Smart and Pretty. At the Same Time!

Maggie: Do you think there’s still a problem with being smart and pretty?

Kate: Are being smart and being pretty two things that can’t go together? Ha! That’s ridiculous! Angelina Jolie is an ambassador of some sort, right? I had this really gorgeous professor undergrad. There’s Michelle Obama, who’s totally rocking her own unique look.

As a homeschooler, I thought I was positive extremes across the board. I was definitely smart. I was definitely beautiful. I was definitely awesome. I was definitely going to rule the world some day. In college, I felt suddenly dorky. I began to pick up on all these subtle rules. Like: If a heavy girl talks too much in class, she’s annoying and obnoxious. If a thin girl talks too much about gender in class she’s a lesbian feminist. If she’s really pretty, then she’s a little less annoying.

But mostly the really pretty, thin girls knew not to talk too much in class. So I figured I must not be that hot, since I talked a lot. And then I figured I must be annoying. I went to a big, state school, and I definitely didn’t wear tight enough pants.

In grad school, at a small, Ivy League school, in a department that only had about three other women, I wanted to be pretty so that I didn’t have to rely entirely on my intelligence to represent me. Because my intelligence wasn’t doing so well that first semester. It was huddling in a corner somewhere, weeping softly and rocking itself back and forth. Grad school is hard.

Sometimes the really beautiful girls got forgiven when they said something stupid.

I wanted to be pretty because I was already one of the only woman, so I already stood out, and I might as well stand out in a positive way. I wanted to look like I had options. Not like I’d only started reading a lot and studying so much because I couldn’t get a boyfriend. This is also part of why I always had a boyfriend. Not a great reason.

I wanted to have a competitive edge. Everyone around me was smart. I wanted something extra.

Sometimes being smart is a very disembodied thing. As though we have to develop separate relationships with our minds and our bodies. As though there are two distinct people existing together: One is Brain Woman, the other is Body Woman. After all, those guys who yell something at you on the street aren’t talking to your brain.

Sometimes smart and pretty women are confusing, especially when they do both to an extreme extent. Like my friend Emily, who is a PhD student in a competitive philosophy department. She sometimes likes to show up to teach a class wearing a little pink dress, with her long blond hair in braids. She’s adorable and sexy and totally stereotypically feminine. And she’s wicked smart. Her students are baffled. They’ve never seen anything like her before. But why not?

Sometimes women who are both really smart and really pretty are threatening to other women. Like, just pick one! You can’t have everything! Apparently they can.

I don’t know. But I have a feeling there’s still plenty of stuff going on there. Because I’m such a rebel, I’m gonna try to feel smart and pretty at exactly the same time. Here goes.

Un-Roast: Today I love my chin. It’s sort of pointy. And cute.

Everyone: Do you feel pretty and smart? How does your intelligence inform your beauty, if you think it does? How does your beauty inform your intelligence? Liane, if you’re reading this, I would love love love you to write a piece for me sometime. Seriously. Please.


Kate on April 23rd 2010 in beauty

17 Responses to “Smart and Pretty. At the Same Time!”

  1. Jamie responded on 24 Apr 2010 at 9:57 am #

    It’s hard to feel like both at the same time, I agree. When I was in college, I always felt I had the subtle librarian sexuality thing going on, but then again that’s completely different from feeling pretty!

  2. Ali responded on 24 Apr 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    I work in a field that is overwhelmingly male, and I wrestle with this issue a lot. Yes, I want to feel both smart and pretty, but sometimes I feel that showing any femininity or worse yet vulnerability at work will totally ruin any credibility that I have fought so hard for.

  3. marnie responded on 24 Apr 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    if you’re not pretty, you get ignored… if you’re too pretty nobody takes you seriously. what are you supposed to do??

  4. Bronwyn responded on 24 Apr 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    I guess I don’t think of myself as overly pretty or overly smart.
    I’m just average, in my mind and on paper. And I usually find I don’t speak as often as I like, I’m shy, and I hold myself back. Mostly I guess because I don’t think I say smart things. But that’s not because I think/or am pretty… I don’t think I’ve ever really seperated the two.

  5. Jocelyn @ Peace.Love.Nutrition responded on 25 Apr 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Hey there! This is an interesting post. I consider myself an attractive person. I’m not arrogant or conceded but I’m thankful for my unique look! I have found that I often have to prove my intelligence. This might be in my head- but I’ve gotten the ‘dumb blond’ comment numerous time without even saying a word! People just looked at me with my blond hair and assumed I was unintelligent. I think it’s important for people to just be themselves and not care what people think. I’m done with trying to prove to people I’m smart and attractive. I know it. And that’s all that matters! : )

  6. Kate responded on 25 Apr 2010 at 11:25 pm #

    @Bronwyn– Your comment makes me immediately want to convince you that you’re beautiful and smart! I wish I knew how to do that. My thought is: We only have this body and this mind. We might as well feel like they’re both amazing. Easier said then done, obviously. But please keep reading and maybe we can learn to be more sure of our amazingness together!

  7. Kate responded on 25 Apr 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    @Ali — It’s frustrating that this is STILL the situation so many women are faced with in the workplace. Also, vulnerability gets associated with femininity, and both get lumped into the category “bad,” or “weak.” More men need to be able to be vulnerable, too!

    @Jocelyn– My blond friends constantly complain about the “dumb blond” stereotype. As if hair color can determine ANYTHING! Where did that even come from?? I’m confused. But congratulations on being sure about who you are, and trusting both your intellect and your beauty!

  8. elise responded on 27 Apr 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    kate – i am truly enjoying catching up on past posts…i love your writing and i just wanted to tell you that (because i think it after each and every post i read). its just nice and refreshing to read about topics that are usually deemed superficial in a sarcastic, witty, intellectually stimulating way.

    ps i feel embarrassed to say this (which is a problem in and of itself), but i think im smart and pretty.

  9. elise responded on 27 Apr 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    ps i (sadly) agree with marni

  10. Hanna responded on 13 May 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    I find it really hard to be both
    I try so hard *sigh* gets me no where.
    And for some reason, I always feel less femine when I go out
    I barely look decent enough to leave the house, and as for smartness?
    I try :/
    I study and read a lot but it gets me no where

  11. maymaymay responded on 29 May 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    I am a ‘pretty person’ as far as society deems, in a way that has, up until recently almost ruined my chance as a future. I was never taught that my mind was my ally- I worked as a model and was never encouraged to explore my intelectual side. I had to realize for myself that I am very smart as well, with an IQ of 135. I find this very frightening in hopes of ever finding a mate who wont be too intimidated by me to actualy let me be who I am both in body and mind…..

  12. sarasita responded on 18 Jul 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    I have three degrees. Am a scientist in a cutthroat field of 97% men. Super sporty, ultra fit. Unfortunately I’ve also often been characterized as “the hottest girl in the room”… even if I wear ultra business clothes and a bun. I smile too much. I’m too nice. If I dress to boyish the others call me a dyke. I’m a single mom of two. Seems like the only guys who go after me are really just abusive alcoholic fathers who want me to be to take care of their kids and bills… so I don’t date anymore. Or the rich a-hole who wants me to smile at dinner parties and shut up. I tried to approach a “nice guy” after three months of casual dates and I didn’t fit into his life “plan”. Why did he lead me on? Even a hug would do… I don’t even need intimacy if only I had a hug once and a while. If I were attracted to women I might try, but alas… darn these hormones! Help!

  13. Eat the Damn Cake » Unschooling Didn’t Make Me Abnormal Enough responded on 19 Aug 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    [...] I’m a girl. And I’m smart. And I have a big nose. Therefore, I was set up to be nerdy. But not nerdy enough. If I had learned more math, maybe I would’ve figured out the spacepods. But because my mind is suspiciously normal (see aforementioned boy-craziness as teenager), I didn’t have the slightest interest in math. And the bit about my arms is a joke. [...]

  14. Mary responded on 23 Sep 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Hi :)

    I came here because I have been struggling with this a lot lately like it’s some kind of moral dilemma or something. I can’t find it in me to be both smart and pretty. And I really enjoy both!

    Anyway, it’s good to see I’m not the only one. But it is weird how being smart makes you feel kind of less attractive … at least I do …

  15. Eat the Damn Cake » Grad school made me stupid responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 11:52 am #

    [...] wrote a little about my grad school experience in an early post called “smart and pretty at the same time.” But an email from a reader made me want to write some more. She was telling me about being a [...]

  16. Carolina responded on 05 Mar 2012 at 1:04 am #

    I was looking for an article I read about how grad school is supposed to make you feel stupid and I found your blog. I like your writing!
    Btw, my smart and pretty style is wearing clothes that send the right message – “don’t underestimate me”. Kinda like in nature, some colors warn predators to back off. I wear leopard print, bright red, fur, leather, spikes but not all at the same time. This is my style, which reflects my personality, but I really like defeating the stereotypes when random stranger asks what I do, I say I make biofuels, and I’m wearing 5 inch wedges, big curly hair and a leopard print fur vest. First they laugh, then they think it is actually pretty cool stuff. It is. That’s why I do it!

  17. feeling stupid responded on 11 Jun 2012 at 8:25 am #

    I also googled feeling stupid regarding grad school (but I have not even applied… I’m just thinking about it almost every waking hour and feeling down in the dumps because I really want the access to higher education and to contribute to my field, but I have the worst self esteem at the moment and I might not be able to hack it if my value to the institution I wish to belong to is tested and doubted). I studied under a major that is female dominated but historically an old white guy field (I know, aren’t they all?). I think this might be why I felt okay when I started showing up to class looking disheveled. I used to aspire to look like the prettiest person in class, and yes, was often noticed in my classes by guys. I feel conceited just writing that sentence so I want to make it clear that I honestly never found myself to be PRETTY, but I am not unaware that I am interesting looking, edgy, and big lipped. I have long lush hair, and before the stresses of a rigorous university I was very thin. All the “important” things for fitting in with the modern standard of beauty. I thought I was smart at the time so my self esteem was good, and putting on expertly applied makeup, curling my hair, dressing hot, was just part of “taking care of myself” before I went out to show off my talents. Girls always complimented me, too, but since I was so studious it may have been just to see my lab notes. When I transferred to a distinguished uni the party was over. First, I got fat. I was so depressed about not getting straight A+ every quarter, I had to up the dose of my SSRIs and gained about 15 lbs which is huge for my tiny frame. The lbs stayed even when I lowered the dose. Then because I had to actually study for once, which I was not used to (I used to simply read and retain the easy lower division class text books and skim notes. For my upper division courses I had to read things many times because the first time I would only understand the prepositions in the sentences in the dense textbooks and verbose articles), I had much less time to primp in the morning. I stopped taking care of myself, got much less sleep, ate really bad food, lots of sugary caffeinated drinks, etc. In some classes I worked my ass off but only got a B which was disheartening (I transferred with a 3.9). My graduating GPA was cum laude, but not high enough for magna or summa. So I was convinced I had gotten dumber. With that came lower self esteem. With lower self esteem, I became more self conscious about how others perceived me. I was stupid and ugly. I would envy pretty and smart girls but I kept my bitterness to myself because I knew what it was like to feel pretty and smart and to love it and shame on anyone who tries to make cute girls feel like they can’t be smart, or smart girls like they can’t be cute. In summary, the way I feel about my face and body depends on how I feel about my academic abilities, in that I need to feel good about both looks and intelligence. That’s not too weird right?