I’ve mentioned before that, as a teen, I dreamed of being a bodiless brain in a jar. A smart, artistically inclined, physically awkward young woman, I shied away from anything that made me think about myself in terms of body. I hid in my loose, formless clothes, refused makeup, and let my hair remain unruly. I looked a little like a hobo, albeit one with excellent oral hygiene.
And yet, to say that I was oblivious to my looks or that I didn’t care what people thought of me is a total lie. I was acutely aware of my frumpy, fashionless personage and it pained me. I was just afraid to change.
I had decided that the thin, pretty, wealthy, popular girls – who despised me, and who I despised right back – were my polar opposites. As bizarrely cut-and-dried as it sounds to my present-day self, my teen self had also decided that if I let go of my comfortable shell of rumpled invisibility, my only other choice was to become them. Well-dressed and stylish, but mean, insipid, and DUMB.
They represented anti-smarts to me. Even though some of them got the same academic awards, and did well in our AP classes, and made it into the honor societies. At a very young age, I had succumbed to the social construct that pretty meant stupid. That anyone who cared about fashion and beauty and being girly was, by definition, a shallow ditz.
Jennifer over at Cocktail Party Physics posted recently on the perception that physical beauty and intelligence are mutually exclusive. She, too, felt afraid to delve into girlyness early in her life for fear of changing into a person she couldn’t recognize. And she brought up this additional point, that rang through me in clear, personal recognition:
“I grew up hearing I was smart quite a bit, and while I’m grateful for that, it didn’t save me from struggling with self-image and self-worth. That’s just part of growing up. Since hardly anyone (other than my mom, and who can believe their mom?) ever bothered to tell me I was pretty as well, I concluded I was ugly. Ergo, I just didn’t bother with anything involving my physical appearance, figuring it was hopeless.”
Oh yeah. I SO did that.
Because it’s so much easier to just be pretty OR smart. People’s heads seem to explode when you try to do both. And frankly, I don’t think that brainy young girls – who have enough on their plates just trying to survive adolescence – should be asked to maintain both gorgeous and genius unless it is their natural inclination to do so. I realize that younger girls may be relatively unpolluted by the lunacy of modern gender role nonsense, and it might seem wise to swoop in before their brains get bent. But seriously. They’ve got enough to worry about without setting themselves up to battle the perception that pretty girls are dumb and smart girls are plain. That, friends, is a bloody uphill battle that WE should be fighting.
This is not to say that, if you have a daughter or niece or neighbor who is both a blossoming braniac and budding beauty that you should discourage her from cultivating both traits. By all means, do! But if you have a shy, bookish, mousy honors student on your hands, don’t push her to squeeze into skirts and explore eyeliner. Not unless she wants to.
As for us – intellectual fashion plates that we are – we need to show the world that brains are beautiful, geek is chic, and smart is sexy … not either/or. We can do this by supporting the smart, fashionable women that surround us. We can react with neither surprise nor hostility when confronted by people who can’t believe that we are both brilliant and hot; Since normalcy is 90% mutual agreement, we can help make the brainy/sexy combo normal through our reactions to the unbelievers. And we can just be ourselves. We can present the world with that mind-blowing combination of gorgeous and intelligent. Our articulate, curious, well-read, analytical AND feminine, fashionable, sexy, stylish selves can become the ambassadors of chic smarts.
I’ll go make us some badges.