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 /