The Right to Bare Arms

Olivia Chow: Sleeveless in all Seasons

Olivia Chow is a New Democratic Member of Parliament (for the riding of Trinity-Spadina), a former Toronto city counsellor and the wife of NDP leader Jack Layton. What she is not is a runway model or a trend-setting red carpet starlet. So I was surprised when Chow’s fashion choices were the focus of Joanna Smith’s ‘Party Favours’ column in The Toronto Star.

The couple were being interviewed by Alex Pearson for the Sun News Network when Chow took off her jacket during a commercial break, exposing her bare arms. Or, as Smith teasingly writes, Chow decided to “show a little skin.” Pearson drew attention to the suddenly exposed flesh by bringing up a since-retracted tweet (those are the most newsworthy) from Maclean’s magazine which mocked the female correspondents on Sun News for their supposedly scandalous outfits, dubbing the network “Skank News.”

Pearson asked what Chow, as a woman, thought about comments like these. “You are in the spotlight and apparently if you, I guess present yourself like this… Are you a ‘skank’ if you dress like this?”

“Hang on a minute,” interrupted Layton. “This is my Member of Parliament!”

Ignoring the obvious sexism of asking a politician if her outfit makes her a ‘skank’ (even if done in a joking way, when did this become appropriate?) let’s ponder Smith’s motivation in writing about the phantom sleeves. We are not prissy Victorians who faint at an exposed elbow. Nobody in Canada is shocked by a sleeveless top. So why dedicate a piece to such a non-scandal, especially when the election campaign is entering the pivotal final stretch?

The story most resembles the faux-kerfuffle that gets kicked up every time First Lady Michelle Obama shows off her arms in one of her floral shifts, but it also brings to mind the double-edged sword of former MP Belinda Stronach’s prettiness, Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s expensive clothing bills being flaunted in front of the public like dirty laundry, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ongoing troubled relationship with fashion. She’s posed for the cover of Vogue but bristles at the media’s obsession with her hair and her pantsuits. When asked about her favourite designers, Clinton once answered, “Would you ever ask a man that question?”

It could be that Smith had nothing else to write about. It could also be that the piece was meant to inject some tongue-in-cheek humour into the election campaign. But if that’s the case, why must it be about something which objectifies a political power player in a way a man never would be? Sure, we compare the male party leaders’ ties, but not in a way that significantly demeans them or their legitimacy to govern. The difference is that being clothing-conscious is a trait still identified with the feminine, and femininity has traditionally been viewed as the antithesis to assertive, masculine leadership.

When we obsess about female politicians’ suits, skirts or pearls, we underline that they are female politicians. But in order to get a seat at the table they need to be accepted as, simply, politicians.

In her own case, Chow claimed that she took off her jacket deliberately to make a point about female representation. “This whole emphasis on peoples’ appearance rather than looking at what we believe in, what we stand for — no wonder the House of Commons only has 22 per cent female MPs.”

I hope that Green Party leader Elizabeth May doesn’t dare expose an ankle, so maybe Smith can go back to covering actual news.

- Max Mosher