Recently, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway was photographed kneeling on the couch in the Oval Office, staring intently at her phone, as a crowd of dignified African American educational leaders in suits posed for a photo with President Trump. Some of the social media responses were genuinely funny, some were cruel, some posed serious concerns, and some were just plain ridiculous. But the overall picture they form is, not surprisingly, an unfairly judgmental one.
Many commenters accused Conway of uncouthness and unladylike behavior. Many faulted Conway’s upbringing. For example, one comment I saw asked if she “even had a mother,” implying that anyone with parents would know better than to put their feet on the sofa. This is part of a much larger trend of judging human beings, particularly women, by their appearance and behavior at every moment. It’s remarkable how much we believe we can tell about a person by their looks while at the same time many industries make their fortunes selling the illusion that we can all look any way we want if we simply use the right products. But of course we can’t.
Perfect politeness is a skill that takes years of practice, even for neurotypical people. Poise is harder still, and many people spend their lives failing to attain it. Yet we mercilessly criticize any public figure who lacks either, even for a moment. The tabloids adore mocking candid photos in which a celebrity is—imagine!—not perfectly made up, coiffed, primped, and posed.
Not everyone’s body and motor skills are capable of the same kinds of behavior. Remaining “poised” or even having “good posture” require a constant monitoring and adjusting of one’s body, and that’s a skill that many people on the autism spectrum, for example, lack. I smack my shoulder into doorways because I’m not always properly aware of where my body is. I don’t sit “correctly” in chairs because it’s painful for me to do so, sometimes enough that it interferes with my ability to function in other ways. Since body-awareness is something I have to work at, it’s easy for me to forget to monitor myself closely in a moment when I am thinking, paying attention to something, or focused on accomplishing a task. At such times, I move and stand and sit in whatever way comes naturally to me, and that’s not always the most socially decorous way. I might easily tuck my feet up under me without thinking about it, simply because that position is very comfortable for me.
I’d like to address a legitimate concern raised in some comments: Was Conway’s casual posture a sign of actual disrespect – to the office, to the Black leaders who were present for the meeting, or to the American people? The people who bring up this question, I imagine, see the photo and compare Conway to a surly teenager putting her feet up and playing Angry Birds instead of participating in the family gathering. I am sure that was not the case here. The series of images make it clear that she was in that particular position for a short period of time taking group photos and then briefly examining them on her phone. She wasn’t off checking her Facebook when she was supposed to be shaking hands. I believe we should judge her by the same standards we would judge anyone else.
In her famous essay Unspeakable Conversations, Harriet McBryde Johnson talks about how non-disabled people generally find her atypical body and posture disconcerting. Perhaps my reaction has something to do with all the wonderful autistic people in my life, most of whom climb furniture, sit “improperly,” stim, have behavioral tics, and often get stared at or even scolded for moving and acting in the way that comes to them naturally. I’d like to hope that if any of them ever hold public office, they would be judged on their character and their ideas, not on how they sit.