February 11, 2014

I have really complicated feelings about exhortations to tell girls they’re smart instead of beautiful, and also why I’m not a Ravenclaw

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 4:16 pm by chavisory


{Moving image depicts Dr. Christina Yang from the show Grey’s Anatomy, gesturing dramatically and proclaiming “Oh, screw beautiful, I’m brilliant!  You wanna appease me, compliment my brain!”}

The title of this might be me at my most inarticulate, but I’ve got some complex emotional history here.

I’ve see this screencap from Grey’s Anatomy flying around Tumblr a lot lately, with kind of conflicted feelings.

And I want to cheer for it.  I want to agree with Christina in this scene.  I want to clap.  I do.  I can’t.  My heart sinks a little instead.

When I was growing up, I was over-appreciated for my brain—or what people wanted out of it—and not much else.

And I get why, for a lot of women, so much importance has been placed on physical beauty and a very narrow definition of sexual desirability by culture and media that to be told you’re beautiful can be diminishing, or a denial of any other aspect of personhood as vital or valuable in a woman.

But another kind of woman got written off early and entirely in the department of physical desirability, and got told intensely and persistently that our intellect was the only valuable thing about us.

And that can be just as objectifying as the inverse.  To be treated as if your body, your sexuality, is a mistake, is off limits from being considered an asset or a real and true aspect of our personhood or something we should even like about ourselves.

Because my physical experience of the world is as totally intrinsic to the kind of person I’ve become as my intelligence is.

There’s not really any aspect or component of a person of which it’s alright to say, “You may be valued for this alone.  This is all of you that matters.”

So yeah, I can understand the frustration of other women at being called beautiful as the highest possible compliment, when though that may be what society values, it’s superficial to what they see as their true selves.

That’s exactly how I feel about being called “smart.”  It’s the only way I was ever allowed to be valuable or worthwhile, but it’s almost completely superficial to what I actually value most about myself.

When I was growing up, it was my intelligence that was made a commodity to other people.  And that was all of me that mattered.

For a long time, I was resentful that intellect and insight were not valued or celebrated anywhere near as much as superficial beauty or things like athletic talent—by society, by the media, by the school system—because it was all I had going for me.

And then a time came when I was so, so sick of hearing how smart I was.

In retrospect, a lot of my academic accomplishments feel like stupid human tricks, compared to the qualities that I’m really proud of nurturing. And yes, I was actually proud of them, too, and wanted recognition for them.  But on some level even at the time, I knew that they were just the game I could play.  They were the game I could win, the hoops I could jump through.

In an end-of-the-year Thespian troupe party my senior year of high school, we had a ritual where the whole troupe sat in a circle, and we were supposed to go around one by one, and use one word to describe each one of our classmates.

I forbade anyone to say I was smart.  I frakking knew that already, and getting told what you already knew wasn’t the point of the exercise.  I knew that ad nauseum.  Tell me anything else.  Prove you know me better than that.  Tell me that something about me matters to you.

People said it anyway.

(Our teacher, blessedly, did not.)

There’s also this thing that happens where, once someone has gotten the impression that I’m so intelligent, expects me to not have a soul, a conscience, a sense of fairness, or a heart, and winds up really confused and disappointed when I do.

Other people’s perception of my intelligence has been over-leveraged as a survival tactic and bargaining chip for autonomy and personhood, for me to really be able to treasure it much for myself anymore.


I value my physical beauty now, idiosyncratic though it may be.  I love finally feeling at home in my body and the way it moves.  That’s a wondrous thing to me.  I love being made to feel beautiful by someone who really means it about the way that I really am.

I like looking in the mirror and liking what I see.

And I won’t feel that it’s some kind of a betrayal of womanhood to actually value that about myself.  After so many years of having that ability discouraged and confounded in so many ways, I get to have that.


Just as valuation of a particular standard of beauty above all other female attributes both devalues girls who can’t meet that standard, and devalues everything else about girls who do…how is valuation of intelligence above any other personal attribute not likely to devalue girls who don’t meet some conventional, one-dimensional standard of that?

I wish we could just stop hacking people up into pieces that are valuable and not valuable, acceptable and not acceptable.

I fear that this trading valuation of physical beauty for intelligence, really just winds up telling some girls “You do not count in this way.  Your physical experience of the world and your sexuality aren’t really things that deserve to be taken into account, because you’re a brain, and that’s what matters about you.”


  1. hikatie s. said,

    I agree wholeheartedly. My mother, in particular, avoided ever complimenting me on my appearance – I think in reaction to that being a focus of her upbringing – and it’s still a tricky issue for me, being able to accept compliments about my appearance or maintaining confidence in that area. Conversely, while I did grow up confident that I was intelligent, it also made me kind of neurotic about any evidence that I wasn’t the cleverest/best at something – I wasn’t sure what else I was bringing to the table. It’s an awfully tricky balancing act, isn’t it?

  2. A Quiet Week said,

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    My parents considered it harmful to praise anything aside from independence and physical courage. My mother especially despised compliments on appearance. I don’t think I ever heard them call me pretty!

    Yet, I always knew about my intelligence. I was proud of it! Perhaps because my parent’s used it to justify why I never fit in–“Well, you are just too *smart* for them.” The problem is, as you so perfectly put it, once you devalue someone on one dimension, it opens up other avenues to tear people down.

    I enjoyed reading your post and finding balance and peace.

    Lori D.

  3. Amber said,

    I think there’s a few dimensions we routinely value kids on – intelligence, beauty, artistry and athleticism to name a few. And like you, I feel like intelligence was the main push for much of my adolescence. It didn’t allow me to appreciate any those other aspects of who I was. My guess is people who are superbly talented in any of those other ways also feel very compartmentalized into a particular area that doesn’t express their true self either.

    I took to heart the idea of suppressing other parts of me and the need for people to value only my brain, wearing baggy clothes to hide anything that would allow people to judge me in a physical way. Then, once in a blue moon, when I dressed up and my friends didn’t comment on my appearance (which I had taught them not to through previous actions and words), I was resentful that they didn’t think I was pretty. Oh the complexities of youth!

    All the “intelligence talk” just made me a very lopsided person. I think it took me until my late 20’s to realize any aspect of my physical beauty and to really love me. This is probably true of a lot of women (with all these oppressive messages we get), but even more so for those of us who were deemed smart.

  4. This is a very interesting topic. I thankfully haven’t spent that much time thinking about compartmentalized value judgements and how they relate to me- I remember being praised fairly equally across the board as a child and teenager….

    But I can see how an imbalance of value judgements in one category can really affect and effect a person…very nice food for thought!

  5. Eileen Gallagher said,

    I try to tell my daughter ALL the amazing things things a about her that I see. I also love to tell her stories of when I first noticed the traits in her, so some things are obvious like her beautiful eyes. But then others like her intellect were clear when she could shape sort by color and shapes at 6 months of age. While given opportunities to play succor, dance, gymnastics, all the typical kid stuff, my heart ached for her when she wasn’t popular during recess. However, through exposure to amazing gifted camps, she learned to Fence at age 10 and now at age 13, is fairly proficient. She can also swim like a fish, but does not like competitions. Fencing is equally strategic as it is is physical, and has given her so much personal pride to excel in a co-ed sport.

    My heart beams for her….she needed to find her own way. I am just grateful for such an amazing beautiful talented daughter, who is open to opportunities of life!

    I wish that you (as well as for myself) a much more balanced childhood. Although I strive to do this for my daughter, I am not without fault, but everyday is a chance to do better!

  6. Anonymous said,

    Oh hell yes. I had to get married (relatively late) to finally feel female and know that someone could love my body in addition to my brain. Until then, most guys I dated were too intimidated. Also, pink erector sets aren’t going to make any girls into an engineer if she wasn’t so inclined already.

    • Anonymous said,

      *girl, sorry

  7. sarah said,

    thank you. this is perfect.

  8. Sarideit said,

    FINALLY someone said it, I couldn’t articulate it

  9. J. Metaneira said,

    That is such a good point. People need to learn to appreciate traits without dehumanizing people for those traits. It’s something that seems to happen to gifted kids a lot – they’re seen as JUST brains/computers on legs, rather than people. It is just as harmful as being made to feel that the most important thing about you is your boobs, or butt, or having a small waist.

  10. Dani Alexis said,

    I also hated being told I was smart because the “compliment” was so often used as a bludgeon when I was limited by my various disabilities. “You’re smart, figure it out!” was a common refrain in my childhood when chronic pain or executive function failures or anxiety prevented me from doing so-called “basic tasks.”

    You can’t outsmart migraines, or autism, or PTSD. That’s not how it works. But my value for most of my life was predicated on my ability to do just that impossible task.

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