Beauty is not the antithesis of intellect. This polarization seems to be a stereotypical perception that applies to only women.
The long list of underhanded non-specific comments we save for women and women alone is reflective of how we process femaleness, simplistic and lacking in depth. It is an insight into how we group women as “normal” or “other” and nothing in between. As aggravating as this sounds, one isn’t immediately offended by this “compliment.”
- Be beautiful or be smart, you can not be both: Being brilliant and being beautiful sound like two good compliments and if words of affirmation are your thing, you’ve just had a double serving. Except that most times, with this “compliment”, it’s the “AND” that is the stressor. The shocker that a (gasp?) woman is both, has to be so mind-blowing, it must come packaged as an unsolicited compliment. A quick exercise for you is to write down every time a girl or a woman has been referred to as a genius by a teacher or the media or even friends and family. Compare that with, well, men.
- Body-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody: Being a woman can feel like being reduced to your body all the time. A lot of women are smart, a lot of women look good. So it’s not that you don’t look smart (smart doesn’t have a look), or that you have even done a dumb thing, it’s that the initial assumption is that women are dumb until proven otherwise, plus a topping of men not being able to see past women’s bodies. You delivered an amazing presentation but too much energy was spent gazing at your breasts, there wasn’t any left to pay attention. It’s not you, it’s them.
- Shame Culture: If we’re being honest, we live in an “anything-to-shame-the-woman” society and sometimes that can present as “lifting” one woman to shame the others. In fact, “beauty and brains” is a direct insult to every other woman. Think about it, when have you ever been complimented for having legs and hands? Why does one woman having a brain surprise you and what does that say about how you view other women?
- You’re not the exception: A lot of women take this comment to mean, “you’re different, you’re not like the rest of them” (again how is this not an insult?) but, the truth is, beauty and brains alone are not enough to make you the exception and frankly not enough to buy your silence against retail sexism. It’s a conundrum because while being pretty might give a little longer rope, beauty and attractiveness are casually used to shame women once the timing is right. If you look a certain way, society will project their perception of what your appearance connotes on you even before you get a chance to speak. It’s a lose-lose situation.
- You don’t say it to men: Fin.
This culture of profiling is imposed on women disproportionately. As if the patriarchy does not undermine the individuality and right to self-determination of women enough, your community decides on your behalf what your identity is and then they hold you to the ridiculous standards they have concocted in their heads. Women must be kind and selfless, gentle and not too opinionated, subservient and servile, and of course, if you must be beautiful, it means that you’re too focused on that to be smart. You can’t have pretty and book privilege; what is that even?!
It is uncommon to hear anyone remark on a man’s intelligence with surprise because said man is conventionally handsome. For men, both traits can go hand in hand. So, why not women?