Pretty or brainy: a false dichotomy

Pretty or brainy: a false dichotomy

Pretty or brainy: a false dichotomy
There is this “theory” that is much bandied about in pretty much every elite educational institution with a skewed gender ratio. It goes ‘beauty times brains equal a constant’. The origin of this theory has mainly to do with the frustrations of men in such institutions, who have ‘sacrificed’ prime years of their teens to get to the institute, only to find that they are now too socially awkward in order to find dateable women.

And so, like the fox in the famous sour grapes fable, they console themselves that they aren’t able to court not because they’re incapable of finding dates, but because the women around them are not worth dating. Irrespective of how the (few) women in their institutes look, they console themselves with ‘the women are not beautiful’, and given that the women are intelligent (else they couldn’t make it to elite educational institutions), the aforementioned theory gets propagated. 

While the origins of this theory lie mostly in such elite educational institutions, it has transcended their walls, and now, pretty much any hormonal teenager will be able to parrot out the statement. While adults may not state the theory in as many words, the stereotype is rather deep-rooted, and people somehow assume that beautiful people are not intelligent, and vice versa. 

It all starts when a girl is 11 or 12 years-old, when she starts receiving attention for her good looks, and is made to believe that she is beautiful. Children thus recognised then have an incentive to invest time and effort in furthering their beauty, and they put in more effort in grooming themselves. The unfortunate ones who are denied such appreciation in their pre-teens, choose other pursuits to gain social acceptance, from academics to sport to art to whatever else.

So the paths diverge, with one path leading down the pursuit of more beauty, receiving attention from peers (and social comfort), and the other in the pursuit of other (‘brainy’) activities requiring much perseverance and focus, which sometimes come at the cost of enhanced beauty and social skills. This makes the stereotype self-reinforcing, for those that have invested in furthering their brain development have neglected their beauty development, and vice versa. 

The media and entertainment industry also does little to damp such stereotypes. A common storyline in American ‘chick flicks’, for example, involves two girls – a good-looking blonde who is the popular head cheerleader, and a ‘plain Jane’ with lower perceived beauty and poor social skills, but who is otherwise talented and almost always has a better SAT score. Inevitably in such movies, it is the plain Jane that ‘gets the guy’, perhaps as a reassurance to the large proportion of the intended audience who are unlikely to be classified as being ‘exceptionally beautiful.’ Interestingly, these movies very rarely have women who are both beautiful and otherwise talented, further corroborating the stereotype of beauty and intelligence being complementary.

One’s not enough
While beauty, or intelligence, alone can help sustain one’s social life in teenage, the limits of pursuing one at the cost of the other are quickly exposed in adulthood, for women realise that neither attribute can take them too far in the absence of the other. Among adult women, you can imagine a spectrum with a handful of naturally beautiful women at one end and not-so beautiful women at the other, with the large majority in between possessing about average natural beauty, but who possess tremendous potential to acquire beauty.

At this age, while intelligent women still have a chance to become beautiful by improving their fitness levels, sense of dressing and style, women who have primarily relied on beauty to get by have little opportunity to become intelligent because unfortunately, they are well past the peak age of their brain development. This ability to “acquire” beauty, even if not in the classical ‘natural’ sense, has led to the upsurge of this newfound ‘species’ of women destroying any myths of beauty and intelligence being complementary traits. 

With greater encouragement for women’s education and employment the world over, women now have greater disposable income to invest in acquired beauty (makeup, clothes, personal trainer etc).

Not just the fairer sex
At this juncture however, it must be mentioned that women aren’t the only victims of flawed stereotyping (of beauty and intelligence being complementary). About a decade ago, there was a popular reality show on television called Beauty and the Geek, which was a social experiment that brought together 10 beautiful women and 10 geeky men under one roof. While the show depicted beauty as the ability to look good and survive with an IQ of below 50, the audience was made to perceive geeks as intelligent and socially awkward people lacking any form of beauty. Surely, geeks tend to have esoteric interests that not too many people share, which makes social adaptability especially difficult. However, this has nothing to do with beauty. 

Unfortunately, having their social skills challenged, men on the reality show failed to charm these women who had cared about little else but beauty all their lives. This helped glorify the myth the show was trying to sell – that geeky or intelligent men are not beautiful. As a recent article in Aeon magazine described, stereotyping is not an incorrigible mistake – since it allows us to make the best guess in the absence of other information. 

From this perspective, the popularity of the ‘beauty X brains = constant’ myth means that we will always approach beautiful people with the prior information that they are not intelligent. The important thing, however, is not to be too rigid with these prior beliefs, and to be willing to update them in the face of new information.

At the societal level, though, we still have the onus of instilling clear ideas in children, and to try our level best to ensure that stereotypes such as the above don’t get ingrained in them. In this direction, it is notable that toy companies such as Mattel have released fashionable Barbie dolls emulating modern day professions of intelligent women rather than confining young girls to their kitchen-set Barbies!
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