"If you are pretty you are not smart."
"If you are beautiful, you are not tough."
These were the phrases that popped into my head while trying to figure out what felt so vulnerable about this photo of me. There is a certain softness about the photo, an almost feminine quality to it. I look younger than I am. I look vulnerable. This photo was scary for me and I couldn't figure out exactly why until those two phrases popped into my head.
I don't want people to think that I'm stupid. I don't want people to think that I am weak.
If people think you are stupid, they don't take you seriously. If you say or write anything that is different from their existing beliefs, they will brush it off as uneducated naïveté, rather than backed-up and contextualized insight. Rather than asking where you came up with your ideas, they tell you how you are wrong.
I know this is true because I have experienced it when people brushed me off as a 'pretty boy'. I have also seen it when powerful, beautiful, and intelligent women in my life have tried to speak their mind. I see it in the news whenever a beautiful woman says anything controversial.
This is the double bind that we put women in. All women are expected to be pretty, but when they achieve this feat, they are automatically downgraded on their perceived intelligence. And we see it all around us.
To associate beauty with stupidity is commonplace; it's also a form of misogyny. What most people don't realize about misogyny is that it impacts men as well. It pushes men to repress parts of themselves that they deem feminine.
I'm afraid to be pretty because I don't want people to think I'm stupid.
I also don't want them to think I'm weak.
Beauty is associated with weakness in mainstream American culture; for a woman to be weak is expected (because they're just girls, right?). However, for a man to be weak is laughable and shameful. In mainstream American culture, weak men get pushed around. Weak men get beat up. Weak men are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
I know this because I have been there. I was smaller and prettier than most when I was growing up. I was picked on, bullied, and beat up accordingly. It was awful.
In high school I joined the wrestling team, worked out a ton, and began learning martial arts. This was HUGE for my self-esteem. I began to know that, if someone started a fight with me, I would at least be able to defend myself, I could at least be able to hurt them too.
What I learned, however, is that adapting to a society that glorifies violence has it's own dark side.
When I was in my early 20's I got into a fight at a bar. I am ashamed to admit that I started it. I was pissed at the other guy and thought he was being an asshole. My original intention was to have strong words with him but before I knew it I was swinging fists.
It was easily the darkest time of my life. I had been depressed to the extent of suicidal ideation. As I was coming out of depression, I felt full of rage and self-hatred. As I began to throw punches, despite my inebriation, my body knew what to do. All my working out and martial arts made me more skilled in violence than the other guy. When the bouncers pulled me off of him, I had his blood splattered all over my clothes.
The cops found me at my house later that night and arrested me. I spent four hours in a cold concrete room before they finger printed me, took my clothes, and gave me the orange scrubs to change into. I spent two nights in a 15-man cell. My family bailed me out, but I was charged with felony assault. I went to anger management, therapy, and pleaded guilty with request to have the felony reduced to a misdemeanor offence. They went easy on me and I didn't have to do any more jail time, just community service.
I realized that there are no "winners" in a fight (unless it's a fight with a referee, rules, and boxing gloves). When violence, or the threat of violence, is used to enforce a social hierarchy, everyone loses.
I remember in high school, thinking that a constant fear of violence was something that only men had to deal with (except cases of spousal abuse and other "fringe" situations). I remember, at times, being envious of women because they didn't have to worry about fighting other men at school. The more I learned about feminism and gender based violence, the more I came to realize how much everybody suffers from the culture of violence. The sheer volume of #metoo posts drove home the emotional impact of that reality for me.
I want to live in a world where we can all be our different kinds of beautiful and our different kinds of brilliant. I want to live in a world where we can listen to each other and hear different perspectives. I want to live in a world where violence isn't used to enforce social hierarchy. I want to live in a world where we get to decide on our own interpretation of beauty and brilliance. I want to live in a world where neither beauty, brilliance, or violence are used to create hierarchy. I want to live in a world where, instead of thinking about how to defend ourselves against others, we think of how to open our hearts to others.
Photo credit: Stephen Flynn, email@example.com or https://www.redtemplepriestess.com/photography/