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Pretty and smart

Pretty and smart

Here's a little anecdote told by Mary, an American girl I've known over the net for years.

Once upon time, on a sorta-date, I was at an art museum. At about the third or fourth painting of an elderly bearded fellow labelled "The Philosopher," I laughed. Now I like these paintings. I kept wandering over to peer at them precisely because these were all likable looking old gentlemen, with faintly amused expressions. But why *is* it that all philosophers have the same white beard?

"Someday," I said to my sorta-date, "I want someone to paint a lissome young blonde, and label her, ĎThe Philosopher.í"

"Pretty girls donít need to think," he said, "They can get by on looks alone."

"But I want to be pretty AND smart," I said. Somewhere between wistful and defensive.

"Well, you canít," he said. Somewhere between ironic and brutally honest.

What twists me into knots sometimes is the idea that he might be right.

Mary, whom I met briefly when she was in England some years ago, is a pretty and cute girl. She's also smart - at the time of writing this she's working on her PhD in physics, but she knows a lot about a lot, in both the hard sciences and humanities. To to it all off she's nice, funny, independent, charming, a good listener, enthusiastic...

So why, if she has disproved her sorta-date, is she afraid that he was right?

Well, he's got a point. Girls can't be both pretty and smart.

Of course, that's a prejudice and a stereotype.

I told her that it's all about labels, and whether you can fit more than one. She does - physicist, matematician, writer, american, female... We all fit a large number of labels.

But there are some combinations than common prejudice and stereotypes consider mutually exclusive. Pretty/smart, athletic/cultured, uneducated/wise, metalhead/operabuff...

When I was in my teens I listened to heavy metal, pop, synth and jazz. At school there were metalheads, popfans, and a few synthers, nicely grouped. And instead as seeing me as one of them - because we listened to the same music - they all saw me as belonging to another group, because I was listening to the same music as them.

So you can transcend labels and stereotypes, in principle, but in practice you might not be allowed.

"You should care for your prejudices; in the end that's all you have", a friend of mine is fond of saying.

And he's right. The values, opinions and norms you have, the things that identifies you as you and nobody else, are prejudices. And the care for them includes pruning, to say that yes, I did think and believe this, but I don't, anymore.

If you're lucky, you might find people who can allow their prejudices to be questioned, who can accept they need to prune from time to time.

Those are the ones who can accept that there's nothing strange in liking both heavy metal and jazz, or being both pretty and smart.

Labels is no more than that - no more, no less. It might say "Heinz Baked Beans" on the tin, but what if you wash it in hot water so the label peels off? There are still the same baked beans inside, even without the label.

People are like those tins. A label is a handy description, but it isn't the described. It's an aspect.

Okay, you can find people who have no trouble at all accepting that girls can be both pretty and smart.

But can Mary accept it?

She replied it wasn't about labels, but identities. She was wondering whether she could be both Albert Einstein and Princess Leia.

Right, what do you say to that? That she has strange hair-do ideals?

The true answer is that she can be whoever and whatever she wants, as long as it's covered by her mental and physical gifts.

Of course, the true answer isn't true. The real limitations are given by prejudices. Hers and others'.

Those prejudices limit what she allows herself to be and do. Those prejudices limit what other people will allow her to be and do.

Unless she works hard to overcome those prejudices, in herself and others, she will be limited by them.

And then, of course, there is the simple fact that some things are mutually exclusive. To be a top athlete, you have to give up other things, like studies, or family life. To be a top scientist in one field, you have to give up the desire to be a top scientist in an unrelated field.

But that's a topic for another day.


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