Friday, November 16, 2007


I'm afraid, Bloggie-Land, that I am about to toot my own horn a little....

I am smart.

This is one of the most consistent and true aspects of my identity. While some days I don't feel especially pretty, I know I am not graceful or athletic, and sometimes my sense of humour falls flat, I know I can have faith in my intelligence. It would sting if someone were to call me ugly, but if (almost anyone- I have few limits!) called me stupid, I would have the confidence to laugh in their face.

I think this is in part the stuff of family myths. Ever since I apparently spoke and read at a very young age, I have been preened as the "smart" one. I have generally played into my role pretty well, from voraciously devouring novels at a young age (and proudly wearing my Snoopy "I love reading" shirt), to now, as a PhD student in a family that has done well while eschewing university degrees.

However, it is funny how, while intelligence is put forth as one of the most positive values in our society, it seems to be all tied up in a whack of other negative stereotypes. A few have come to mind for me while reflecting on growing up as a "smart girl".

1. Smart girls aren't pretty.
While, granted, I did go through a year of my life with the genuinely hideous one-side-of-my-hair-is-much-longer-than-the-other cut, and my eyebrows, when unplucked, may bear a striking resemblence to something of the catepillar variety, I can pull myself together pretty well. However, it appears that me in makeup is somehow incompatible with me with brains.

I think this one was probably the earliest to show up, and may have been out of a direct contrast made between my younger sister and I. Despite the fact that we are often mistaken for twins, and she was usually on the Honour Roll, my early penchance for books and hers for pink dresses was sufficient for us to be placed in out own little boxes for the bulk of our childhood and adolescence. I was the smart one, she was the pretty one, and this predetermined what conversations people would try to engage us in. It is probably an entire post onto itself the extent and consequences of this, and I often wonder if it played a role in my sister's decision not to go to university, despite undoubtedly having the skills (and even some scholarship cash) to do so. It certainly didn't do wonders for my self-esteem at times.

There is also the flip side of this. This summer, while away at the grad student institute, over dinner, a man asked me and some girl friends about our experiences of having been approached at conference not due to the quality of our poster or talk, but due to our appearance. I knew he meant it as some sort of an offhanded complement, but it burned like an insult. Underlying it was the notion that we would not be recognized for our accomplishments because we happened to be good-looking, or, even worse, that some people would assumed that's where our recognition came from-- despite the fact that acceptance at grad school, for conference presentations and to journals is not accompanied by a bikini shot.

2. Smart girls don't have friends and don't have fun.
This was another spin-off of the "contrasted sister" effect, whereby despite the fact that I was reasonably popular and socially involved while in high school, it was assumed that my sister was the real social one, and, behind it all, I had loner-ish tendencies.

What really stuck out for me was how people couldn't conceive as my social persona and my school persona as equally a part of me. People who knew me socially couldn't imagine me hitting the books, while people who knew me through classes where shocked to see me cut loose at a party. Even now, people have told me that they are a little in awe of my ability to balance these two seemingly opposing abilities.

3. Smart girls don't have to work hard.
This represents a huge pet peeve of mine. Yes, I'm smart, and tend to grasp things reasonably well the first time 'round. But to blame where I am today on some sort of luck of the genetic draw is pretty insulting. For instance, I didn't merely spew out my Masters thesis over coffee one morning. I worked literally from when I woke up in the morning (starting running stats over coffee in my PJs) until I went to bed at around 3 in the morning, sometimes not leaving my apartment for days at a time during the final stretch.
Ambition and intelligence are not the same thing.

4. Boys don't like smart girls.
This one is my most recent struggle. I believed for a while that, sure, boys may like smart girls on paper-- no one overtly claims to want stupid-- but they often don't like what a smart girlfriend entails, including wanting to do "smart" things, possibly having more knowledge on a particular topic, or, heaven forbid, having educated opinions on issues. I'd actually been told by the Ex that my intelligence was a negative when discussing an issue with him-- as though it was somehow playing dirty by bringing up knowledge he didn't have. Especially in front of others.

Unfortunately, I'm not too good at playing dumb.

And I started wondering if this was actually to my disadvantage.

Thankfully, this stereotype was disconfirmed by what remains one of the best complements I've ever received by the Duke, while we were still just friends, when he said that I was sexy when I talked confidently about the topics I knew well.

(Hence why we are a match in geek heaven.)


Airam said...

For some reason I think that people are threatened by intelligence, especially when it comes from a woman. And then on top of being intelligent, you're pretty??? Well call the authorities on that one! I didn't tell very many people at my work that I was pursuing a masters part time. Part of me didn't do it because I didn't want people to think I was boasting. And when it did come up (they were always wondering why I always had to go to class), I had reactions of "really??? you are??" to "oh wow that's so good, I've always wanted to do that ... [and then justifying why they didn't]" to what I perceive as being threatened by me getting the degree.

Anyways, I don't even know where I'm going with this comment. It's just stupid that there are so many stereotypes when it comes to intelligence.

Z said...

My first post! So - HI!

Just some thoughts... I, too, was the "smart one" of two sisters (my sister also being the "pretty one") despite us looking fairly similar (also could be mistaken for twins, especially since I'm older but shorter) and despite the fact that she also got good grades. I, too, am the one pursuing an advanced degree (though she did go to college and is thinking of going back for a masters) while she pursued, well, boys.

Just wanted to say your thoughts and memories are very similar to what I've experienced. But... My husband loves the fact that I am smart (and, incidentally, do better than him on tests...) The friends I've made since highschool appreciate me both for my random knowledge of useless trivia AND for my ability to be the one to finish off the pitcher of maragaritas... And? Overall, I'd rather be known as smart than pretty. But I think I am both, and I like that even better.

And now, I've lost the point of this. Basically just wanted to say your post struck a cord with me...

Miriam said...

I used to be the smart and pretty one. Now I'm just kind of smart and cute. It's stings to be downgraded to cute.

Miriam D said...

As an intelligent woman (not afraid to say it either) who works in a male-dominated field, I agree with you 100% on this post. Especially on the last one (Boys Don't Like Smart Girls). I've discovered that men are merely intimidated by an intelligent woman. It's all about control - and if the girl is smarter, men discover it is harder to have control.

Intelligence has also been the one consistent aspect of my personality and what others perceive of me. I sympathize with you on having to deal with these awful stereotypes. said...

I've also always been considered intelligent, and I acknowledge & agree to this - but, like you said, it still takes (massive, sometimes excruciating) amounts of work! Intelligence is just a springboard. As for intelligence being intimidating to the opposite sex... I think you just need to find the right guy - the one who admires & complements your intelligence =)

I was lucky enough to find such a man in my husband - we love to discuss things & are basically on the same level of intelligence, though our strengths manifest themselves differently - it keeps things interesting & stimulating!

p.s. I found your blog through 20SB & I just started reading; I'm really looking forward to it! said...

whoops should have read more carefully - seems you have indeed found "that" guy - congrats!

distracted spunk said...

Points! Were you ever on a debate team?

And I can identify with this very well. Actually, it was a little funny. I went a school for the performing arts where I danced, but people thought I wrote. Then I went to a high school for the humanities where I wrote, but people thought I danced. Something about the way I look, I guess.

I haven't run into the "You're pretty AND smart?" downer too often - I think most people are usually too distracted by my quirks to concern their small heads about that quandary. "Wait, you did what?!" tends to overrule any sort of conflicting theorems such as the pretty and smart one.

But hey. GDB seems to like me the way I am. And he's not one to hold back from telling me how pretty and intelligent I am, and how much of a turnon it is that we can banter and debate and yadda yadda yadda.

I still think it's just because he's so blinded by all my distractions.

brookem said...

the stereotypes you mention are so spot on. and i love this line: "ambition and intelligence are not the same thing." LOVE it.

i hear what you're saying so well. i dont know why it is that so many women seem... almost bashful about their intelligence. it's like we have been conditioned to be that way. similarly to airam, i didnt used to talk too much about how i was pursuing a masters degree. it's still something i hardly mention. and the thing is, i know it's a significant thing, the fact that i got it at a young age and all... it's just... something i hardly talk about. and i dont know what's behind all that, you know?

Lisa said...

People who don't know me (sometimes even those who do) tend to assume I'm not smart. It's probably because I'm pretty. Haha. I kid! I was always in the honors section but I never really ranked, because honestly, I never cared about the grades. Everyone was surprised I had the highest IQ in the class. I probably should have been insulted, but it was just too damn funny.

I'm intelligent, well-read, and creative. Those are the things that define me. I figure if people don't see that just because I enjoy the occasional crass joke or two, it's really their loss, not mine.

My man likes smart girls just fine. ;) Haha. I love that you and the Duke are a match made in geek heaven. I feel the same way about me and J.

P.S. Can you tell how much I love this post? :)

NamesAreHardToPick said...

You're not "tooting" your own horn, you are very intelligent. Anyway, I love the generalizations that people have of intelligence - trust me, it works the same for men as well. The truth is that you can use those to your advantage throwing people off when you're intelligent and beautiful. As far as men not liking intelligent women, trust me, there are a lot of us that do. I wouldn't want to date an idiot. There could never be a connection.

QueenBee said...

I think of all the things I could respect about someone, and of all the things that could make me lose respect for someone, it is their intelligence. If they are dumb, they don't have an ice cube's chance in hell with me, and if they are smart, that makes them all the more sexy to me.
And I respect you. You're one of the smartest people I know, and that's why I heart you and your blog so much, because you're not ashamed of it, you don't try to hide it. You're just all around freaking cool! ;-)

blogging said...


yes, you are indeed a smart girl. ;)

kidding. i loved this post, so dead on. have a great weekend (and of course i like you, silly!!)

xo, BLOGGING barbie

the frog princess said...

I was always the smart girl in high school, but few people thought I was pretty.

Now people think I'm pretty and I make damned sure they know there's a brain to go with it!

I also think #4 is dead on the money. The Duke is an exception to the rule... Let's hope there are a few more exceptions floating around out there, it sounds like the hot-and-intelligent ladies of blogland need a hand! :)

Princess of the Universe said...

For the most part, I am a quivering little pile of no-confidence.

However, I do know that I am smart. To the point that I am not afraid of asking things for fear of looking dumb. That is something that so many people do- NOT ask questions. I'm not sumb, therefore it doesn't bother me.

However sometimes, I wish that I was known as the "cute & fun" friend - not the smart responsible one...

Princess of the Universe said...

That would be not "dumb."

eric1313 said...

You're standing on my neck...

Remember that show Daria? I always thought Daria was way hotter than her sister, despite the fact that they were animated. And it was her intelligence, smart-assed snarkability and, oh, get this, self deprecating humor that made her awesome.

On paper or in the flesh, smart women rule. Why? Because I can't stand being right all the time! I know that sounds bad, but really, it's not. I just happen to like somebody who challenges me to become better than I am. I like someone who can tell me a story or two and hold my attention with ideas--as well as with all the rest.

I don't even mind being wrong in public! At the very least, it's a comic relief opportunity to me.

Smart women have the power to make me a far more powerful nerd than I already am. Smart women also tend to like poetry, or at least, they humor my poetic bent. And I like that, either way!

Congrats to you and the Duke for finding each other. It might be the only heaven there is--to find a person who finds it sexy when we are only being ourselves.

Ashley said...

I was always on the opposite end of this, my brother being the brains who is fluent in 3 languages and i can barely even master english (ha ha i kid, somewhat)but i was always considered the looker even though I don't always agree. But i've never considered myself stupid, or even remotely unintelligent (7 years of college will either deflate your ego in regards to intelligence or inflate, and i'm afraid its inflated mine haha)

In regards to the opposite sex I think what it comes down to is that you have to find someone that is on your level emotionally, physically and intelligently because as you found out with your ex, and I found out with mine (seriously, we were seperated at birth) they will use it against you if you happen to be smarter than they are. So glad you found your match :-) Hopefully i find mine as well!

Those little letters though question my ability at intelligence because it always takes me several tries to get it right.

Ant said...

Had to come back to this post twice to consider my views on it, and I think these are them:

You seem to be talking about intellectual intelligence, but there are other types - social, emotional, shrewdness.

I'm attracted to smart women, but the smartness kind of has to encompass all these aspects. I'm not sure the battle-lines are clearly drawn down the "pretty vs. smart" camp, because I maintain that if someone is really smart, then they're smart enough to know how to make themselves look and act sexy (goes for both men and women...)

So in the case of the conference situation, I have to admit my tail goes right up if there's a sassy girl there. a) because they're very rare in my field and b) because she is ticking all the intelligence boxes (emotional: knows how to present herself in a sexy way; intellectual: she's at a conference discussing academic stuff).

Plus, there's something to be said for the art of communication, part of which is made up of appearance and presentation. I will try not to reject someone's work just because they're not presenting it well, but I get the feeling that a lot of great stuff is lost to the world simply because the average borderline-autistic academic doesn't know how to communicate it...

(Phew. Another long comment... sorry!)

Abbey said...

I think the last point gets me the most. Men almost always say they love smart women, but in the end always opt for the pretty dumb one. It's the 'smart on paper' issue you mentioned. Very often when I'm out in the bar scene, I avoid at all costs telling anyone I'm this close to a Phd. Instead, I just say "I'm a student" and let them assume I'm really this old and just can't finish my degree (basically allowing them to assume I'm not bright). Interestingly, Youngin just called me this week to say he thinks I'm smart. Just sort of out of the blue. He loves that I can listen to his area of research, figure out the issues, and explain it simply faster than anyone else that actually does what he does. Oh, and he also mentioned that he likes that I'm smart because I argue logically instead of emotionally for a woman. We'll just pretend ignore the sexist part of that statement. :) So for Youngin, I think a dumb woman would probably get pretty bored with his shop-talk and he'd get bored having to talk irrational emotions all the time. Thankfully for him, I'm relatively pretty as well.

Gary said...

Really enjoy your blog. My 17 year old daughter is smart. 97% average in Grade 12 smart, and is an accomplished pianist/singer and dancer. And works for WarChild and Amnesty.

She thinks she is hitting some walls that are stereotyping her. I just might show her your ruminations.

Now if I could only find that damn neologism!

(Found you via Beth)

Yoda said...

I have a serious weakness for smart women. Smart not only "street" smart, but also well read and educated. Needless to say, most of my relationships have been with women like that.

I would do ANYTHING to have more women in my field of work. Its so hopelessly out of balance. If only someone had told me that CS is this way ... :-(

libby said...

5. smart girls become a target because others are jealous and threatened.

even if you are perfectly nice.

not that i speak from experience, or anything.

Crashdummie said...

u know what, I have been called being to smart for my own good... what does that mean?

I mean I never correct others or look down on other ppl - just hate it when ppl think they are better off than others... but it was more when it came to being streetsmart, educated & witt i thing..

so glad to hear that there still are ppl who can handle smart individual and dont feel threatened by them.

Lord Chimmy said...

Is there a singular definition for intelligence yet?

Anyway, I know a lot of women think men are intimidated by intelligent women because it robs us of our "desire to dominate." However, I don't know any men who dislike smart girls. I'm certainly not intimidated or overwhelmed by brainy women. But, I'm not insecure either. Perhaps insecure men want less intelligent women...

But, regardless, intelligence is never a detriment. Unless, of course, you feel like you don't have anything left to learn.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I like intelligent women.

Nothing like a woman who can play you at your own game in intelligent debate.

And confident with it.
Very erotic.

Mrs4444 said...

Don't forget your most obvious talent; writing. Smart or beautiful, being able to reach others through your writing is a gift. Thanks for sharing it.

Hope said...

I loved this point! I have the exact same relationship not with my sister but with a very close family friend.

Growing up, she was always the pretty, popular one.

I was the bookish with no interpersonal skills one.

My problem with that is that I always feel that intelligence is not given as much value as attractiveness in our society.

I can also relate with waking up and running stats while still in your pj's. SPSS, how much do I hate you?! ;)

brandy said...

What a great topic! I found myself nodding along to many of your points. I think the one that stuck with me is the idea that a smart girl can be smart and have friends. While I graduated university, my brother only finished highschool. Though he's incredibly smart, he never wanted to continue. He is happy working and spending all his time with friends. I went to university and now am able to spend time with friends while working as a teacher, but because I'm now viewed as the 'smarter' one because I went to university, my brother is now the 'social' one. Though, I'm pretty sure we would score similar on IQ tests, and dedicate the same amount of time to our social lives. It's funny what people see and what they ignore.

Jamie said...

Spot on with all these points. I also have to agree with the point Libby made in a comment!

bigrig said...

I am so smart. S-M-R-T!

I like smart women, but though I'm somewhat college-educated and working professionally in print journalism, I kind of feel like a goofball around smart women, especially those already owning or pursuing advanced degrees.

Simpsons fan, I'm guessing?

Jocelyn said...

You ARE smart. One look at this blog reveals that.

I was "smart," too--but then I had kids and turned 40 and stuff, and now I'll never have that easy assurance about my own intelligence again. I feel like Some days, I'm lucky to get the key in the ignition and figure out how to turn it.

Princess Extraordinaire said...

I loved this post becasue of it's mythical yet stereotypical elements. All of your points are so cliche' but true in a world too unintelligent to exist properly. I, too, am considered the smart one in my family, however, I broke through some of the bold barriers that society has put up for those of us who can read and write without trouble - keep on being smart rock!

Eve said...

I think people are generally very selfish and self-involved. Hanging out with someone smarter threatens their perceived intelligence. How many people think they are below average or average when it comes to anything?

And the Ex said your intelligence was a negative? Good riddance!

Eve said...

Also, something else this reminds me of.

I was talking to my mom about this, and she, a smart and ambitious woman herself, doesn't use big words. I asked her about it, and she said she thinks it alienates people and makes her message less accessible. Not dumbing down exactly, but giving herself a broader appeal.

Michelle said...

i hate these stereotypes. i fell into the same category for most of my life and while it was more acceptable in college to be smart, it definitely wasn't in high school. but now i find guys are intrigued by us smart girls :)

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

You're smart?

Go hang out in the library, bookworm!


benjibopper said...

so funny how our identities get shaped by these frames. are you familiar with narrative therapy? my wife is studying it some through her work and is loving it, the empowering idea that you can re-shape the negative sides of your identity.

Lisa said...

how did I miss this one! i also am smart, and i think i defy all the smart girl stereotypes too!