Two stories came into my view at approximately the same time. The first is about the rise in teen (and pre-teen) girls uploading videos of themselves to YouTube and asking, “Am I Pretty or Ugly?” (see pieces on it here, here, and here). The comments, then, are given over to the vast expanses of the internet to help inform (or, more likely, deform) these young girls’ self-worth. I want to tell these young ladies that they are worth so much more than the way they look, that they have so much more to offer the world than a pretty face.
I have always felt pretty fortunate that I was a teenager in the 1990s. “Pretty” wasn’t really a huge deal: Grunge was the dominant style; Riot Grrls were challenging what it meant to be “girly”; and Nike, in particular, was trying to expand their market share of women’s athletic wear, peppering magazines with pictures of sweating, snarling female athletes. As a swimmer myself, my walls were lined with these Nike ads, exalting me push harder, sweat more, and be strong. With my flannel shirts, my oversized jeans, and my doc boots, my perma-wet hair, I felt comfortable in my own skin, in my own body. That isn’t to say I didn’t have insecurities, but I was never, ever worried I wasn’t pretty enough. I didn’t care.
To this day, I don’t wear makeup very often, and my hair is the least of my concerns. My six-year-old has started wearing black lace-up boots with her tutus and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle shirt, and this momma couldn’t be more proud. Certainly, I dress nicely on the days that I teach, usually sticking to dresses because they are so easy (at least for me; Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us that this is not equally easy). I hope that my kids see this in how I carry myself, that a person’s worth is so much more than what they look like - it’s what they can do with the body they were given that matters so much more.
Or at least should matter so much more. The second piece of news came in an article that breathlessly proclaims that actors should replace professors, because what is teaching beyond simply reading a script? And if we can get attractive people to read those scripts…
It’s “Am I Pretty or Ugly”, grown-up, academic edition. Never mind the years and years of work and research that a person has spent getting a Ph.D. and refining their teaching methods. We’ve already known that teachers who look a certain way do not do as well on student evaluations (see also female instructors and minority instructors - pdf). Even if I were to encourage my daughter to seek the “life of the mind” as a professor, I’d also have to make sure that she understood that even here, she would have to make sure she looked pretty enough.
I am reminded of this piece from five years ago, about an aging adjunct who got Botox injections before a job interview, ultimately getting the job. A subsequent blog post asked, what would you be willing to do to get the job? If we have gotten to the point where we are tacitly encouraged to inject ourselves with toxins in order to get a job working “the life of the mind”, the question should no longer be, am I pretty enough, but how ugly have we all become.