I've never felt particularly inclined to defend Melania Trump. From her seemingly partially plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention last year to her silence on her husband’s policies, the woman has not done much to win my favor. Then I began reading reports from journalists on the ground covering the devastation left behind by Hurricane Harvey criticizing the First Lady’s... shoes. Not her response to the natural disaster. Not her presence in Texas. But her shoes.
It’s easy to critique the Trump family, for plenty of different reasons. But as Jennifer Siebel Newsom notes in her Huffington Post column, criticizing Melania Trump for her clothing choices is playing “right into her and Trump’s hands.” We become complicit in their “worldview that demands women act mostly as prized possessions, in a Barbie-esque package, who speak only on script,” to quote Siebel Newsom. By judging one woman on her appearance, it makes it acceptable to judge any woman based on the way she looks, devaluing women’s other attributes and how they see themselves. This creates ripple effects for women, who strive to fit a beauty mold at their own expense, and for young girls, who will eventually grow up to become women who see themselves as nothing more than objects to be seen — and judged.
I recently read a piece in the Washington Post claiming it's not sexist to criticize Melania Trump's shoes. In it, the author argues that criticizing Trump's shoe choice is really a criticism of the First Lady's empathy for victims of a natural disaster, because by donning such expensive pumps she is somehow minimizing the calamity these people endured. “Trump wore the heels not because they were practical, but because she would be photographed outside the White House as she departed for Texas. Instead of understanding that her attire would signal the tone of the visit and ostensibly assure that ‘help was on the way,’ she instead sought to look attractive for the cameras,” writes Kayla Epstein, the Washington Post’s National Social Media Editor.
Epstein is purporting to know that Melania Trump wore those shoes for a photo op, and concluding that the First Lady does not feel empathy for hurricane victims. That is quite an assumption to make for someone who did not even speak with the First Lady, and assumptions like that further divide us women, just as bashing one another’s clothing choices does.
At base, it's dehumanizing to reduce a woman to the way she looks. Men are never held to the same standards of beauty women are, and we pay for it, whether we are considered pretty or ugly, fat or thin. Epstein says as much in her column, that it’s become a “faux pas to criticize the appearance of a woman in power.” What she fails to say is that it is more than a social misstep to do so, and that the same standard of decency should apply to all women, not just women in politics. We are all much more than how we look.
Not even the fact that the First Lady changed her shoes before deplaning in Texas was enough for Epstein. "As her defenders noted, Trump changed her shoes for her arrival in Texas, switching into a pair of pristine white sneakers. This was a far more appropriate choice for walking around a disaster site, and probably would have saved Trump a good deal of grief had she worn them from the start. But it is again noteworthy that those glistening Adidas aren’t meant to get dirty, and observers know they probably won’t." Should she have worn black or brown shoes? Would those colors have conveyed a different message, one that says “I share your pain?” And if so, would we still be hearing criticism of her shoe choices?
As Opinion Contributor Chelsea Samelson says in the Hill, it would have been insensitive and noteworthy had the First Lady not bothered to show up in Texas at all or “traipsed around Texas in diamonds and a ball gown.” But she didn’t.
Melania Trump cannot win. She's classist and tone deaf if she wears pumps or sneakers, but as a former model “she should understand that context is important with fashion,” that “what she wears and how she wears it will be dissected within a matter of minutes," as Epstein writes. By this logic, because Trump should expect her appearance to be scrutinized, that makes it OK for us to police her clothing.
Again, this thinking perpetuates the idea that women are worth nothing more than how they look. When men’s clothing choices are critiqued, it is for reasons of ethics, as when people pointed out that Donald Trump was advertising his own campaign merchandise while visiting disaster sites. No one asked what message Donald Trump was sending in wearing a $40 Trump-branded “USA” hat.
Yes, clothes do have power. They do send messages. But it is not Melania Trump’s responsibility to send the message society wants her to send, and that is her right to choose (or not to choose) to do so. To say that critiquing Melania Trump's shoes isn't sexist is akin to saying that we can remove beauty standards for women from the patriarchal society that created them. You cannot separate something from the context from which it came, and you cannot critique Melania Trump’s shoes without sexist reasoning behind it. If feminism is a woman’s right to self-determination, Melania Trump’s choices — that affect her and only her — should not be a matter of feminist debate.