My junior year of high school, we took our ACTs. Everyone was telling each other their scores, comparing numbers that supposedly proved how “smart” we all were. I remember one of my friends laughingly telling me that she overheard a group of our friends mention my ACT score. She said “It was great, they were all so shocked that you got such an high score!”
My first response was a little bit of pride, admittedly, because yeah, I kicked the ACT’s ass (not that that a standardized really proves you’re smart at all, but that’s a blog post for another day). But my second, stronger feeling was hurt.
“Wait, what? Why were they shocked…?”
My friend looked surprised. “You know, you just act… dumb, sometimes.”
At the look on my face, she quickly added she of course knew I wasn’t unintelligent but that my mannerisms and personality seemed to suggest that I was.
This was my first, but certainly not last, experience with realizing I was being judged as “dumb” by others. Throughout my life, I have been described as ditzy, an airhead, a “blonde” (which first of all, I’m a brunette, and secondly, what the hell is wrong with being blonde??), shallow and, of course, dumb.
First of all, I would like to point out that maybe at this point you’re thinking a few things, such as:
Well, maybe you’re actually just dumb.
If people think you’re ditzy, why don’t you stop acting ditzy?
Is this really that big of a deal? Who cares what people think!
So, let me address these one by one.
- Well, maybe you’re actually just dumb.
Well, what does “being dumb” really mean? Our society has a messed up view of what’s considered intelligence and what isn’t. If someone can list 200 digits of pi, is that intellect or is that rote memorization? If someone knows the day every war started, do they automatically understand why the war started in the first place? How do we measure intelligence anyway? IQ tests have gotten a lot of flack about their accuracy and how they work. Standardized tests involve filling in bubbles about either random information or something you memorized for the test alone and then will forget in a week.
Arguably, much of our education is based not on truly understanding topics and connecting them to a broader picture about the world, but a more shallow, short-term glimpse into one specific topic that may or may not stick with us for more than a semester. So, really, I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m smart because my ACT score was this and my IQ is this and oh, I got these grades in high school, because I don’t think that really proves anything. Intelligence comes in many forms and shapes, and no number or letter can embody what you’re capable of.
What I can tell you, however, is that I know I’m not stupid, and I definitely don’t deserve to be labelled as such. But what is more interesting and worth analyzing are the reasons why people label me as unintelligent..
Which leads me to the next question:
2. If people think you’re ditzy, why don’t you stop acting ditzy?
Because I’m not acting ditzy.
A lot of girls may feel the same pain I do in being perceived as unintelligent or ditzy. I’ve talked to lots of women who have experienced this and they have the same question I do: What am I doing that makes people think that about me? There are a few key characteristics that are used to describe a woman who is considered a “ditz”. Some of these include:
- Talking a lot
- Enjoying things such as cheesy movies and books
- Being focused on appearance/vain
- Talking about “silly” or “shallow” topics
- Saying “like” a lot
- Taking selfies/pictures
Why are these traits associated with unintelligence? Part of the reason is due to our society’s portrayal of women in movies, books, media, ect. For example, take a look at almost any classic high school movie or show. In a group of girls, there’s very often a “dumb” friend. Take Mean Girls, for example. Karen is hilarious, of course, but she perpetuates that very stereotype of the “dumb, pretty” friend that is then applied to real-life women. She’s silly and talkative, portrayed as vain and just not all there.
When these characteristics are ascribed over and over again to the “dumb” girl in shows, we unconsciously begin to associate them with unintelligence in real life. A talkative girl who happens to like Vampire Diaries, a woman who enjoys going out and false eyelashes, a young girl who fills her Instagram with selfies; all of these somehow make others think she is of lesser intellect than those who don’t do those things.
I talk a lot. I laugh at myself a lot and yes, I like taking selfies. And none of these things should have any further meaning. And yet I have often had them listed off to me to explain why I’m seen as ditzy. As if I’m on trial for the crime of being stupid and the evidence against me is “Well, you talk all the time,” “You just act ridiculous sometimes,” “You’re just not very serious,”.
I shouldn’t have to be serious 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, to prove my intellect to you. I should be able to laugh at myself, put on high heels and put on some goddamn winged eyeliner without being called shallow. I should be able to send a text that says “lol smiley face emoji” without being discredited completely on all serious topics.
Girls can wear their shortest dress, go to the club, talk about Pretty Little Liars, take 40 pictures of themselves and go to their honors level class the next day and kick ass.
Women’s actions are all too often used against them, to stereotype them, devalue them and overall discredit them. Sometimes, people do things just because they like them, and that should be the end of that.
There is another side to this. There have been times that I, and I think other girls will admit to this too, have dumbed myself down on purpose. Just like in Mean Girls when Cady pretended to be bad at math so Aaron Samuels would tutor her, I pretended to be stupid primarily to get attention.
In high school, especially, this was for whatever reason the popular thing to do. Whether it made my friends laugh or prolonged a conversation with some boy, I can honestly say I consciously made an effort to act like a ditz sometimes, and other girls around me did the same thing. This is such a long and complex topic about why young girls, and even older women, do this at times that I put it in another blog post for the sake of length. You can find this brief tangent here, or you can continue on.
The basic idea is that society rewards girls for being pretty and popular, not for being smart. With the constant pressure to be liked and perfect, girls may betray key traits about themselves in exchange for what the media tells them is “the ideal”.
So, the next point of discussion:
3. Why does this even matter?
The impact that this stereotype has on girls is enormous. If you tell someone they are something enough, they will begin to believe it. If you tell a girl she is an airhead, she’s a ditz, she’s dumb, she will internalize those words. Girls begin to question themselves, especially in subjects such as math and science, not because they’re bad at them but because they have little confidence in their own abilities, as this study shows.
This lack of confidence follows us into the rest of our lives. (See my other post about the lack of confidence women have in the professional world, or this great article about it). Once you’re taught your whole life that you aren’t smart enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling that nothing you do is good enough, at all. The most frustrating feeling is when people tune out every word you say and won’t take you seriously based on a snap judgement they made based on your appearance and your general demeanor. If no one else will listen to you, you begin to believe you’re just not worth listening to.
And finally, it also makes it hard to be true to yourself. My talkative nature has been so often thrown in my face as proving my unintelligence, I often found myself constantly biting my tongue. When I started my new job, I obsessed over what clothes to buy because my worst fear was dressing in a way that meant people wouldn’t take me seriously. I didn’t want to joke around with coworkers because what if they thought I was just a silly dumb girl?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with the idea that people, including myself, can be what some would call a contradiction. Women, and men, (and all those inbetween) can be a collection of seemingly contradictory traits and that’s perfectly fine. Judging people is something we have been taught since we were kids, but we can also unlearn those damaging labels.
More importantly, we can unlearn the stereotypes that we have been taught to believe about ourselves. People will be putting you into a box your whole life, so let them keep their stupid box. You don’t have to carry that shit.