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This new series uncovers what societal expectations our writers are working towards unlearning. In this instalment, Rachel Campbell explores the idea that young girls have to choose between smart and pretty when cultivating an identity for themselves.

I have, for as long as I can remember, felt that my intelligence defined me. In primary school, when we all had to write a positive trait about our classmates and place them in their named envelopes, mine almost exclusively said “smart” or “intelligent”. I was proud. I wasn’t the pretty one or the funny one. I didn’t need to be. I never missed a word on a spelling test, full marks in maths, and my school reports declared: “a pleasure to teach”. When I recently met up with a friend who had a similar experience as a child, we got to talking about how as women, we have often felt corralled into these boxes of “The Smart One,” “The Pretty One,” and so on, as if these traits are mutually exclusive. With the media perpetuating these tropes, girls are often brought up to think they must diminish their intelligence to be seen as attractive, or not care about their appearance in order to be taken seriously. As we spoke more about our shared experience, I realised how much I’d unwittingly played into this harmful attitude towards women, and that I had to actively unlearn the idea that as women we can only be one thing.

Putting girls into these categories can be harmful in more ways than one. For anyone, tying your self-worth to any one trait is certain to lead to distress. When “The Smart Girl” gets an answer wrong, she’ll see only that one deviation from academic perfection, the B in a sea of As is all she’ll focus on. If we bring girls up to think they’re defined by one attribute, the pressure to do that one thing perfectly becomes debilitating. Suddenly you’re in your first year of university, leaving a history seminar crying because you’ve gone from being “The Smart One” to wondering how everyone in your class seems to know everything that has ever happened while you’re still struggling to find your way around campus. This isn’t to say that no men have felt the pressure of being a childhood overachiever, but I do think there’s more of a tendency to put women in boxes and expect them to stay there.

Everyone battles with who they are in high school, and I didn’t like that I was becoming more concerned with how I looked. After all, I wasn’t like other girls. I cared about what I was going to achieve, not about getting my nails done. I was a Velma, not a Daphne. This internalised misogyny was pervasive. After all, we’ve all seen the “taking off her glasses and revealing she was beautiful all along” trope, particularly in films aimed at young women, like The Princess Diaries. This trope isn’t about the glasses, but about what the glasses represent: making a woman look less intellectual will automatically make her look more attractive, and clearly that’s not the kind of idea we should be feeding young women’s subconscious minds. You’d hope that we’d be beyond this kind of thinking by now, but I’m not sure it’s been completely wiped out of the media yet; the residual damage that these kinds of tropes do to how women view themselves is long-lasting, hence the need to unlearn. 

The reverse is equally harmful. Making girls believe they can either be smart or pretty, but not both, leads to a lot of young women silencing their ideas and downplaying their abilities for fear of not being seen as attractive. Unaware of the societal pressure which had led me to subconsciously believe these traits couldn’t coexist, I found myself swinging between making no effort with my appearance so as to not let it define me, and downplaying my smarts in what could only be likened to a Mean Girls Cady and Aaron Samuels debacle in my Physics class. 

The difficulty was, I did care about how I looked. As we all do, I felt more confident about myself when I was cultivating an appearance which I thought looked nice (no matter how questionable the purple lipstick and eyeliner was when looking back now). But similarly, I also did care about recognising my own academic achievements and adding to interesting conversation. I was at war with myself, wanting to feel good about more than just how I did on a test, whilst also feeling that being pretty was out of my reach, and not something I should aim for anyway.   

A vicious cycle is born as girls believe they must differentiate themselves from “The Pretty Ones” in order to be taken seriously, or vice versa, and so perpetuate the system of misogyny which confines them. The “not like other girls” chestnut only pits young women against each other, creating jealousy and stricter lines. I didn’t dislike the girls I saw as pretty, but I didn’t feel as though we could ever have much in common. In a world where we have constant subliminal messaging saying we are either the head cheerleader or a bookish outsider, assumptions are inevitably made about the other side, which only deepens the damaging idea that there’s no room for duality here. 

Addressing the fact that we’ve grown up with influences which encourage us to think in this way will help us to combat it. Ripping off this monster’s mask allows us to realise we can be both Velma and Daphne. We must recognise all of our strengths rather than hiding some away to fit in a certain box. We cannot allow another generation of girls to believe they have to conform to a certain stereotype or to feel limited in their goals due to this. It starts with us recognising that we are multifaceted and can take time to look and therefore feel good, without compromising any of our other skills and qualities. We must force the world to expect women who are strong, beautiful, intelligent and funny, rather than letting the world tell us which one single thing we can be. 


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