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Researchers: Young women politicians face pressure over looks and photos

Should photos of the prime minister be used to advertise a wedding dress?

Kuvakollaasi
Photos of Sanna Marin from 2018 appear on a clothing designer's website. Image: anniruth.com, Lasse Isokangas / Yle

The rise of young female politicians to the top echelon of Finnish politics has stirred interest around the world – while putting the spotlight on their looks and social media posts in a way that male politicians rarely face.

For instance, old photos of Prime Minister Sanna Marin that appear on a clothing designer's sales website have raised eyebrows and questions of propriety.

In December 2018, Marin wore the dress to the President's Independence Day Ball, usually the most-watched television broadcast of the year in Finland, with much focus on the guests' attire.

Afterwards she posted a picture of herself in the outfit on Instagram. She mentioned the young designer of the dress and said it was created for the ball and to be re-used for Marin's wedding, which is yet to take place.

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Li Andersson, Katri Kulmuni, Sanna Marin, Anna-Maja Henriksson ja Maria Ohisalo.
Government party leaders Li Andersson (Left Alliance), Katri Kulmuni (Centre), Sanna Marin (SDP), Anna-Maja Henriksson (Swedish People's Party) and Maria Ohisalo (Greens). Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva

Marin, then an opposition back-bench MP and deputy chair of the Social Democratic Party, was a year away from becoming PM. Just after Independence Day 2019, she became the world's youngest prime minister. The five parties in her coalition government are all led by women, with Marin and three others in their early 30s.

"Women politicians are taking control"

Anu Koivunen, a media scholar and Professor of Gender Studies at Tampere University, says that young women politicians often post such images as a response to the focus on their looks and fashion sense, which intensifies around the Independence Day gala.

"In a certain way, women politicians are taking control. They don't just allow themselves to be under the gaze so that others can say whether their outfit was appropriate or not, whether it was tasteful or tasteless. They also showcase the work of young designers," she observes.

Koivunen notes that women politicians face particular scrutiny over their appearance, and that social media and collaborations with designers and start-ups can provide a dignified way of managing the situation.

Mirva Saukkola, an author and longtime editor at various top fashion magazines, agrees.

"Happily, many MPs and ministers have a desire to support Finnish work and know-how," she says. Back in 2017, Marin was photographed wearing a top by a start-up firm from her native Tampere, and featured on their Instagram feed.

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Uhana 27.3.2017 uhanadesign Ihastuttava Sanna Marin meidän Green leaves-collegessa!

The designer of Marin's evening gown, Anni Ruuth, sees no problem with keeping the photos on her own site.

"Sanna Marin is not on the site as a wedding dress model. She is there as one of the customers who have ordered dresses from me. I think it's fair that since she was a customer, I should still be able to show off the dress I designed for her," Ruuth tells Yle.

Saukkola says it is understandable that since the near-collapse of the Finnish apparel industry in the 1990s, there has been a move to follow practices in places such as France and Italy. Politicians – women and increasingly men as well – make a point of wearing attire from their own country.

She says that Marin's Independence Day post was just one of many of its kind.

"But if this picture was snapped last week, I don't believe that Marin would have made this kind of decision. The prime minister is expected to be transparent about any possible conflicts of interest," she adds.

"Why is Minister Ohisalo marketing bridal attire?"

As Saukkola sees it, it is quite different to showcase small firms than major corporations.

"Commercial partnerships may make the public wonder whether this person has gained some benefit for this appearance," she says. "On the other hand in Finland it's quite common that designers ask clients whether they can use pictures of gala outfits on their websites. And often the customers give permission."

Saukkola cites another recent example, a wedding picture posted by Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo.

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Ohisalon twiitti

Greens chair Ohisalo posted the picture on Twitter on 31 December, wishing her followers happy new year in four languages and listing the designers of her and her husband's outfits along with the hairdresser, makeup artist and floral supplier.

The editor of the newspaper Keskisuomalainen, Pekka Mervola, questioned the decision in an editorial entitled "Why is Minister Ohisalo marketing bridal attire?".

Ohisalo defended her post by saying that Finnish work and entrepreneurship deserve thanks and respect. She also mentioned that all those mentioned had been paid for their work.

Spotlighting Finnish design

"It's a way to try to get a grip on something where you would otherwise just be the object of everyone's gaze. This has been a key method among younger MPs," notes Koivunen.

"It's a way to be seen, but on one's own terms, and on the other hand also a way to link positive values to entrepreneurship and design," she says. "I don't see a problem here."

Nor does she see any issue with Marin's old pictures appearing on a designer's site.

"It would be different if the website said 'the prime minister's designer' at the top. But there's nothing like that here. The designer is not particularly using Marin's picture to advertise," Koivunen points out.

Koivunen and Saukkola agree that it would not make sense for Marin to at this point ask to have the images removed, or to delete old social media posts. As they see it, such posts by politicians are only problematic if they could be clearly seen as advertising.

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