Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s Controversial Portrait

Posted on August 26, 2013

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Powerful men are not portrayed as sexy beefcake.  Why should a powerful woman (or any woman who wants to be powerful) allow herself to be photographically portrayed as “sexy”… or maybe that question should be, “Why not?”

At CNN.com, Peggy Drexler and Pepper Schwartz have written ambivalent but diverging opinion pieces on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s oddly controversial photo spread in Vogue magazine.

Drexler’s general take:

But what’s so inexcusable about a woman wanting to look her best? How is it self-validating to let a respectable magazine profile you in the way they know how? Or is the issue more about the audacity of a powerful woman sitting for a portrait that might be — gasp — flattering?

Schwartz’s opinion:

We women would like to feel that for at least some of us, sheer competence would make looks a non-issue in our lives. We would like to think that a brainiac like Marissa Mayer wouldn’t need, perhaps would not want, to have a very public glamour shot as a career capstone.

I’m firmly in Schwartz’s camp, and I’ll even go a step farther:   it’s not just about “looks” and “glamour.”  It’s about sex.  So long as women – even powerful, smart, successful ones – present themselves in blatantly “sexy” terms, they will never be the equals of men.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is no need to be frumpy or prudish.  There’s nothing wrong with Mayer’s put-together sheath dress and feminine heels.  No, the problem here is the pose.   Head downward on a chaise lounge, hair spread out as if on her pillow, looking into the camera with her eyes turned upward, a Mona Lisa smile on her face.  This is no CEO with her feet up on the desk and hands behind her head in the “power recliner” pose; this is a CEO who is depicted in a come-hither variation of that, a pose worthier of the bedroom than the boardroom.

Photo Credit: Vogue

Photo Credit: Vogue

Posture, pose, body language and facial expressions make all the difference between strong and submissive, in control or subordinate,  professional or casual… or sexy.  There’s no reason for a powerful woman to conceal her sexual side, but “sexy” absolutely should never be the number one adjective that springs to a viewer’s mind.

Do you think powerful men are held to a different standard, “allowed” to look sexy ?  Think again.

Check out this photo of male model River Viiperi.  This is not a power pose.  It is a come-hither pose, beefcake, sexy.  We see this and think, “mmm, hot.”  The adjectives “competent,” “powerful,” or even “smart” don’t really spring to mind.  We’re just looking at the skin-deep surface here.  Well, he’s a model, so that’s perfect for him.

Male model River Viiperi.   You won't find many male CEOs in this come-hither pose.

Male model River Viiperi. You won’t find many male CEOs in this come-hither pose.

Now go forth and find me a male CEO photographed in a similar pose.  Uh-huh.  Didn’t think so.  Even boyish Mark Zuckerberg is generally photographed on a stage, giving a speech, explaining, gesturing,  in control.  The same goes for the ever-casual Steve Jobs.  Self-made CEOs like these may not wear a business suit, but they are not about to abdicate their take-charge leadership images in favor of the merely sexy.

Even more telling:  most male models photographed in business attire assume power poses (or at least, not bedroom poses), because men buy business suits for, well, business, not to lounge around batting their sexy bedroom eyes at hot prospects.  It is so rare for men to mix “professional” with outright “sexy” that I actually had a pretty hard time finding Viiperi’s come-hither photo among the many male models in business suits.

Powerful men are sexy by virtue of their power, and that power comes from being smart, hardworking, competent, successful risk-takers.  It certainly does not hurt their success if they are also good-looking, tall, and fit (studies have shown this).  But you will have a pretty hard time finding a powerful male CEO allowing himself to be photographed as a piece of come-hither beefcake.  Powerful women should do the same, because the same means… equal.

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