I went to a Catholic, all-girls school from the age of two. I’d like to say I found God or myself there but I didn’t; all I discovered was the existence of a stereotype that said women must choose between being pretty or smart.
I was a very nerdy, lonely and slightly impertinent child who didn’t have many friends. For a while, I was bullied. I shedded many tears and I was afraid of going to class because no-one was helping me. I got tougher (and, as Veronica Mars would say) they left me alone.
Then came the insidious bullying under the guise of helpfulness. I was told that if I just cleaned up a little, if I just took care of myself, if I just did this or that, then I’d be ‘passable’. Not pretty, cute or nice – passable. I mostly didn’t respond because I took a twisted pride in not really caring for my appearance. My mum told me I was smarter than them and that smarter was so much better than pretty or beautiful. She, along with my classmates, seemed to believe it was either one or the other, a false dichotomy that is sadly accepted by a lot of people. Not for a moment did I think I had the prerogative of choosing to feel pretty and constructing what I wanted to be.
So I took it all in my stride and moved along. My hair might not be pretty, my bum might be flat but at least I’m smart, I thought. At least that’s what I told myself whenever I felt like their remarks were getting to me. For the longest time, I didn’t really do much for my appearance – in a way, I fulfilled my bullies’ descriptions to a tee. We might not realise it but we can be part of creating our own prisons, build little glass houses in which we confine our choices. Without knowing it, I became someone I didn’t really feel comfortable being.
Finally, I finished school, leaving with a perfect score and a sense of satisfaction. I was free, at last, to be whoever I wanted. University is notoriously the time for self-discovery and experimentation, so I started, tentatively, to explore beauty and make-up. My mum was wrong, I could choose to feel beautiful and still not lose my brains. End of story, right? Perhaps not. You see, I am reading law and as you can imagine, lawyers and law professors are almost spartan in their appearance and they expect similar from their students; diligence is a must and somberness is your bread and butter.
There is this pervasive image of serious, smart and capable people as individuals who shed all their vanity and only pursue “worthy” hobbies. Women, especially, are under constant scrutiny. We have to look put together at all times but without looking like we’ve made a big effort. We have to wear enough make up to look like we’re not wearing any and anything beyond that renders us vain and shallow. It seems like we can only be bi-dimensional characters with a few attributes. Choose: smart or pretty, capable or fun, boring or excessive. Winning is almost impossible – and losing? Unacceptable.
People should listen to me regardless of what’s on my face. It should not factor, at all, in what I have to say or my ability to be a good student, worker or friend. It is sad to see that this stereotype continues after school and is one I think the media could do more to challenge.