Beauty and Authority: The Power Makeover

February 15, 2012

Often we think makeovers exist solely to make us more beautiful: to transform us from plain, ugly ducklings  into glamorous, sexy swans with the addition of hair, makeup and styling. But many women use these tricks of the trade to understate their youth, beauty, or sexuality. And in doing so they both conform to and modify emerging feminine archetypes: those of female power.

Makeovers are ambition externalized. And ambition for women has been, for eons, mostly defined as getting a good man. But as women move into more powerful positions in both the work world and in politics, being “beautiful” isn’t enough – in fact, it can derail more serious-minded pursuits. Add to that the dearth of powerful female archetypes – and a woman may have a very real need to go “into the shop” to add cues of competence, power, and social class. Here are three real, though very different, examples of the Power Makeover:


Margaret Thatcher


Before Margaret Thatcher was elected the first female Prime Minister of England, she had been an intelligent, if dowdy and controversial, Minister of Education. The Power Makeover she received at the hands of her campaign managers, from then-fledgling ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, changed the way female power is perceived in the modern world. She was advised to give up her hats and dress more simply, and was coached to lower her voice and speak more slowly. These changes made it possible for her to transcend her provincial, lower-middle class roots – and to seize and retain power for an unprecedented 18 years.


Hillary Rodham Clinton


Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Power Makeover occurred gradually over the years. Early on, she was the smart, studious lawyer – the more serious counterpart to Bill Clinton’s outgoing personality. Of course, “serious” women had better things to do than worry about their hair. But at a certain point the headbands would not cut it – and she got serious about getting real haircuts. Not as severe as Margaret Thatcher’s coiffures, her haircuts during her presidential campaign were soft, layered and approachable. Now as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton keeps her cuts current, though she still keeps more sophisticated versions of the headband for bad hair days.


Callista Gingrich


Power Makeovers can also be used to reinforce very traditional feminine power. The strangest and most forceful public example of this transformation is that of Callista Gingrich. As the former mistress, current third wife (and “Chief Officer of Morale“) to Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich, she has a past to live down. An early photo of her and Newt together clearly shows the youth, beauty, and sexiness that attracted the 23-years-older Newt to her. Now that she is his wife, she needs to downplay the effect their history has on his run for President. It’s not just that she has to look more patrician – she has to neutralize the memory of her sexual seizing of power. While she may enjoy receiving the jewelry of the much younger trophy wife, her wardrobe, makeup and hair choices seem deliberately calculated to make her look at least ten years older than her current age of 45.


There’s a lot of scrutiny of public figures and their vanity,  but aren’t these Power Makeovers mostly larger-than-life examples of the kind of makeovers we all get? Sometimes it’s a new job, or a new man, or getting one’s life back after the kids are grown (or at least dressing themselves). Who doesn’t get the urge to express their new self to the world? And quite often, we do have something to prove. Maybe we’re not an ambitious young lawyer gunning for the Presidency (I’m not!), but if knowing – and using – the signals of power can help us along the way, it may pay to incorporate them. And perhaps in doing so, we can add new signals of legitimate female power to the very limited “library” available.

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  • massappeal February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks for this terrific and nuanced analysis. I look forward to more in this vein—perhaps one on the First Lady? or on other female political leaders (e.g., Nancy Pelosi, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez)? or corporate executives (e.g., Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina)?

    • Meli February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks, I had thought about this subject before, but not as much until I learned Callista Gingrich’s age. Our current First Lady has a more natural (though still refined) look, but then again she’s closer in age to her husband so she doesn’t have to “even” the cues by looking older. I think looking at women business leaders in this would be interesting. Stay tuned…

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