Reminder: It’s okay to be a smart girl who cares about her look

As women, we are often told that we are not worthy of attention or the physical space our bodies take up unless we are beautiful — even if we are brilliant. In movies, it seems the most fun a woman can have on screen is when she’s given a makeover, and during this time she’s often not even talking. Music plays while she revels in the glory of her own image being altered drastically by a team of professionals, in such a way that is likely unrealistic for everyday upkeep. This woman usually has a job and a life that she presumably would like to continue, and there’s now an unspoken assumption that she has to make a choice — does she sacrifice a few hours of her day to keep up this new facade curated by this team of stylists and approved by her doting friends, or does she go back to her previous look, which was probably just fine?

When I was growing up, while I loved these scenes, I also did not see myself in them. I knew what they meant — I saw the subtext. I understood that what they were really saying was that women could either be drab and smart, or stylish and dumb. This is a false and dangerous dichotomy, and it is perpetuated constantly through media representations of women, gender stereotypes, expectations of girls and women in school and the workplace, and even the expectations we have of ourselves.

I saw this false dichotomy played out, too, in some of my favorite characters. Hermione, from Harry Potter. Topanga, from Boy Meets World. Mia, from The Princess Diaries (pre-makeover, of course). I loved these characters, and thought they were brilliant. I also identified with them strongly, as being the smart-yet-frumpy girl had become part of my identity at the point that they were introduced to my life. Though I didn’t necessarily make a cognizant choice to follow their fashionable (or non-fashionable) footsteps, with each passing year I further internalized the messages I gleaned from these characters and treatment from my peers about what kind of woman I was supposed to be.

And yet, as I got older, this stopped sitting quite right with me — this idea that I was “supposed to be” any sort of woman at all. That there was any sort of mold I was supposed to fit into, even if it was something atypical. I didn’t like that there were any one-size-fits-all roles for women, when it seemed that men were allowed to have a range of interests and desires, fit together in any way they pleased.

I realized that I had been dressing for quite some time in a certain way so as to be taken seriously at school — I felt that if I wore things that were more feminine, or wore more makeup, my male colleagues either ignored me or talked over me, or gave me the kind of attention I didn’t want. Because I wanted to be listened to in class, I had been wearing plain jeans and t-shirts for years, but the thing is, I really did LIKE fashion. I LIKED makeup. I wanted to experiment with these things, but I felt guilty for it somehow. I felt like I would be betraying this other part of my identity if I truly went there, or like I wouldn’t be thought of as smart anymore.

I had thought that I wasn’t “allowed” to care about the way I looked; that I somehow didn’t deserve to own clothing that made me feel good about myself, or spend more time on my hair or makeup than I spend on my homework. Women are often taught that we are one-dimensional, and that we have to fit into molds, and I’d fallen into this trap at a young age, but I was slowly learning how to break out of it. I started to experiment with clothing and find out what looked good on my body and what made me feel attractive, and I started playing more with makeup.

The false dichotomy that tells us that women can only be smart or stylish (and not both) had seeped into the way I thought about myself. This binary thinking, of course, is full of bologna  — the same person can be interested in a range of topics, from the best brand of matte lipstick, to comic books, to knitting, to French philosophers. Women are not just one thing, and we can be wildly successful and smart while wearing whatever we want. Whether that’s jeans and a t-shirt, heels and a dress, or something completely different, it shouldn’t matter to anyone but the wearer. We contain multitudes, and our closets can, too.

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