Repost: On Mutual Exclusion

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.

(Images courtesy Nerd Girls, an organization with a fabulous mission.)

  • Nique

    What a great post! I, too, grew up as a "smart" girl, but unlike you, I didn't despise the pretty girls, I envied them. I have always loved fashion, but I kind of felt like an outsider looking in at it because I wasn't pretty enough/thin enough for it. The real problem is that at 35 years old, even though I am very successful professionally and personally, I still struggle with wanting to be the "pretty" girl. I wish it would have been instilled in me at a young age that I WAS both the "smart" girl and the "pretty" girl.

  • Lise F

    Love this article – it really resonates with me! I was teased mercilessly growing up, and I think there are two possible reactions you can have to that: you can start hiding those aspects of yourself, or you can start hating the qualities that your tormentors embody. I chose the latter path.

  • Erin

    HELL YEAH! You make the badges, I'll proudly wear it on my Prada bag 😉

    I'm the only girl in my computer science classes, and I tend to wear heels and skirts so I've always been called "the princess". The guys always go past my computer, asking if everything is too hard or it needs to be dumbed down or whatever. I always just smile and say "nope, I'm good."

    Damn it if I didn't get a 120% on the final, and the highest grade in the class. My professor was a bit surprised, but hey, I'm a princess remember? Perfection comes naturally to us. :)

  • bubu

    Great post, Sal! Brought a big grin to my face – sitting here in my lime green wedge sandals that I never would have worn even 3 years ago, for fear of them making me look shallow or dumb. I think there are a lot of folks who have had this kind of experience through adolescence and it is so great to come out the other side and get to your 30s and realize, I don't CARE anymore about those pigeon holes, I'm just going to embrace ALL of who I am. Thanks so much for helping me start the day this way!

  • Vanessa

    Great post, Sal! I don't normally think of myself as someone who stereotypes or sees beauty and brains as mutually exclusive, but I had a reality check in class the other day. This really pretty blonde girl in a tight pink dress walked into my 200-level Contemporary Literary Theory class and I immediately felt she looked out of place. When she raised her hand to answer a question, I got this feeling that it was going to show her as ditzy or something, but she was extremely intelligent and articulate. I was kicking myself all class for putting her in a box like that– as a kid who was picked on for being brainy, I should've been more understanding of the other side of the coin (kids who are thought of as "too pretty" to be smart). I can imagine that a lot of people have this kind of reaction to her, and living in the society we live in, she has to know it. I felt bad about my gut feeling about her, but it taught me a lesson. I think everyone should assume others are capable and intelligent, no matter what their looks are, until given reason to believe otherwise.

  • Mardel

    I'll take a badge too. I didn't have to only internalize that I was not attractive as a teenager since my parents not only told me I was smart, but they said it along the lines of "good thing you are smart because you'll never catch a husband" and otherwise belittled my appearance or my interest in clothes and fashion. I always struggled with the whole smart vs pretty thing.

    And to Erin as well, when I was in grad school in computer science, I was one of three women and we all got that treatment. The guys in the program were most annoyed when I consistently got the highest scores and blew the curve, especially in the hardware and more engineering-oriented classes, and were always looking excuses to explain it away. The other women in my class tried to blend in and look innocuous and I always wore heels and dresses. Perhaps I was rubbing it in their faces just a bit.

  • Sue

    Hear, hear.

    I used to be a bit of a brain myself. But never quite a hot one.

    (More on the cute side.)


  • Anuja

    Aww! This is the post that put your blog on the map for me!

  • Una

    I felt the same way in high school, but I was so different from everyone else, in terms of race and culture, that sadly, I would have given 50 points off my IQ to be a blue-eyed blonde. Now I celebrate my ethnicity and my IQ.

    However, I do think that there's more degrees than the dichotomy of smart vs. pretty. A certain kind of pretty signifies vapidness in our society. Then there's a "smart pretty" look that the girls at my school had – the j. crew with cute eyeglasses, because these chicks were going to Harvard. Complexity within complexity. A great post and discussion topic.

  • Anonymous

    Like Lisa F, the dichotomy for me wasn't smart vs. stupid/vapid, it was nice vs. mean. It wasn't actually that all the pretty girls were mean to me, just that the mean ones were always pretty and I WAY overgeneralized from there. In addition, I wanted so badly to "be myself" and not a typical teenager ruled by peer pressure that I frequently avoided things I might have liked because they were popular or juvenile, effectively being defined by peer pressure and my age anyway.

    My issue now is that I'm naturally flighty and I'm dealing with a health issue that gives me brainfog. I'm terrified I'll be perceived as an utter airhead because when that happens, I'm *not* smart anymore, and I still have trouble feeling pretty. I'm working on that one.

    Usually I sign my name, but I'm feeling a little exposed today, sorry.

  • Miss Outlier

    I totally agree! In fact Nerd Girls recently had a casting call, and I applied to be one… fingers crossed!

  • Cancerian Moon

    Great post!

    When I was in high school, it wasn't an "either or"… it was actually encouraged that you are both beautiful AND smart. If the top 3% of the city's junior high were only accepted (or star athletes), then there is a huge pressure to be both pretty, smart AND athletic/artistic. While I thought this was an excellent concept (I was a geek that liked to experiment with fashion), I felt an intense amount of pressure to keep up. It was all about making it to the top of the class (you get a whole bunch of overachievers, being in "honour roll" isn't enough), being well-dressed and fashionable (and naturally beautiful) as well as creative or athletic. Having undiagnosed ADD made it very difficult for me to do this as I had to "conceal my stupidity" by spending late nights studying harder than most (because it's harder to grasp concepts for people like myself) and try so hard to keep up with my very busy schedule. And on top of that, there's the social life.

    This carried over when I was older, up until I got diagnosed with a whole mess of stress-related illnesses. YIKES!

    I think it's good to be both pretty and smart, but it would be fantastic of you're pretty and smart in YOUR TERMS. I still struggle with this to this day as I see so many of my friends succeeding – having art gallery showings, running for office, and having comedy shows. I often still feel left behind, but I have to remind myself how far I've gone. This time, I'm working on becoming pretty AND smart in MY OWN terms :)

  • celkalee

    Love your insights. My high school experience was a long time ago, but I learned how to be smart and cute at the same time. That age is so important in the growth of character. I was raised with loving parents who used the "benign neglect" parenting model. Never an encouraging word, clueless. I decided that no one would tell me not to express myself, not to make A+, not to wear nice clothes (most of which I made myself) or be career oriented. I did do quite well and even when road-blocks presented themselves (there were many) I worked around them. When my looks got in the way of professional issues, I let my actions prove my worth. If someone didn't like it….not my problem. I feel that it is the responsibility of our generation to encourage all girls to reach as high as possible, not to settle. You can be smart, successful, sensitive and pretty all at the same time!

  • lisa

    I think I read this when it was originally posted but I can't remember commenting on it. Boy, can I relate! I don't think I thought of myself as "pretty" until I was 18 and my boyfriend at the time said I was. Until then, I was always just the studious little Asian girl who had good grades and a full scholarship in university.

  • Laurelann

    Oh my gosh, I just cried a little. Yeah, I'm woman enough to admit it. I've been graduated from high school for two years now, regretting the way I acted/spoke/dressed for those years and wondering why because now I'm just coming out of my shell, fashion-wise. I never could place why I was the way I was until I read this and it just… clicked in my mind. That was me with the AP classes and thinking that pretty was dumb. How very inspirational this article is! :)

    Thank you, Laurel Ann

  • Jenny

    I think about my daughter reading this. She's only five, but very smart, and also very interested in her own fashion sense (not matchy, layering things I would never layer, beautiful color sense, accessories etc.) She is gorgeous and clever and I want her to be both. If she wants to be.

    I am interested in Una's comment about the way race and ethnicity factor into this question, because my daughter is Chinese. I want her to be entirely herself and to be proud of her culture and ethnicity, but I know that will be part of the battle for identity for her.

  • myedit

    The stereotype is often that you can be pretty or smart. Not both. And if you are pretty, you are mean too…
    I think everyone can write a book about highschool, the experiences and the misunderstanding…
    Anyways, great post. Again.

  • callie

    I went with "pretty" because it was the more valued social …currency in high school. THAT wasted a lot of personal and professional time in my career adventures after. It was … "easier". *shakes head*

    Only now – in my FORTIES – am I comfortable with working both bod and brain. 😉 It's a good place to be, but there were decades of unexplored opportunities getting here.

    Still, better late than never, and hopefully this will provide a bit of inspiration for other women who feel more valued for appearance than substance earlier in the process.

    Thanks for another great post – I don't comment often, but I'm a thriftin' sister… who has developed the confidence to have a personal style on a budget, and always looks forward to your posts.



  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much!I'm quite new to your blog and I immensely enjoy reading your repost. I can relate so much to this, it enforces many of my credos. As a teenager,I never gave importance to looks because I had brain. I've also been brought up by the "begnin neglet" kind of parents; never a compliment because I had to be stronger than others and be indipendent in whatever I did.I have a physical handicap that makes me walk a little funny&limp a bit, so people always stares at me. As a teenager I thought I coulnd't allow myself to be girly or feminine; never followed fashion because I thought that with my body type&imperfection I could NEVER look good. I thus developed a very personal style and with age (I'm 33 now) I began to be very well groomed; I decided to begin to at least like my body.I decided I was worth it, this boosted my self esteem and my confidence which had important consequences for my life.

    Chiara from Italy

  • Persephone

    Thanks for writing this post. I can relate a lot. I also thought that smart and pretty were mutually exclusive, and this was reinforced by my father who always dismissed (sometimes really harshly through irony) any attempt I did of looking pretty and/or girly. – And on the other side, my mother was always encouraging me towards clothes that didn't flatter me at all but were "interesting" in their shapes or prints. I'm just now starting to be myself, and your blog is a good help :)

  • Ella M_de

    Awesome. I actually made a couple of similar badges for "stylish with substance". :-)

  • ardenkatherine

    This post really speaks to me. I was raised with my sister to believe that we could be smart and pretty. My mom always told us to take the time to look nice, put on our makeup, and STUDY. Although my sister turned out to be both incredibly beautiful (she now models) and smart (honors courses and the like), I somehow took little interest in either. So through all of high school I lived a passionless existence, stuck at not very smart and sorta pretty. It wasn't until I struggled to get into college that I started caring about both.

  • Elizabeth

    It's fund to be both smart and sexy. I like to answer sexist old men in a manner that makes them look like they've been eviscerated… Start out polite, make a point and wait for counter point.

    It's just too much of a shock for them to imagine a woman with brains and boobs.