Why Do Women Have to Choose Between Identifying as Smart or Pretty?

Credits: Photo - Anonymous, Styling - Sarah G. Schmidt, Location - Sarah G. Schmidt's home

The rants, aka: opinions or pet peeves, not so gently expressed in the following are the sole opinions of Sarah G. Schmidt. They are not meant to target, insult, or harm. They are to spark conversation and really I may just need to vent. You’ve been told and forewarned, all right? Here goes...

I’ve been thinking about the role of attractiveness and it’s strong relationship to success. It’s been studied at Princeton and Purdue proving there is a strong link. As a society we too, believe that smarts can also equal success. That’s what our education system has built its foundation on. Put the two together and whammy! That’s one heck of a successful man.

Note that I said man. That was deliberate. Men don't seem to have this binary stereotype. Double standards attack again: women do. See I’ve been inundated with the message that a women is either smart or pretty my whole life. From the big bad media, Hollywood, and my own family. A gal is never both. Further, never any other qualities, apparently.

For me personally it was never directly, “Sarah, you can either be smart or pretty. So use one and get on with life.” It was - and still is - subtler than that. When I now bring it up to someone while they have just said something that echoes these two qualities, they say I’m overthinking it. Or they say that calling a gal smart or pretty is harmless.

Do me a solid. Take a quick minute and try and remember the last time you cooed over a newborn baby girl or toddler. You may have said something like, “Well she’s going to be a knockout! Look out boys.” (as an aside, people are killing me with the 1-2 punch of pretty + binary sexuality).

Here’s another example. In those awkward pre-teen years a parent comments pride in their child’s smarts. They say something like, “She’s focused on her studies so she doesn’t care about her looks.” We say that to adult women too. Take Hillary Clinton for example. We know she is smart yet she is attacked for her style choices. Googling “Hillary Clinton Style” is a rabbit hole-inducing example of cruelty.

Or how about, “She’s only in that job (with that man, in that car, at that school, etc) because of her looks.” As if leveraging ones looks as opposed to smarts is somehow lesser? Think about how society viewed Marilyn Monroe, porn stars, or pageant queens.

Is there some camp that we secretly all go to? During initiation day a deep voice booms over the intercom...

Smart females... over here in study studio. You will learn how to leverage your smarts to be successful. But you shall not have style! No smart girl is pretty too.
Pretty females... come over here in beauty bay. You will learn all the ways to use your looks to up your status. But, of course you know, you will never be considered smart.

Silliness aside, from my experience and reflecting on this topic a bit I’ve come to realize that we’ve been doing this both deliberately and unwittingly for generations. I think we do it for a couple reasons. First, it’s an example of of small talk. Second, we tend to shortcut understanding who we think people are.

Saying it out loud means that somewhere deep down we believe it. At the very least, that the listener believes it so we are guilty of giving people what they want without believing in what we are saying. Not great.

I get it, we are learning. You have to make mistakes to learn that you need to course correct.

I’d like to make the argument that women can be both of those things. One doesn’t have to identify as one or the other. Beyoncé is incredibly pretty and smart. Gwyneth Paltrow, Geena Davis, Michelle Obama, Amal Cloney, Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Alicia Keys, Karlie Kloss, Asia Carerra, Aisha Tyler are too.

They are all both (and I bet some other qualities outside of pretty or smart too).

Do these two stereotypes accurately tell us anything about people? Or are we just judging ourselves by projecting on others? Whatever the case, I say let’s break down these tropes together.