Reader Judy sent me this request via e-mail:
One of my fellow engineering students made the comment that girls in engineering are either “hot” and dumb, or really smart, socially awkward, and “ugly.” Upon remembering that I am, indeed, a girl, he babbled something about a happy medium, but the meaning was nonetheless clear. Time spent with power tools can limit my skirt and dress wearing, but I like to believe that I can be perceived as a woman, even an attractive woman, and also as competent and intelligent.
I’d love to see a blog post discussing looking and feeling your best while being taken seriously. How do we deal with the idea that a pretty face and a sharp mind are mutually exclusive?
Long, long ago I wrote on this topic – the infuriating notion that a woman can be smart OR pretty, but not both – but it’s a topic that is close to my heart and deserves revisiting. So let’s revisit … with the understanding that, for this discussion, both natural features and personal style contribute to our ideas surrounding “being pretty.”
Humans love to categorize and compartmentalize. Our world is big and complex and overwhelming, and if we stopped to consider every possible meaning for every possible symbol, event, and person, our heads would explode. So we apply broad labels to save time and energy. And it means that we generalize and make loads of incorrect assumptions, but it also means that our heads remain intact. Imperfect, but often necessary.
In my experience, stereotypes arise when we generalize our generalizations, or just devolve into judgmental laziness. It’s one thing to observe the world and note trends, it’s another to decide that those trends are immutable laws that cannot be bent or broken by individual acts or beings. It’s a fluid world, and making your beliefs inflexible will only lead to trouble and strife.
Somewhere along the line, someone noticed that many of the smartest women prized intellect over fashion and beauty rituals. Those in the sciences who must dress for lab work are especially inclined to eschew aesthetics when it comes to clothing choices, since safety is top priority. It makes sense that anyone truly immersed in academia, science, philosophy, or any all-consuming cranial pursuit would prefer to put the majority of her energy toward discoveries, experiments, and studying instead of … well, most anything else. And that includes finding the most flattering hairstyle for her face shape and scouting out the ideal lip color for her skin tone.
Someone else noticed that many of the most traditionally attractive and fashionable women focused on less intellectual topics and activities. I wish it weren’t so, but my experience and readings lead me to believe that women deemed beautiful by current social norms are often given more opportunities, treated more kindly, and showered with more attention than their less attractive peers. So, in a way, it makes sense that anyone with such natural advantages would choose a route that required less stress, struggle, and pressure to prove herself against biased peers.
And then yet another someone decided to mush these two already-overgeneralized generalizations together and say that smart girls can’t be pretty, and pretty girls can’t be smart. And smart women, pretty women, and smart-pretty women ALL get a raw deal because of this. Smart women are often teased if they dabble in cosmetics or fashion, can feel pressured to downplay their looks, and even encounter doubts about their intellects when they choose to don stylish duds or experiment with fun hairstyles. Pretty women are questioned when they assert their intellectual prowess among small-minded peers, feel trapped into leaning on their looks if other tactics fail, and are often bullied into succumbing to the stereotype of the gorgeous airhead. Women who are both pretty and smart seem to stymie everyone. No one believes that they can be beauties AND braniacs simultaneously, and in order to feel accepted many of them instinctively downplay their smarts or downplay their interest in aesthetics. It is both true and completely fine that some smart women couldn’t give a damn about personal style, and some pretty women couldn’t give a damn about o-chem or Nietzsche. But the ones who try to balance both worlds end up feeling like they don’t belong in either.
In our society, both intellect and physical beauty constitute forms of power. And I’m relatively sure that the reason why women who are both smart and pretty get teased and ostracized is because people are deeply uncomfortable with the notion that we could possess and wield that much power. One type or the other? OK, that’s not too scary or threatening. But both? No effing way. Tamp one kind of power down to keep that woman’s achievement potential and self-esteem safely in check.
And as passive as it may sound, I believe that the best way to combat this stereotype is to lead by example. Don’t allow anyone to tamp down your style or intellect, don’t allow anyone to tease you into submission, don’t allow anyone to tell you you can only be smart OR pretty but not both. And that’s a lot to ask, I know. Peer pressure is alive and well among human beings of all ages. Just as high schoolers struggle to dress and act as they wish instead of conforming to the will of the herd, adults struggle to dress and act as they wish instead of caving under the pressure of colleagues’ scrutiny and questioning. But as scary as it feels, we can push back. Gently, insistently, slowly, and steadily.
And we can support the smart, fashionable women that surround us. We can react with neither surprise nor hostility when confronted by people who simply cannot believe that we are both brilliant and gorgeous. Since normalcy is based in mutual agreement, we can help make the brainy/beautiful combination become normal through our reactions to disbelievers. And we can just be ourselves. We can present the world with that mind-blowing combination of beautiful and intelligent. Our articulate, curious, well-read, analytical AND fashionable, luminous, stylish selves can become the ambassadors of chic smarts.