicable to women, not the latter, although there are exceptions. If you think i'm wrong, try imagining one of those 'wrinkly' male newsreaders dying their hair blue and guess how long they'd last.

        Image still matters, It's just a different image.

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        September 25, 2013, 2:06PM
      • Women are competitive about their appearance.Men dont really care that much what they look like, but do need women in the public eye to look their best because they are role models to SELL things,Make up, hairstyles jewellery and clothes..Thats all.Its just about the money. Dont take it so personally.

        Commenter
        Kane
        Date and time
        September 25, 2013, 2:47PM
      • So basically, DM, you are admitting in a roundabout way that male and female newsreaders are judged by entirely different standards, which is what I was asserting in the first place.

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        September 25, 2013, 3:59PM
      • Not speaking for DM, Red Pony, but DM does not appear to be saying that - there is a common, superficial standard of 'beauty' as a requirement, the other is the equally superficial standard of 'authority', as defined, it appears, but grey hairs. I doubt many would think Tim Webster fits the male equivalent aesthetic as the young blonde women that grace our news desks. Then again, I doubt Tim Bailey does as well.

        Commenter
        Public Joe
        Date and time
        September 25, 2013, 4:17PM

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