Clearly, being pretty was important, more so than being smart. By “smart,” I mean “making good grades” and “being in the upper level, college-track courses.” Perhaps the “pretty” issue eclipsed this “smart” issue because I was in the upper-level courses and worked hard at them because I was expected to go to college. My friend was barely surviving the mid-level and remedial level courses, mostly because she did not work at all in them because she was never expected to go to college. Her religion had taught her that college was tantamount to “Sodom and Gomorrah” (literally, that is what she said, and when I relayed this story to my aunt, my aunt responded responded, “Of course it is. That’s why it’s so fun!"). Looking back, with seven children in the family, college was also probably not something that her parents could afford. Instead, she was expected to get married and have babies. With such differing goals in for our lives, “smart” did not become a direct issue in our relationship.
“Smart” was connected to “pretty” in some odd ways, however. My friend did not need to be “smart,” she just had to be pretty to get a husband. My friend, given the future expected of her, was not about to compete with me in being “smart.” “Smart” was work with no purpose for her. My mother told me that my friend was not particularly intelligent, anyway. Given some of my friend’s later catastrophic decisions, my mother may have been right. Still, more factors than a lack of innate intelligence played into her avoidance of activities that would qualify her as “smart.”
My mother insisted that I was intelligent and expected me to go to college, regardless of innate intelligence. Thus, I engaged in the activities that were considered “smart.” I was put in the “gifted” class in middle school. I signed up for the “advanced placement” classes in high school. My sole bugbear was math, at which I seemed to be freakishly deficient. People unable to do math did not have true intelligence. So, all of my advanced classes were in language arts and social sciences. Yet, the other people in these classes, however, were “smarter,” if for no other reason that their humanities-related intelligence was matched by their math-and-science-related intelligence. Additionally, I tended to rebel against authority more than these other, “smarter” students. This was a mark of being “not smart.”
“Pretty” became my way of compensating for my intellectual shortcomings because, as all girls were taught then, “pretty” and “smart” were incompatible. As I looked around my classes in high school, however, I saw many very pretty and very smart girls. To compete, I relied on “smart” when I felt un-pretty, and turned to “pretty” when I felt “un-smart.”
“Pretty” and “smart” were not goals unto themselves. Perfection was the goal. If I were not perfect, or constantly striving to be perfect, then something horrible would happen. I had no idea what this horrible thing would be, but I knew that it involved beatings and humiliation and an unspeakable future. I knew this from experience. While I knew that I could never be “perfect,” while I knew that “perfect” was an impossible goal set by anyone else, and while I knew that I would always fail at “perfect,” I knew also that I could create the illusion of “perfect” by juggling “pretty” and “smart,” and to play on the stereotypes of “pretty” and “smart.” In doing so, no one would notice my failures in either category.
Maturity should have cured me of this game. Maturity should have taught me that both “pretty” and “smart” are subjective, and that “perfection” is an illusion. Maturity should have taught me that the terror of failing to be “perfect,” “pretty,” and “smart” is a child’s fear, created by a child, and never replaced. Intellectually, my adult and feminist self knows that all of this is true; and, to some degree, this knowledge has liberated me from a good measure of self-hatred. Practically, however, these things still infect my life; and they infect my life as a force of survival.
As in high school, “pretty” is controlled by fashion, hairstyle, and make-up. “Pretty” becomes a mask and a costume by which a person can control reactions to their person. A person can defy or conform to the expectations of their audience as a means of delivering their message. For instance, when I taught women’s history to a generally conservative student population, I wore a suit, make-up, and a feminine hairstyle. My appearance allowed the often radical concepts of my subject material to become more acceptable to the students. Yet, when I would teach the same concepts to an avowedly radical feminist group, I wore casual clothes, a freshly-scrubbed face, and less “done” hairstyle. This made me seem more in alliance with my audience. I even later noted that administrators, students, and other faculty would respond differently to me depending upon my appearance. In most instances, however, being considered “pretty” by the local standards made the interaction much smoother.
High school also provided the model for “smart” for most of the adult world, as well. Like my parents, many people define “smart” as “knowing things.” The more facts, trivia, details, procedures, and so forth that a person knows, the more other people will consider her smart. More than one person in social situations has regaled me with their seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of these facts and trivia and details and procedures and so forth, hoping that I will be impressed with their intelligence. Everyone seems completely unaware that these self-proclaimed intellectuals have nothing interesting to say about or beyond this litany of information. They are pronounced “so smart” for “knowing so much.”
My mind seemed to have a limit on the amount of information that it could retain. In fact, my mind seemed to have a limit on the type of information that it could retain, as well. For instance, I could remember all of the lyrics to all of the songs by the Eagles, the writers of the music and the lyrics of the songs, the albums on which those songs appeared, and the years in which those albums were published. I could recite Casablanca word for word. I could remember every personal slight seemingly from birth onward, at least according to my parents. Yet, I could not remember how to figure the percentage of a number. I could not remember the formulas for algebra or geometry. I could not remember the age of Old Major in Animal Farm or the elements of the Periodic Table.
None of this information, with perhaps the exception of the percentage calculation and some of the algebra, was particularly important. Yet, my ability to remember the right sort of information at the right time entirely affected the evaluation of my intelligence. For instance, one friend thought that I was a genius because I knew that both Bob Marley and Eric Clapton issued versions of “I Shot the Sheriff” in the early 1970s. Another thought that I was a complete idiot because I failed introductory algebra, twice. One teacher thought that I was brilliant and should be in the honor’s program because I made the highest grade in his class. The head of the honor’s program was not so impressed because my SAT scores were 10 points too low. “Smart,” like “pretty,” was subjective to a given situation.
By the time I became a full adult, I had lived my entire life attempting to be “pretty” or “smart” by the standards of a particular situation. The right hair and the right set of facts would make me acceptable, loveable, sane, if not in the particular situation, then in an imaginary opposite situation of consolation. “I may not know math,” I would think, “but I do know how to fix my hair.” In another situation I might think, “I may not have the right body, but I have read Tolstoy.” I knew that would always fail to meet the standards, but I had to be able to make myself plausibly able to meet another set of standards.
I was unable to be perfect, so I had developed a tactic for creating the illusion of perfection. This act took emotional, physical, temporal effort. This effort sapped me of my energy for anything useful or constructive. More than that, this conflict between “pretty” and “smart” was entirely determined by forces outside of myself. I was unable to discern what about myself was true. This absence of authenticity enraged me.