Beautiful or Smart? Why not Both?

December 11, 2016

Beauty. It's subjective. Its definition has changed often through the centuries. Take a walk through a musuem, flip through old magazines, or open a history book and you'll see that what society defines as 'beautiful' is not and has never been static. There is one aspect of  beauty, however, that never changes. It's powerful. Women who possess beauty as it fits society's current standards have power. They can control and manipulate men with it, they can use that beauty to obtain gifts and social status that brings them wealth, and it should come as no surprise that they fight to hold onto that power as long as possible*.


"No one likes to admit that because a woman is beautiful she might be given things and have privilege that less attractive women might not."


We don't like to talk about beauty in such frank terms. No one likes to admit that because a woman is beautiful she might be given things and have privilege that less attractive women might not. Whether it's simple, like the barista who has a crush on her and gives her a free latte every morning, or complex, the likelihood that she'll be given a job over another equally qualified woman, beauty does carry with it privilege. And little girls internalize this lesson from a very young age.



Age 3, hugging my teddy bear.



I was not pretty, or so i was told. I was the smart one. In the long run I think my parents did me a favor slotting me into that role. I never relied on my looks to get me what I wanted, and I assumed I'd have to work for everything. My little sister was not as lucky. From day one she was told she was beautiful and prettier than me. Not only is unhealthy to pit siblings against each other in this way, it also made life harder for her when she grew into her twenties and discovered that beauty will only take you so far. But my emotions around those childhood hurts are complicated. There is hurt and a little bit of resentment which manifested itself in a disparaging, dismissive attitude towards women who were beautiful.


When people find out that I'm a dancer often they'll ask if I was a cheerleader in high school. For years I'd respond with the dismissive, "No, I have a brain." (My apologies to my former cheerleading friends). I was proud of my intelligence and flaunted it, sometimes obnoxiously, as protection against the pain I felt at not being pretty. My mom, after she left my dad, tried to combat this and told me, often, that I was a late bloomer. She bought me make-up and nice clothes and even signed me up for modeling classes, attempts to show me the beauty that she saw in me.


But my father was always the stronger personality, the one who could use words to slice my self-esteem into ribbons. "Your sister's beautiful, she won't have any problem finding a husband. You might have to work a little harder, Dena." In the Christian church, and his view of faith, you had no status if you were a single woman. Oh, they'd pay lip service to women who dedicated their life to Christ but I saw how the single, over thirty women were treated. The pitying looks, the snide comments about the joy they'd miss out on by not having children, the implication that there was something wrong with them because they hadn't found a husband. When getting married is the ultimate goal, and beauty leads to marriage, being told you're not beautiful is hurtful on many levels.




My little sister and I playing with Easter baskets (love that shag carpeting!).


And, since I'd been trained to look for and find a Godly husband, it wasn't until much later that it occurred to me that I could be picky, or have needs and wants or demand anything from the men I dated. My first boyfriend out of college used to exclaim that I was both beautiful and smart and how rare it was to find both, "They usually have an inverse relationship!" he'd joke (a**hole that he was). I couldn't, at the time, identify the sexism in what he said. After a lifetime of having my intelligence relegated to second place in favor of my sister's beauty (for the record, she's plenty smart, too), and watching while the pretty girls were given things I was not, being called beautiful was a balm. Once in a relationship, I rarely spoke up and asked for what I wanted, though I'd essay the occasional passive aggressive comment, and I'd do whatever it took to keep it going. If your ultimate goal is to find a husband in order to belong in the world in which you've been raised then you're not going to do anything to jeopardize that. I didn't break up with my boyfriends, they broke up with me. My husband was the first man I walked out on - and it took a lot to get to that point.


"I've always acknowledged my worth when based upon my intelligence, now I can acknowledge that whatever beauty I possess does not diminish or negate that intelligence. "


I've always acknowledged my worth when based upon my intelligence, now I can acknowledge that whatever beauty I possess does not diminish or negate that intelligence. I do not turn the sexism with which I was raised onto beautiful women around me, assuming that they must not be as smart as I am just because of their looks. I've even learned, working with professional photographers, to appreciate some of the work and thought that goes into taking a good photograph.

At the American Camp on the San Juan Islands, trying to remember the photographer's instructions on how to arch my back, position my head, etc. Top from Francesca's, necklace from Bauble Bar. Photo by Jeff Pryor.


When we're little girls we see our mothers as beautiful and want to be like them when we grow up. Somewhere along the way we learn to compare them to the ads we see on TV, or on a billboard, and find their 'flaws.' Which, in turn, leads to us finding our own. If beauty is power then I think we should accept it, talk about it, and acknowledge how it plays a role in women's lives. And we should stop letting society, as shaped by the patriarchy, use it to divide us into groups 'pretty,' 'plain,' 'beautiful,' 'smart.' How about "All of the Above?"




*Can we please stop simultaneously criticizing celebrities for using too much Botox and fillers AND running articles ripping apart how 'poorly' they've aged? I mean, come on.

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