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Marissa Mayer, the geek as babe

By Pepper Schwartz, Special to CNN
August 21, 2013 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's photo spread in <a href='http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/hail-to-the-chief-yahoos-marissa-mayer/#1' target='_blank'>Vogue magazine</a> has proven controversial, with some saying it detracts from the 3,000-word article that focuses on her successes and vision in a male-dominated tech world. The profile describes Mayer as an "unusually stylish geek." Take a look at other photos of her through the years. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's photo spread in Vogue magazine has proven controversial, with some saying it detracts from the 3,000-word article that focuses on her successes and vision in a male-dominated tech world. The profile describes Mayer as an "unusually stylish geek." Take a look at other photos of her through the years.
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Marissa Mayer: Proud geek
Marissa Mayer: Proud geek
Marissa Mayer: Proud geek
Marissa Mayer: Proud geek
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer posed for stylish Vogue fashion shoot
  • Pepper Schwartz: some women wished Mayer didn't need affirmation of such a spread
  • She asks if Mayer couldn't have gotten credit for her brains rather than her looks
  • Schwartz: The unintended message is you have to be smart and beautiful

Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 17 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar." She is the AARP love and relationship ambassador and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that gathers research on American families, and chief expert for perfectmatch.com.

(CNN) -- The picture of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer tilted on a lounge chair, hair flowing above her and shot from above has sparked a mini-firestorm among women. A significant number of women, feeling not too distanced from the days when women CEOs were just a fond hope, much less an aspiration, were less than thrilled at the idea of one of the few women of real power still needing the affirmation of a Vogue fashion shoot.

The fact that it was kind of sexy added just a little gasoline to the fire. But to be fair, the reaction was far from uniform; other women slammed back and said, " Why not?" "She's earned the right to do anything she wants, and why not be sexy and a CEO? We don't have to wear the same uniform men do, we can do it our way".

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

Well, I am teetering towards the middle but coming down on the side of the disappointed. On the one hand, Marissa Mayer can't avoid the fact that she's a role model, even if she didn't start out to be one. Her picture seems to say to us, "Here's a real me that's just as important as being a CEO. Look at how pretty and sexy I am!" Now any woman can understand that.

Sexed up and smart: Women debate Marissa Mayer's Vogue photo

Posing for the camera is always a narcissistic act, and I dare say, most women's first reaction to seeing themselves in a photo that surfaces in a newspaper, or in a private family shot, is "how do I look?" I plead guilty. But still, here's a woman who has made it to the top because of her brains, does she still need to self-validate by having a beautiful fashion gig?

What does that say to all the women who would never be beautiful enough to do that, but might be brainy enough to have her job? Should they feel " less than Marissa" because they can't qualify for the Vogue slot? Couldn't Marissa just take pictures that show her as a stylish and good-looking CEO rather than as a babe who is showing her great legs in $1,000 shoes?

Success on your terms
Was Marissa Mayer out of line?
Welch: Yahoo needs 'all hands on deck'

But then there is the other side. We all do love to look great and be admired. We understand the impulse. And why should she be denied her one month of being a famous fashonista? She's worked hard to gain the prominence she earned, and some girls, even very smart girls, do, just like the song says, "just want to have fun"... at least occasionally.

Mayer turns heads with photo shoot

I get it, and I get why she did it. But she has to take note of how pained a lot of women are about this fashion photo. Not just a few women felt hurt looking at the Mayer layout, wondering silently or out loud if acquiescing to this kind of shot means that for Mayer, and perhaps for other women, that "making it" and "having it all" needs to include being publicly admired for one's allure. That's a depressing thought for many talented women who are not beautiful or not sexy. They do not have that card to play and this layout could certainly make them wonder if selection for the top job requires being lovely.

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 glamor shot as a career capstone. Unfortunately, it is not an exaggeration to say that Marissa Mayer is kind of saying, even though I am sure she did not mean to, that to have it all, sure, you have to be smart, but, let's face it, you also need to be beautiful.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.

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