I am a firm feminist and I believe that women should be able to dress and act however they choose. Women should not be discriminated against based on how they look or their conformity to a certain image. 

So I was truly disappointed in myself when I arrived at Duke and singled out some of my classmates with the assumption that they were less intelligent because of their appearances. Somehow, the insidious belief that prettier women are intellectually deficient had wormed its way into my mind. 

Girls who are more social, wear more revealing clothing and are more physically attractive are often deemed to be stupid. Even at Duke, where we tout our high test scores and low acceptance rate, the stereotypical pretty girl is looked down upon. But while this type of girl is discriminated against in academic settings, she is praised outside of the classroom. At parties or Shooters or social events, pretty and scantily clad girls receive the most attention and admiration. A dichotomy has arisen in which women are supposed to fit two roles simultaneously: a serious student and an appealing “object.” Women are forced to straddle these expectations, and they impede female success in a manner than males do not experience. 

Attractiveness is evaluated very differently based on gender. Women who smile more are rated as better looking, while men who smile less are viewed as more attractive. Fat women are less likely to succeed in elections than overweight men. Beautiful women are also seen as having an advantage in professional or academic settings. Attractive women are more likely to be hired than less physically appealing female candidates. Despite this, a double standard exists—the intelligence of attractive men is never questioned based on their appearance. However, the “dumb blonde” stereotype still plagues our classrooms and workplaces. 

Women are presented with a choice to either receive validation based on their adherence to a beauty standard or on their projection of a serious appearance that supposedly signals competence. As a society, we like “smart” women to resemble the serious men we respect or be attractive enough that we forgive their perceived deficiencies in intelligence. 

Even beyond that, we are often unable to forgive a woman who dares to focus on her career over her appearance. Politics aside, Hillary Clinton’s cankles and pantsuits played much more of a role in criticism of her campaign than did any male politician’s appearance for his respective campaign.  A study from the 2012 election found that when a female candidate’s appearance was complimented, she was actually less likely to win. Sarah Palin’s outward appearance was used to cast her as ineffective, even though she was praised as being better looking than Clinton. 

One study shows that beauty is only an advantage to women applying to non-managerial jobs, while men face no such discrimination. Researchers use the term “beauty is beastly” to describe the disadvantage that beauty created for women applying to managerial jobs. Women often recount being discriminated against based on their appearance in the workplace or in academics. Women have to prove their intelligence before they are viewed as valid contributors.  

Another study found that people can more accurately rate men’s intelligence based on their attractiveness than they can women’s in a setting meant to evaluate academic performance. These studies show that our society loves pretty women, but will not allow them to reach the same level of success as their male counterparts. We refuse to accept that a woman can be both attractive and competent, especially if her interests err towards fashion, makeup, or socializing. At Duke, we know everyone is intellectually gifted, but we systematically devalue female students who cater to a certain image regardless. Beauty is shown to have its perks, but for women, only to a point.

How can we expect women to be employed at the same rate as men as CEO’s and politicians when we cannot even look beyond their outer images? Little girls grow up being told both to succeed academically, but also, and seemingly more importantly, to be beautiful. How can we pressure them to pursue these goals when we are unable to respect a woman who achieves both?

Girls should not have to spend extra time proving their worth in the classroom simply because they choose to present themselves in a certain way. A lot of people, often women, disregard this issue because they resent the admiration pretty women receive. This issue is part of a larger, trickle-down effect where all women are judged solely based on appearance. When we marginalize women because of their beauty–or lack thereof–we lose valuable perspectives. We should not discount any woman based on her physical attributes and instead focus on the skills and opinions she offers.

Camille Wilder is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.