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Thursday, June 06, 2013

Privileging Intelligence over Beauty

A sentiment I have come across many times:

How to Talk to Little Girls

"I went to a dinner party at a friend’s home last weekend, and met her five-year-old daughter for the first time.

Little Maya was all curly brown hair, doe-like dark eyes, and adorable in her shiny pink nightgown. I wanted to squeal, “Maya, you’re so cute! Look at you! Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!”

But I didn’t. I squelched myself. As I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are... Nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

That’s why I force myself to talk to little girls as follows...

“Hey, what are you reading?” I asked, a twinkle in my eyes. I love books. I’m nuts for them. I let that show...

Not once did we discuss clothes or hair or bodies or who was pretty. It’s surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I’m stubborn...

So, one tiny bit of opposition to a culture that sends all the wrong messages to our girls. One tiny nudge towards valuing female brains...

You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers."


Yet, if we privilege Intelligence instead of Aesthetic Appeal (looks/beauty) in women, we're going to make all the stupid girls feel sad. Is that necessarily better?

Leaving aside the point (or possibility, if you prefer) of the universal female imperative to look good and the wisdom of going against that, there will always be winners and losers when certain attributes or results are valued. Changing what we value changes who wins and who loses, but it is not guaranteed that there will be an overall improvement in welfare.

Take for instance the following scenario:

"Teaching girls that their minds are the first thing you notice tells them that the appearance of intelligence is more important than anything. It sets them up for tuition at age 5 and spelling bees at age 11 and reading newspapers that they are not interested in at 17 and Ritalin at 23."

Indeed, one could even see a subtle misogyny in the privileging of what has historically been valued in men over what has historically been valued in women.

Differential treatment is not necessarily unjust.


Comment on original post:

"as now-grown child who was never once told she was pretty by her mother (a small flaw among a million blessings), I take every opportunity to tell my daughters how beautiful they are. I wasn’t told I was pretty – although I was – because it wasn’t valued in my family, and I still suffered every last body image pitfall you list above. I think telling girls they are lovely predates the current pop culture fixation on image."


Addendum: Some people think I'm kidding about tuition, spelling bees and Ritalin. But they are very real issues (possibly not as big as anorexia, but it is presumably uncontroversial to say that a culture which prizes education and educational outcomes as a proxy for intelligence have contributed to the problems arising from them, even if these problems don't have a lobby as prominent as the feminists making noise about them).

Tuition Stresses Out Children

Spelling Bee Puts Spotlight on Weird Words, Worried Kids

College students get hooked on ‘smart drugs’
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