Praise Young Girls For Being 'Smart,' Not 'Pretty'
For a long time, whenever I pictured an engineer I automatically imagined a guy who looked something like Mark Zuckerberg. I never imagined an engineer could be someone who looks like me. There are likely many causes for my assumption, but perhaps the most influential is the way our society still socializes girls to choose and strive for being beautiful over being intelligent.
Girls who choose to pursue science are perpetually viewed as nerdy loners — as anti-social, undesirable, and uninteresting. These stereotypes are perpetuated by the gender norms at the heart of our societal expectations for girls, which are furthered by the media to which we're exposed while growing up.
Take, for example, my favorite TV show as a child: Scooby Doo. I now realize I internalized (and still struggle with) the many toxic messages about gender this show taught its viewers. Namely, the show dichotomized its two main female characters, Daphne and Velma. While Daphne is thin, passive, and attractive to the male characters, Velma is awkward, smart, and de-sexualized. Velma is often the butt of jokes, and while she almost always solves the mystery, her intelligence is generally unappreciated. Over and over again, the show asserts that being a Daphne is far preferable to being a Velma.
I took this message to heart. Scooby Doo wasn't the only show that reinforced this dichotomy, but I also never saw the media represent a smart girl being considered preferable to an attractive one — let alone recognize that one woman could be smart and attractive. The effect was clear every time a relative patted me on the head and said, "You’re really smart, Karla. Good for you!" I remember being disappointed, wishing they had told me I was pretty. Smart is only acceptable, it seemed to me, when coupled with mainstream beauty — and, even then, only barely.
And these attitudes have hardly abated over time. Even today, my little sister is teased for playing with legos and told she should play with barbies instead. She is clearly not naturally interested in playing with Barbies, yet at 5 years old she has asked me to buy her one. This is happening all over the world, to thousands of little girls whose interests and intellect are deemed "un-girly" and therefore unacceptable.
These stereotypes and restrictions have a real world effect beyond girls' self-conception and self-esteem. For example, when young girls are told they can't play with construction-based toys because they're "for boys," they're robbed of the opportunity to develop skills that may translate to an interest in STEM-related fields. Studies show that kids who grow up playing with construction toys (like Legos or Lincoln Logs) score better on spatial skills tests. Those who are interested in and who have developed these skills often go on to careers in fields like engineering — a field responsible for some of the biggest advances in our society. Yet, only 11% of engineers in the U.S. are women: Engineering really is a boy's club.
Our childhoods have incredible effects on our adult lives. Brains and beauty and business skills are not mutually exclusive, nor should they take precedence over one another and yet we still raise girls to believe they are and should. The pressure to choose beauty over intellect, and the belief that girls can’t have both, or that one is inferior to the other, is a significant reason women are underrepresented in important professional fields later on in life. Yet women have so much potential to contribute to male-dominated fields like engineering, and by excluding them from these fields, our society misses out.
More articles by Category: Feminism, Misogyny, Science and tech
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