Thursday, 1 March 2012

beauty and the brain



I HOPE it isn't true, I really do.
And there are reasons to suspect it might not be entirely true - or not irreversibly true - that, as this story today claims, nearly half of young women would rather have big breasts than a high IQ (and 40% would rather be thin than clever). The caveats are:

1. It often pays to be wary of online surveys carried out by a brand desperate to get its name in the papers, as opposed to scientifically weighted Proper Polls.

2. It's about women aged 18 to 25, a time when you're still discovering the whole giddy power of being attractive to men and thus naturally absorbed by it. Plus women this age mostly know men of this age, who have yet to discover there is life beyond cleavages. You'd get different answers at 40. I hope.

3. It's easy to imagine what big boobs would look like - they're all around you, after all - but less easy to imagine how it would feel, or what difference it would make, to be very clever. As was swiftly pointed out when a similar American poll found women would rather win America's Next Top Model than a Nobel prize, that's partly because the model contest is more accessible: many people have a very hazy idea of what Nobel prizewinning involves, and it's not constantly on telly.

Nonetheless, what worries me is that there are two reasons it might be true. The first is the blindingly obvious one: when popular culture teems with women lauded mostly for what they look like, it sends young women a very strong message about what counts.
But the second is that we're not just overselling physical attractiveness but making intellectual ability seem actively undesirable. Smart is made to look not just unsexy, but potentially unhappy, because the one widely-agreed perk of a good brain - a good career - is so often portrayed as a double-edged sword for women.
The dilemma for professional women is that being honest about how difficult it can be either to succeed in male-dominated industries, or as a working mother, risks frightening younger women off the whole thing. But keeping quiet means you can't argue for change. Which is the greater betrayal?
It's a tricky one, but I think part of the answer must be to balance the misery with the joy: for women in public life to feel comfortable talking about (and actually to be reported when they talk about) the rewards of work, and by inference of being bright, not just the cost.
A couple of weeks ago I read a magazine interview with the screenwriter Jane Goldman, which left me feeling mysteriously re-energised about work. (It's behind the Times paywall, so I'm afraid this link only works for subscribers). I eventually realised it was because it's so rare now to hear a successful woman who makes no bones about relishing her job, being 'ridiculously wellpaid for it', and looking forward to doing more of it now her kids are nearly grown up - and who is described by her interviewer as being 'really, really good at' her work and 'clearly very bright', without any suggestion that she must somehow have suffered as a consequence. More, please.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

7 comments:

  1. The thing is, young women *aren't* stupid. They know full well what will deliver them the most approval and the most 'perks' in this life.

    As a society and as a culture, we are a long way from believing that attractive is not the best thing a woman can be.

    I find that hateful and I find it depressing, but I do not blame young women for responding in what is a very logical way to that message.

    I think you're right in the sense that we have to ask ourselves, as a society, what we are going to do about it. The trouble is, it still suits many people to have women more concerned about their appearance than by their brain. Many men are unwilling to relinquish their power and superior status.

    And so it goes on.

    And so it goes on.

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  2. I wonder if there has been a similar survey carried out on young men, body image versus having a high IQ, and being thin rather than clever? In general, I don't think that intelligence is highly rated in our society. It is not necessary to have a high IQ to be a celebrity or a pop star, and these are the role models influencing young people in our society.

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  3. Yeah the problem with these surveys is as you point out ...companies desperate for publicity construct a survey to make a headline, and I used to work in PR and place these surveys so know they don't really add up to a hill of breast implants.

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  4. Define "clever"....

    Would I rather have bigger boobs (well, no, actually, but less saggy, post four children, certainly) than an increase of 1 IQ point? Well yes, but then I'm (or used to be) quite bright anyway. Would I rather have bigger boobs and be incapable of holding down a job, clearly no.... Are we talking CERN? Or Nobel? Or being a lawyer (or an ex-guardian journalist)?

    Because it makes a difference, doesn't it? If only, as you say, to the perception of what it means. I can't imagine what it would be like to have the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, but I can imagine (or think I can) what it would be like to have the breasts of Jordan (and actually given that choice I think I'd rather him, but at 25, and probably less secure in who I was, or would become, maybe my choices would be different).

    As for the "intelligence is undesirable", I'm afraid I don't think that's a new thing. At my (all girls', highly academic) school, being clever was still something no-one would admit to (and given that 25 people in a year of 70odd went to Oxbridge that seems a little ridiculous but it was nonetheless the case). My sister, at a marginally less academic, but co-ed school, was miserable, unpopular and boyfriend-less, until she went to university and could admit that she had a brain.

    It worries me, with three (hopefully bright) daughters, of course it does, but I don't think it's new.

    On the positive side wasn't there, relatively recently, a survey that said that for the first time men wanted to be with someone who was as or more intelligent than themselves? Although I'm guessing the respondents to "your" survey hadn't read that one....

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  5. You are beautiful and brainy Gaby. I saw you on the daily politics show and I agree with everything you said and at the same time I was hypnotized by your beauty. I hope you don't mind me saying but that red dress wrapped around your beautiful figure perfectly. Of course your views and eloquence are very attractive too. Maybe I'm part of the problem that you are talking about, but can I help my feelings? It's not one sided of course, I'm a fan of your work and the places you work for and I honestly say you are good at your job. But now you are the apple of my eye and there's nothing I can do about it. You are a true lady and I can only imagine how happy it would make me to have a partner as beautiful and brainy as you. Alas, I'm stuck with imagination only as I know you and me could never be, but I hope you take my love for you in a positive way.

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  6. Great post! I appreciate how your content is written! awesome :)

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  7. Hi Gabby as a tutor of year 11 students (male and female) I can encourage you that the big breasts/fame at all costs/glamour hunters are confined almost exclusively to the d/e/ungraded range of predicted GCSES. Hmm... wonder why that is?

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