Image is as powerful as it is superficial.
It has been my experience that there are numerous unwritten rules about being a woman. Some of them are as follows: if you’re an unattractive woman (according to our cultural standards) and you’re complaining about the pressure society puts on women to be beautiful, it’s because you’re bitter or angry or jealous that you aren’t. If however, you happen to be an attractive woman (again, according to our cultural standards) and want to speak out against the objectification of women, then you don’t have a right to, or are quickly discredited for one of two reasons: either you’re a hypocrite – you can’t wear makeup and look sexy while spouting admonitions about how the pressure to be beautiful is harmful; or, you’re probably not smart enough to form a constructive, insightful opinion because generally speaking, beautiful or hot women are shallow or ditzy or both, and aren’t really taken seriously.
I have the good fortune of being moderately attractive according to current U.S. cultural standards. I’m not of the model thin and tall variety but rather the short, curvy, mildly exotic looking variety. I recognize that, by no fault of my own and simply by way of a genetic lottery, I have benefitted in innumerable ways from my appearance. I’ve been given many opportunities and eluded punishment more times than I can count, based upon characteristics that I have very little, if any, control over. That said, as much as there are benefits to being attractive in today’s society, there is, perhaps surprisingly, a very real downside.
Based upon the same characteristics that grant me favoritism in some circles, I’ve experienced both discrimination and sexism, and a myriad of less serious but equally difficult social consequences and realities. People don’t generally expect much more than a pleasing appearance from someone who’s attractive and this can be frustrating – especially when they say so. Although it is potentially meant as a compliment, “I didn’t expect you would be so smart,” never is. Once, in an undergraduate meeting with a male advisor to discuss PhD programs, I was asked repeatedly whether or not I realized how difficult earning one was, and was told my marriage would likely end in divorce by the time I finished, if I decided to attempt.
The less serious, but equally disappointing social realities are difficult as well. Nice, down to earth guys – the only type of guy I’m interested in – never – ok, very rarely ever approach me. There is the relatively common plight of attractive individuals and their sometimes-debilitating sense of insecurity. The reason for this is as follows: when an individual is given external praise for years and years regarding something as superficial as physical beauty, the implicit message is that this is where your worth lies. Pair that with the fact that there will always be someone prettier or more beautiful than you, and you have a significant hit to your sense of self worth. Making friends or engaging in social situations with women I don’t know is many times difficult, as a result of an often present but quite implicit sense of competition. And finally, I’ve have been told that I was assumed to be stuck up or shallow more times than I can count and therefore often feel a pressing need to have to prove myself against the potential negative judgments of strangers right from the start.
For years I’ve thought about creating and wearing a t-shirt that would dispel the potential negative stereotypes people might place upon me as I walk into a room. It would list “credentials” I have in spite of, or, supplemental to my appearance and might include:
- Voted most humorous in the 8th grade
- BA, Political science
- MA, International Security
- PhD student, Psychology
- Love to hike
- Despite appearances, NOT high-maintenance
- NOT shallow
- NOT judgmental
- Does not like to shop
- In therapy, working on self
- Great cook
- Types 60 wpm
- Loves to eat
- Loves to dance
- Has one best friend, Sara Sydnes
- Hangs out with family constantly
- Plays guitar and piano
- Loves good music
- Loves terrible music
You get the idea. The production and display of this t-shirt would be an attempt to have people read it, and then judge me based on qualities other than my appearance – qualities I have some modicum of control over and those parts of myself that I’ve worked hard to develop. In the end however, I’ve never made it. In part, because I fear being deemed self-absorbed which is almost as bad as being deemed a shallow ditz. The other reason is that at the most basic level, I don’t feel the need to try to change the way others see me, or what they think about me. Other than how incredibly irritating the misjudgments can be, they haven’t affected me to a large degree. They haven’t stopped me from pursuing what I’m interested in, accomplishing what I want to, or continuing to become the person I’d like to be.
It does seem ironic to me however, that the further I progress towards my educational and personal goals, the more evident my experiences with sexism become. Perhaps it’s because despite the fact that I’m working so hard on defining myself from the inside out, I continue to be defined from the outside based upon the most superficial things about me. I’m a couple years away from obtaining the highest educational degree one can earn yet I will continue to be referred to as “chick” or “gurrrl” much more than I’d like to be. I think this entire reality speaks to the insidious nature of how and why women are still very much the second sex and how, systemic confines of sexism and racism are still very salient features of our culture and the daily lives of many individuals.
We humans are incredibly adept at mentalizing – imputing emotional states, thoughts, beliefs and goals onto other individuals. We infer information and make judgments about them based on observable traits. The truth is, people get to judge us however they’d like and no, it isn’t all bad. Assessing someone based on appearances is a part of human nature, and to some extent, a product of evolution. The problem is, we’re wired for this and we’re decent at it when dealing with the basics – say, feeling empathy when someone is crying, but our skills in this area rapidly deteriorate when we try to infer intention and character. This phenomenon lies somewhere near the heart of sexism, racism and any form of discrimination.
And so, I’ve come to realize four things. First, anyone who makes judgments about another person without hard and fast and first hand evidence is saying much more about themselves than the person they’re judging. This is serious business and although I think most of us know it cognitively, we most likely don’t fully embrace its reality. Second, I know that there are many people who aren’t judging others or me in a negative way and are trying their best to rely on knowing a person and assuming the best before judging them. Third, regardless of how many times I’ve been told that someone thought I was shallow before they got to know me, the fact is that every time I assume someone might be judging me, I’m being as destructive to the potential relationship and connection as the alleged negative judgments. And finally, I realize that my taking a relatively passive stance against those who do choose to judge me based on external characteristics is a luxury many cannot afford.
In the same way I benefit from, and am judged upon the way I look, others pay a much higher price for the way they look – the wildly disproportionate police stops of young black men to those of young white men and the ratio of black to white in terms of incarceration both come to mind. And so, despite the fact that I don’t feel it my duty to expend energy to facilitate change in the way others think or feel about me, I do feel it’s my responsibility to expend energy towards recognizing when I’m contributing to it via my thoughts and interactions with others and to stop.
I’m thankful to live in an age when as a single mother of mixed race I can attend graduate school, pursue any degree I’d like, and be respected by most whilst doing it. I’m also thankful that the unstated rules placed upon women by society don’t affect me in as serious a manner as they would have even 20 years ago. And although there is more to be done in terms of gender equality, I see now, that for me, as a woman, the biggest issue is how I see myself, not how others see me. But that fight hasn’t been won for many and I think part of that battle is inside each of us as we let go of our almost innate need to judge what we don’t understand, stop imputing false judgments on others based on superficial characteristics, and begin to view others through a paradigm of love and acceptance.
“In the aggregate, man is a statistical certainty. But the individual is an insoluble puzzle. “