My friend Alice was on the lookout for a catch of a man. Someone smart, self-sufficient, attractive and funny. It doesn't seem like too much to ask. So, like the good friends that we are, we hit the bars looking for Mr Right for her. When a man who met the basic criteria was spotted, like good wing-women, we introduced the two with a very obvious "Haaaaave you met my friend Alice?"
We then proceeded to paint Alice as the catch that she is -- smart, beautiful, kind and successful. About half of the time, the bloke in question had a polite chat and then scurried away to watch the rugby with his mates and a few women who looked to be about 10 years younger than us.
Then, just for our own amusement (and my own social experimentation as the night wore on), we changed it up a little. Rather than successful, smart and professional women, we were flight crew on a well-known and well-dressed airline. The interest in my friend Alice increased. What man could resist the beautiful cabin crew?
What dawned on me was that Alice is a smart woman, with a host of other positive attributes including beauty, kindness and humour, yet we felt the need to 'dumb ourselves down' in order to make her more appealing to blokes at the pub. The odd man will say that they love a smart, strong woman, but do they? And, more importantly, why are women still feeling the need to dumb it down, at work and in life?
A glance at advertising, glossy magazines or television will demonstrate how much society and women themselves place expectations on how we look rather than what's between our ears. Entire industries are built around beauty, dieting and fitness. We are all placing a huge amount of emphasis on being slim and attractive and spending vast amounts of money doing it. Virtually all of this money and energy expenditure is not in the name of health but rather the pursuit of beauty and therefore happiness. We are constantly being given and internalising messages that beauty, not necessarily brains, is what matters.
Recently, an Aussie women's magazine had two successful young models on their cover with the headline "What hot girls know"... like they were going to share with us all the secrets of how to be hot and therefore be winners.
How about what smart women know? Or strong women? How about what women with skills or stories or bravery know? Seemingly innocuous headlines like this just reinforce our gender roles that what hot women know is important and what smart men know is important. All else is apparently irrelevant.
Amy Poehler's Smart Girls movement noticed the trend at awards shows to ask women about their couture and show their manicure, whereas men were asked more meaty questions about their roles or their careers. They championed the 'Ask her more' movement to push red carpet journalists to ask women about their career or causes close to their hearts. In hosting the Golden Globe awards, Poehler and Tina Fey further highlighted the absurdity of our values system when they poked fun at George Clooney being honoured for making films, while his wife, Amal Clooney is a leading human rights lawyer.
Women are often reminded that brains and beauty are not equally valued in romantic or professional pursuits. Some research suggests that men are intimidated by women smarter than them, feeling shame when they can be outwitted by a woman. A higher earning capacity or perceived more prestigious career are also triggers for male shame, a nasty side effect of our expectations of the blokes in modern society to be masculine, dominant and successful at all times. As well as requiring women to be beautiful, society also tells men to be the best, creating a perfect storm.
Ask any woman whose partner works with or meets a woman who is more beautiful than she thinks she is. Women are intimidated by other women as they are viewed as strong romantic rivals when they are younger, more attractive and less career orientated. How often have you heard a woman joke or worry about being 'traded in' for a younger, prettier model?
The saying that women dress for other women is an accurate representation of what outer beauty is all about; intimidating the competition. From a young age, we are taught to be in competition for the affections of men by being beautiful. There is much less emphasis on healthier competition for grades or achievements. Girl children are praised for being pretty while the boys are praised for intelligence or skills. This sets up the pattern for the rest of our lives and it sells our smart women short.
But back to my friend Alice. We sold her and ourselves short that night. We dumbed ourselves down for what? When we were out helping her find a 'catch', we failed to see the most important thing in this situation. Alice was a catch. A great big one. Now she is married to a man who was as smart as she is in recognising that fact.
By dumbing ourselves down, we did two things. We perpetuated the myth that beauty wins over brains both in our own minds and for society at large. We bowed to the pressure to conform, and, by doing so, reinforced the idea that men should be successful and dominant and women should be beautiful.
Smart women are not scary or better or domineering. We are brave, strong, caring, fun, interesting and stimulating. While society still struggles with how to integrate changing gender roles, both men and women will continue to struggle with how to portray themselves both internally and externally.
What is important, though, is that we allow and encourage girls and women to be smart not just beautiful and show boys and men that masculinity is just as flawed. The shame that comes from not conforming to old gender norms is holding us all back and creating unhelpful emotions, relationships and career choices. We should all have the freedom to feel good about ourselves regardless of arbitrary expectations about what defines success or attractiveness. The first step to this? Be yourself. Society will catch up. Eventually.