Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

Legs-it: what should women leaders wear?

Legs-it was the clever caption on The Daily Mail front page photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon showing a lot of leg last week. An article that prompted a great deal of coverage. As was widely noted at the time, the picture and cheeky headline received a great deal more attention than the substance of these powerful women’s frosty meeting or the issues surrounding it.

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

Legs-it prompted a storm of Twitter protest

As well as mainstream media there was a storm of Twitter protest with a lot of big names weighing in. From a journalists point of view it is all good clean fun and it will certainly have helped to sell newspapers.
Legs-it distraction: what women should wear
Among the more intelligent and thoughtful comments there was this from Jo Ellison at the FT – generally bemoaning the obsession with any woman’s physical assets, whilst bizarrely arguing that studying and commenting on their clothes is helpful and legitimate. That article led me to a much more interesting FT piece by novelist Joanna Trollope, on how women in the city no longer dressed in a modified masculine style and how the tech revolution has fuelled a fashion revolution in the corridors of power.

Legs-it PR lessons

There are a couple of PR lessons that jumped out at me from the legs-it furore.

First, I think short skirts are a nightmare in any context involving cameras and sitting down. I don’t mean just mini-skirts but even on-the-knee skirts will ride up when you sit.
It’s okay at a wedding when almost all shots will be whilst standing. But – as this picture demonstrates – once a woman sits the dominant visual element is the legs. (Flesh coloured legs are to my mind much more distracting than the coloured tights favoured by many younger women.) So among all the much more important affairs of business it is worth giving these things a thought. This is not a huge ask because almost all female leaders think about appropriate dress code every day. There are a huge range of risks and sensitivities that have to be navigated and it is all part of the job. It had not occurred to me until I was reading about this but Angela Merkel always wears trousers, apparently deliberately avoiding the sort of distraction evidenced by May and Sturgeon. Hillary Clinton is another powerful woman who, years ago, took on board the practicality of trousers and became queen of the pantsuit. 
Secondly, I would point out that, to get this shot, the cameraman would have had to stoop quite low, literally as well as figuratively. If you were the PR minder, you should have been thinking about that. Minders can and do step in although this is another fraught area as you don’t want to become part of the story.
Of course, serious professional women should not be judged on what they wear or the shape of their legs. It is a nonsense and sexist. But I am inclined to think boys will be boys and journalists will be journalists and we don’t have to condone it to want to avoid the situation in the first place.
So here are my takeaways:
  • As ever, what you wear and how you look should be controlled to ensure it is not a distraction. No dangly earrings, no flamboyant jewelry, no crazy shoes and men should avoid hilarious ties or bright socks.
  • Serious women might consider avoiding knee length skirts if they are going to be filmed or photographed sitting down. Men should avoid short socks that will show too much hairy leg between sock and trouser when sitting down.
  • If you are the PR man or woman – think about controlling the shot. What is in front, what is behind and what is the angle of the cameras.
In the end this is the sort of story that is tomorrow’s chip-paper as used to be said. But remember the media – even at their worst – really only reflect the society we live in. So while Guardian and FT readers will be genuinely exercised by the substance of the niftily named indyref2, an awful lot of others would have been thinking what a lot of leg! And that is a distraction from the important bit of the story.
3 replies
  1. Victoria Mullen
    Victoria Mullen says:

    Sorry, but I think your takeaways only serve to endorse the sexism of the Daily Mail. I agree that it is important to be well presented and look professional at work, but women shouldn’t have to cover their legs or dull themselves down to prevent sexist men from taking them less seriously because of their gender. Society should simply reject and oppose sexist articles and put it down to extremely poor journalism.

  2. Lindsay Williams
    Lindsay Williams says:

    Hi Victoria
    I understand the argument and agree it is if not poor then certainly frivolous and sensational journalism. However, our blog is written for PR people and those likely to appear in the media. If I was trying to get a message across, or trying to ensure my spokesperson doesn’t get undesirable publicity, I would seek to control or eliminate, all things that might be a distraction. Journalists often behave in a way that the business or political community wishes they wouldn’t. Mostly, we chose not to try and directly control journalists (because that sets up the predictable clamour about a ‘free’ press) but try instead to control the other side of the equation. However, there may be times when the outcome is not mission critical in which case we could take the view that we should do our bit to inch society towards a more equal society.

  3. Nick Beddows
    Nick Beddows says:

    Hi there
    Interesting take on sadly sexist journalism but your thought on the camera angle isn’t right. Look at the eye-lines, May’s in particular. She’s looking at the camera and it’s about eye level, so the camera(man) will have the camera at about waist height. Even if they took the shot from above, the legs would still dominate the frame. I’m sorry to say it but Merkel gets it right.


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