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Why Do We Still Treat Even the Most Powerful Women’s Bodies Like Public Property?

Waters was shown, in a clip, delivering a typically ferocious statement on the patriotism of the marginalized (“We have suffered discrimination. We have suffered isolation, undermining. But we stand up for America, oftentimes when others who think they are more patriotic, who say they are more patriotic, do not”) with O’Reilly’s smirking face displayed next to hers in split screen, shaking his head and grinning and doing everything short of making cuckoo motions by spiraling his finger around his ear. When the clip concluded, he delivered his assessment: “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

EVERY WOMAN HAS A MOMENT WHEN SHE REALIZES HER BODY IS PUBLIC PROPERTY.

O’Reilly’s commentary would have been awful in any context. (Under pressure, he has since apologized, calling the joke “dumb.”) But even as his dismissal of Waters hit the airwaves, the internet was already passing around an example of similarly stinky viral garbage, this time aimed at two entirely different female politicians: British Prime Minister Theresa May and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, photographed in a meeting where they reportedly discussed the possibility of Scottish independence, and seen on the cover of the Daily Mail with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-It!” Whilst discussing matters of global import, you see, they had both worn skirts.

It’s not exactly a surprise that this still happens to women in 2017. After all, many of us just spent the weekend debating and/or deploring the case of two female teenagers and a little girl being denied service on United Airlines for wearing leggings. (The child was reportedly made to change into a dress; the teens, who were held to a dress code as part of United’s “pass traveler” program, were denied service altogether.) Our cultural policing of women’s bodies starts early—by fifth grade, you can be judged sexy enough to endanger the flight safety of your fellow passengers—and only gets worse with age.

THERE IS APPARENTLY NO LEVEL OF POWER OR INFLUENCE THAT A WOMAN CAN ATTAIN IN ORDER TO ESCAPE THIS KIND OF TREATMENT.

Nor is it remotely surprising that women of color like Waters get hit the hardest. That O’Reilly sneered at her hair, specifically, was not a coincidence. Black women have long suffered from the racist belief that their natural hair is “unprofessional,” and been harshly scrutinized based on how they choose to wear it; there are many reports of women being forced by employers to change their hairstyles, or who simply were not hired at all because of the styles they wore to the job interview. Just take a look at #BlackWomenAtWork, which took off on Twitter in response to the Waters insult. To say that you can’t take a black woman seriously because her hair looks funny is not a casual insult; at best, it’s deeply ignorant, and at worst it’s a calculated attack on her right to occupy a professional setting.

What is surprising, and depressing, is that there is apparently no level of power or influence that a woman can attain in order to escape this kind of treatment. Theresa May is the U.K. prime minister; she is the single most powerful woman—scratch that; most powerful person—in her country, and one of the most powerful women in the world. Sturgeon occupies a similar position of prominence and trust in Scotland. Maxine Waters has been a member of Congress since 1991; she has had a voice and a place in the halls of American power for nearly three decades. No one could reasonably argue that these women are only notable for their bodies, or that they haven’t earned the right to be taken seriously. In fact, they enjoy a level of privilege most of us will never know. And yet, in a moment, any random talking head or would-be witty newspaper editor can reduce them to a collection of body parts to be evaluated by the public. If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. And it does.

This article originally appeared on www.elle.com