A month after Canadian feminist icon and former Chatelaine editor Doris Anderson died, the magazine she headed for 20 years featured a photo of up-and-coming Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla in its April edition under the heading “Ms. Chatelaine: A woman of style and substance.”
Encouraging women to enter Canadian politics was one of Anderson’s passions. Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to getting more women elected in Canada has even set up the Doris Anderson Fund in her memory, “to be used for Doris’s most passionate cause — achieving electoral reforms that will help more Canadian women gain political office.”
So putting a spotlight on Dhalla — who is not only the youngest woman but the first Sikh woman elected to Parliament — a month after Anderson’s death seemed like suitable timing.
Except for one thing: For the photo shoot the 33-year-old Liberal critic for social development was dressed in a pink ballgown. A very low-cut, bubble-gum pink ballgown. In fact, from the angle chosen for the shot, Dhalla looked like she was on the brink of wardrobe malfunction.
I have no problem with politicians showing their breasts. After all, I would like more politicians to have breasts. However, I do share a bit of the writer’s skepticism. Who chose this wardrobe? What is the point of dressing Dhalla up in this fashion? And the writer wonders… is Doris Anderson rolling over in her grave?
Who knows? But it is worth asking whether the cause she held so dear is being undermined by Chatelaine’s decision to portray Dhalla — a chiropractor, businesswoman, activist and former actress, as well as an MP — in an overtly sexy party frock. And whether that is just par for the course when it comes to the way the media, newspapers included, tend to portray female politicians in Canada.
As University of Alberta political scientist Linda Trimble warned Belinda Stronach — the last “It Girl” of Canadian politics — in a 2004 column, the media tend to “frame” female politicians.
“Why do they do this?” Trimble asked. “Well, female politicians are newsworthy because they are different. The novelty value of a young attractive woman playing a man’s game has propelled you to the front pages, but there is a catch. Politics is framed to exclude women, and, if they insist on being included, to marginalize and trivialize them.”
The article also features a quote from Dhalla herself who highlights how no matter what she wears it will inevitably make the news.
Dhalla, who is a friend of Stronach’s, said she has been aware since she entered politics that women politicians are treated differently than men. “Every woman has to battle that to an extent … It is one of the unfortunate parts of being female and being in political life.”
“You have to look beyond it and be focused,” she said. “If people choose to look at (your) esthetic qualities, so be it. At first it can be a little bit frustrating … but then you get to know your issues and, at the end of the day, people start to look beyond all that stuff.”
Judging by the number of articles mentioning Dhalla lately, she may be the latest “It Girl” in Canadian politics. And, as she has predicted, her clothes, hair and shoes will probably get as much attention as her political work.
Dhalla considers herself a mentor to young women and someone who sends the message that politics isn’t just for old men in suits. And, she said, if she had dressed too conservatively in the Chatelaine photo, “even that would make the news.”
Its unfortunate that we are so much more interested in what our politicians are wearing or in their hair colour (in Belinda’s, the famous Blonde Ambition’s case). I think Dhalla is particularly observant – women can’t win in politics when it comes to fashion. I thus ask the very important question of why are we so obsessed with female politician’s breasts? They’re female. They have breasts. They may chose to show them or not given the clothes they wear. We should all stop being adolescents and get over it.