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Well-thought article!

I always thought that "either-OR" things never work out, compared to "both-AND".

Haha, that's very funny. If it's sensitive enough that you must erase the most relevant comments about this issue, I am afraid that you should probably better erase the whole posting because otherwise I am tempted to write about this important issue again on a safer and more visible place. ;-)

Uh oh, Dr. Motl is being controversial. I never would have expected that.

Meanwhile, I think there is a "natural beauty" femininity that no amount of jujitsu can take away and no amount of makeup can enhance. If the goal of such high-maintenance dress-up is only to symbolize social status (and not necessarily to impress the opposite sex or feel attractive oneself), then maybe the goal itself is too superficial to be defined in such deep terms as "femininity".

Okay, I'll admit, when I first went to the site after reading Phil's blog, my kneejerk reaction was to be smug and look down on the "shallowness" portrayed in the pictures and "girly" bios. But I immediately said, "Whoa, geez what's the matter with me?" And I realized that guys, "average guys" have the same insecurities as girls do, though it manifests in a certain way. We are terrified of good looking women because it brings back those same high school insecurities where the prom queen would have nothing to do with us. And we managed to justify it in our heads by telling ourselves that she was stupid and probably a horrible person. So I think seeing women who are both "teh hawt" AND smart intimidates the crap out of us because it tears apart our false dichotomy. "No, this isn't how it's supposed to work. I'm supposed to be BETTER than her because all she has is looks. But if she's good looking AND smart then she is completely JUSTIFIED in wanting nothing to do with me." And that kills us. It's stupid and immature, but then, so are guys.

Thanks to FFFearless for the comment above, which could explain some of what I've experienced in my life. As a blogger who's chosen the moniker "sciencegeekgirl" I could hardly keep from expression some deep opinions on this post. I've written in some depth in a post on my site (see link) named after my bumper sticker, "Flirt Harder I'm a Physicist." Here's the crux of the issue for me as it pertains to Jen's post:

Guys (of course, I surround myself with nerdy guys) are generally not dismayed to find out the “smart + sexy” equation applies to me — there’s generally this sort of “hey cool, that’s hot” look that passes over their face. But one thing that strikes me is that my smartness seems to play second fiddle. I can’t think of a single time when a man has looked deeply into my eyes and said breathlessly, “Stephanie, you’re so smart!” But they do tell me I'm beautiful. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart *they* are. Why this seeming double standard, even among men who value the fact that I’m smart? I’m with Phil Plait on this one — how can we expect ourselves to “rise above” millions of years of evolution? Men are attracted to me for the traits that we’ve been bred to be attracted to — those which signify fertility and health. You know, big hips, rosy lips, symmetric facial features, etc. I’m attracted to them because it seems they can outsmart the antelope. We’ve got these big ponderous brains that let us think about the nature of consciousness, the universe, and gender differences. But that doesn’t mean those brains can completely override those gender differences, even if we’re aware of them. We should be easy on ourselves.

The unfortunate result is that I’m much more confident of my looks than my brains. I accept compliments about my appearance much more gracefully than those about my smarts, where I tend to minimize, “Oh, I don’t really know physics that much.”

I’ve seen this too, this “girly stuff is demeaning” attitude. It bothers me. A lot. Because “boyish” stuff, like trains and hunting and barbeques, don't have that same negative connotation. To me, the embarrassment we’ve got about girly stuff has to do with our negative attitudes towards women. Period. We think that handbags and high-heels don’t belong in a textbook (or anywhere serious) because they’re related to women, and we don’t value women. I don't usually state such strong opinions, but there it is!

(((I can’t think of a single time when a man has looked deeply into my eyes and said breathlessly, “Stephanie, you’re so smart!” But they do tell me I'm beautiful. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart *they* are. )))

And the real irony is, deep down that's really all THEY'RE dying to hear from YOU! Well, maybe not ALL they're dying to hear, but as a man it makes our day a lot more when a woman comments on our attractiveness more than if they told us we made a great catch in the lab.

Thank you. I'll be using that point about insecurities and venom and judgmentalism for years to come.

(Speaking of biases, I love how even when Motl is saying something textually inoffensive, my knee jerk reaction is to seek him out and destroy him.)

And reposting my comment to FFFearless from over at *my* blog:

And to FFFearless… You know, your comment reminds me of something. I *do* tend to compliment men on their looks a lot (I’m just a complimentary person), and *their* reaction to my compliments on their looks is often very similar to *my* reaction to compliments on my smarts. Embarrassed, a little shy, not sure how to deal with it. Minimizing it.

Both behaviors, of course, are pretty indicative of hearing something we want to hear. :-)

I greatly appreicate this article. For one I also was the girl who grew up thinking that I could only be smart and my looks were never going to impress anyone. While I thought I was ok with the idea of being the "smart girl", it eventually took it's toll on my self esteem and as a young adult I have had to deal with my short comings and learn to think of myself as a complete individual. It's almost funny to me now becaue many guys have said they thought I was hot in high school but I was intimidating to talk to because I was so smart. I think that being smart intimidates lots of men. Smart and that kills them. I think more women need to encourage young girls that they can have it all. We can know random sports facts, discuss Einstein's theories, and still love to go shopping. More people need to realize that this is a battle and not just a trivial matter.

I think that maybe "femininity/masculinity" is less a matter of how you're built, but rather of how you act. We all know the stereotypes like the Governor's "girly-men", and "lady wrestlers".

I've been reading Sarah Flannery's In Code: A Mathematical Journey

She's an Irish teenager who came up with an improvement to the RSA encryption algorithm and won Ireland's 1999 Young Scientist of the Year award.

The book talks about her and her family, and how she grew up with mathematics. (One moral seems to be: choose your parents wisely.)

And what do you do if you are butt-ugly and stupid (regardless of gender)? After all, a lot of people are.

Maybe work on your personality? :) Can't solve all the world's social problems in a single post, after all...

Stephanie Chasteen wrote:

"I’ve seen this too, this “girly stuff is demeaning” attitude. It bothers me. A lot. Because “boyish” stuff, like trains and hunting and barbeques, don't have that same negative connotation."

This drives me crazy, too. I am a typical guy in that I love sports, to watch and to play. I can't stand it when guys demean a woman for watching reality TV or a soap opera or a talk show. I ask them if they think whether or not Tom Brady beats Peyton Manning this year is any more important than whether Amber has the smarts to not get voted off the island. Seriously, what's the difference? Which is more important? The answer is that for a million large and small reasons we value our voyeuristic leisure time and we each have our reasons.

I am posting over at NerdGirls because regardless of how you feel about the issue, it's an important debate to have--how are girls supposed to feel about their place in the world as Nerds, as Sexual beings, as people? I don't know, but I'm raising a smart, beautiful, nerd girl right now. She's 9, and she loves, loves, loves babies, fairy princesses, pink, rainbows, ponies, astronomy and medicine. For her 9th birthday we gave her a wickedly cool poster from the Adler Planetarium detailing the coolest science about each of the planets in the Solar System and also a party at the American Girl store where she and a friend spent several hours having tea and buying cute accessories for their dolls. At the end of the day as she lay in bed she told me it was a "beautiful day, my best birthday ever." I can't imagine a world where she isn't a girly girl *and* a science geek. In fact, that world doesn't exist, she *is* those things at the same time.

I grew up "SMART", caring about my appearance, liking girly things AND boyish things. Children will explore their gender identity - like my friend's 5 year old son who is curious about dressing up in a tutu and my daughter who wants to wear her brother's clothes one day and a princess costume another. I learned as a 13 year old Amer-Asian girl dying my hair blonde (which turned out orange) to look like Madonna was a need to explore how I felt about not being the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed girl-next-door (literally) and a way to accept my Asian heritage among mostly Caucasian peers. This was all while doing independent studies in math 2 grade levels above my peers. A valuable lesson for me (THANK YOU MOM!)

Let girls discover who they are without judging them. Let girls explore their intelligence while exploring their femininity. We can't make assumptions as to what it means from their perspective - then we're proposing we are all-knowing, and we aren't are we? You can't discount the psychological process of exploring one's appearance as part of exploring one's personality and identity.
Do the people who criticized the exploration of femininity have children? Because there is a great lesson in raising kids: Some things are innate.
There are groups of people everywhere who are happy and confident with who they are and want to tell about it. GREAT! If we have a problem with that, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and ask, "What is it about me that elicits the need to focus energy on criticizing others' confidence and choices in appearance?"
I understand that makeup, nice clothes and jewelry do not make a girl. But if a girl wants those things that does not make her a sellout. We have too many stereotypes in this country. Men who like to dress well and use hair products are metrosexual...huh? Girls who wear baggy jeans and short hair are dikes...wha?
Are we assuming that the young women from NERD GIRLS were held down against their will, smothered in makeup and forced to pose for a picture so the blogger could make a point?

When we start dictating what girls should or shouldn't be doing with their appearance while their exploring their identity...that's when the problems begin. Let a girl try out blue hair and focus on teaching her to be kind, honest and trustworthy. You know, girls will find a way, no matter what anyone tells them to do, to express themselves through their appearance. Boys too. It's a natural part of growing up. And if we focus on supporting their confidence, some of them will look back when they're 30 and say, "Why the hell did I wear all that makeup? That was a phase I learned from." And some of them might say, "Thank God I was allowed to explore my identity...I am a happy healthy adult because of it."

If a girl wants to declare that she is smart AND likes makeup, jewelry and clothes - and it makes her feel confident...THEN LET HER BE!

Thank you for the post. Great insights IMHO.

From Post on

I think you're conflating some different issues here, Jennifer.

It's rather obvious to say that women can be smart and sexy too - of course they can. Nevertheless, I have a huge issue with the whole "Nerd Girls" thing, and it's a matter of presentation and attention, not with the girls themselves. I would have the exact same issues with a male scientist being held aloft as a symbol of brains and braun.

But calling attention to a girl because she happens to be smart and sexy is not very interesting - there are plenty of such girls out there. Yes, we should be encouraging young girls to feel good about themselves, just like we should for young boys. But that doesn't mean that we should idolize a girl just because she's sciency and - wow! - she happens to be easy on the eyes too. That goes against one of your points - that physical appearance is just one important aspect of one's self - because it puts these few women on a pedestal for allegedly having the magic combination (though there will always be men or women out there that don't find them particularly attractive nor to be particularly smart). How does that make the unattractive smart girls feel? I though we were trying to encourage girls to feel good about themselves?

I don't agree that because a man finds this thing to be problematic that he is necessarily intimidated by smart and sexy women, though I'm sure many men are. I'm lucky enough to be with a total hottie who's also a huge nerd, and for some reason she thinks I'm awesome. Several of my good friends also fit the hot+female+smart description, and it makes them no more or less interesting than my not-hot+female+smart friends. I don't see why I would elevate the ones that happen to be attractive over the others.

Yes, I am conflating issues -- because they are inter-related and you really can't separate them.

So, you're saying we shouldn't admire women who are smart and pretty because it might make "unattractive smart girls" feel bad? Maybe we shouldn't celebrate superior grades or academic achievement either, because, you know, it might make the "dumb pretty girls" feel bad. There is always someone smarter and prettier out there; it need not lessen a girl's own view of herself and her intrinsic value. Far better to face that hard fact of life head-on. :)

And who told those girls they were unattractive? It wasn't the Nerd Girls. Their message is far more positive. They don't offer themselves up to be idolized; they're offering themselves as potential mentors and/or role models.

Incidentally, I would have loved to have such role models growing up, or even just one older "big sister" type to take my awkward self aside, show me how to fix my hair, dab on a bit of makeup, and make the most of my best features. Every young girl has an inner beauty; we all need a bit of guidance finding that in ourselves.

I would agree with you about the men being intimidated factor, though. Some are, but there's plenty who aren't...

Bear in mind that men deal with the unfairness factor too. I mean Brian May is out there being one of the great rock guitarists of all time, an astrophysicist and he has a great head of hair. For some reason no one feels the need to make me feel better about that.

Life isn't fair and excellence is rewarded.

But Matt, you keep SHAVING your head every year... thats no way to have luxuriant flowing locks. :)

Seriously, someone, somewhere, is going to better than you at something. Kids need to learn that this doesn't mean you are, therefore, worthless. If one's self-esteem is tied to being "the best," and one never learns to deal with, and even appreciate, the lessons of failure -- well, eventually one's world is going to come crashing down....

It is a sad fact that our society (many other cultures too of course) places a great deal of focus on appearance for both men and women, girls and boys. In part as Stephanie points out, due to "survival of the fittest" and in part due to media images we have been bombarded with. What's important is that girls and boys have positive (and yes "positive" is subjective, so choose what's right for you and your kid) examples to identify with. I'd much rather my daughter identify with the Nerd Girls than Jamie Lynn Spears who's teen pregnancy is celebrated in magazines everywhere. The trouble is, there are images and personae everywhere, some we like and some we don't. We really can't control the media or what's on the internet, so let's start with ourselves and at home. Become the best role model you can be for your children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren...whatever. We can make a difference one girl or boy at a time - and most importantly we can make a difference by focusing inward because ultimately we can't change others.
The deeper discussion about whether femininity is finding your natural beauty or enhancing oneself with makeup is a personal issue. Whether exploring "high-maintenance dress-up" is a symbol of social status positioning or an exercise in learning what feels attractive to oneself and the opposite sex is also a very complex personal issue of self-esteem and self-perception. We don't live in a vacuum. Others will have opinions about whether we are attractive or not, smart or not. The reality is what matters the most is what makes us feel good about ourselves.
If the Nerd Girls gain some self esteem by putting themselves out there as smart and pretty, they are asserting their right to feel good about themselves and be proud. Not everyone will agree that they are smart and not everyone will agree that they are pretty. People who criticize possibly haven't realized that when one feels confident enough about oneself, the act of being gracious and positive towards others feels more natural and reaps many more powerful rewards than criticism.

I think Agent Zoey's comment is the best input so far.... not that this detracts from all the other thought-provoking comments, mind you. :)

"But Matt, you keep SHAVING your head every year... thats no way to have luxuriant flowing locks. :)"

Yes, good point, but we can hope that my selfless act of heroism on behalf of sick children will help me score with the babes on a rock-guitarist type level. I hold out hope...

"Seriously, someone, somewhere, is going to better than you at something."

Brian May's existence points out that the great preponderance of probability is that there is someone, somewhere who is better than you at virtually everything.

"Kids need to learn that this doesn't mean you are, therefore, worthless."

Yes, this is exactly the point. Garry Kasparov was, for a very long time, the greatest chess player in the world. Most people think that for a period of time he was the greatest player who ever played. He played the best computers from time to time and finally he lost. You would think that given how completely his identity was wrapped around being so great at chess that he could fall prey to the thinking that if a computer can out-think Garry Kasparov in chess, then computers will some day outclass humans in everything, rendering us valueless. Instead he praised the effort, and embraced the new world he would get to be a part of. I admired how he welcomed the harbinger of his own obsolescence.

So we live in a brave new world, where rock guitarists are smarter than I am, NerdGirls wear better shoes than my wife does, and I haven't beaten a computer in chess since 1978. But I sure do enjoy the Hell out of a small batch rye whiskey served neat, and what more does one need than that?

People here are focused on "being smart" as a very valuable thing in life. Fine.
I prefer other attributes like "intellectual", "brilliant", "beautiful mind", which for me means something more than math and keyboard skills. It means making use of intelligence at different levels and cross-thinking capabilities among the several dimensions of life. It also implies willingness and courage in life. It doesn't necessarily implies a PhD.

Nowadays "Beautiful minds" are more rare than "smart people" but very probably they are equally distributed among women and men. In the past they appeared in different sectors (and in science almost only men) mainly due to historical and sociological reason. Nowadays there are female BMs in science, business and politics.
I also think, BMs (both women and men) are very attractive by definition. It simply has to do with beauty, real beauty.


As I wrote in response to the thread, myself:

It isn't about the link that was made to the site which promoted the appearance of the women. Sure, they're 'all that too'.

It was the fact that the OTHER link, which listed their initiatives in science which was IGNORED - educational outreach goals is also something that you can also see in the ‘Nerd Girl’s pages:

'The mission of this program is to show a wide audience of young women and young men how successful these students are as they work together to design and construct an engineering system. The project will showcase the young women’s talents, diverse backgrounds and engineering skills. The team will build an energy efficient automobile and will drive it down the East coast, visiting local communities along the way and sharing their experiences with K-12 educators and students. As well, they will interact with professional women engineers who will consult on the project.'

You might have missed that element, with all the links to the ‘hawt-ness’, perhaps… How many people clicked on the link to ‘Curriculum’ rather than the link to the ‘cheesecake’? *sigh*

If the emphasis is going to be made about all-rounders, about breaking stereotypes and the question of looking being moot... then why the hell would you ONLY feature a link to the 'hawt' element that they're promoting?

To be frank, if we have to put up with it now rather than having it 'moot', it seems more like tokenism. "I will pay attention to this site, because the women have caught my attention with their beauty - why note other sites if they don't feature the same". *sigh* Just how many other science sites does Phil mention on a regular basis that don't have that element, or haven't featured a 'oh, she's pretty too?' Actually, very few.

Great post! You rock.

It's a really nice and comprehensive post.

My sport wasn't as tough as jiujitsu but instead basketball. For obvious reasons, like sweating, i never wore make-up during high school and had no problems dressing up: we wore uniforms at school. My mother was the one who kept pushing me to dress up and put on some make-up (without success).

At college I eventually began wearing make-up and that was because my team mates (now i play volleyball) made me wear it. I want to state that we're the only team in the league that wears make-up while playing! We're that odd! (i'm not from the U.S) The good thing was that they made me consious of who I am.

What I DO think is that being smart has nothing to do with what you study... it's with how you use those brains. There's an ongoing joke between the girls in computer science and electrical engineering making fun about girls studying bussiness majors because they dress like in Legally Blonde. But once you get to know them, things change completely (and you even get some beauty tips haha!).

One more thing. It's sad and eery to see how men from CS drool when they see a pretty girl. I know were few women in the field, but come on! It's not like they've never seen a woman!

Those were my 2 cents.
(p.s. keep on your blog! I just got addicted to it)

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