Smart, Pretty & Successful7:18 AM
Mothers are absolutely essential to a girl's self-esteem. Any girl who did not hear "You're beautiful" after the first pimples began to show or "You're such a smart one" after the test came back a C or "You can do anything you want" after losing state competitions missed out. I grew up blessed -- insanely blessed. Not only did my mother tell me those things after drama queen complaints on the futility of existence after the age of thirteen, but also I never heard it contradicted. My only immediate rivals were too nice to condemn my weakness and too removed from my early childhood to cause serious problems. I only had imaginary boyfriends to impress (you know, the types that reside in the cute eighth-graders who never glance at you) and myself to compete with in school. My classmates -- Me and Myself -- never made me feel awkward for my out-of-touch relationship with fashion, coolness and uber intelligent geekiness. Everyone told me I was smart. Everyone told me I was pretty. Everyone told me I would go far. Any insecurity I had was my own self-absorption.
But they were wrong.
It is an unforgiving world where thoughts ought to be kept private are public, where weakness is exploited and ridiculed, where dogs eat dogs and only the prettiest, the smartest and the most successful girls survive with any head to hold up. They don't give awards for being Best Big Sister or Best Shower Singer or Worst Fashion Designer. Ugly girls can survive if they're smart or run big corporations; beautiful girls win no matter how many times mothers soothe that "it's the inside that counts." If you're anything less, you're at best sympathetically left alone and at worst made the butt of every crude blonde joke.
Congratulations to the drop-dead gorgeous, ridiculously intelligent and uncannily successful young ladies -- you just earned the world. (So sorry, Average One.)
I used to naively think that people extended the benefit of the doubt, that, generally, they only wanted to do good. It's that homeschooler, take-on-the-world naivete, I know; but I believed it. I could just be me and people would love me. I wasn't in the hugely pretty, smart and successful categories by any means. But I thought I was good enough to hold my own ground and the sympathy of others would cover for the rest.
That bubble burst long ago.
I blame Jane Austen, actually. Every time I read her works I identified only with the critical women or the stupid women or the plain, garrulous women who drove me bonkers. The clever, the pretty and the gentle I much admired and couldn't understand, as the the weed said to the flower. Women only got a man if she were rich (a trait that, interestingly, isn't so much a factor anymore unless tied in with success), excessively pretty or, of course, Elizabeth Bennett. They were judged by their faces, their heritage and their sewing education -- and mercilessly ridiculed if any silliness, weakness or deficiency popped up in the local gossip.
It isn't just Regency-era fiction. I remember reading a truly excellent biography of John Quincy Adams and his morose, bitter depictions of women in his younger years. Since I knew Pride & Prejudice by heart, I thought all gentlemen pre-twenty-first century were chivalrous: Mr. Knightleys ready to dance with the silly Harriets of the world. JQA missed the memo. He filled his diaries with how boring these sorts of women were, how ugly this set was and how he couldn't stand to be with them. The women of his time were just as harsh upon their own gender, dog piling on the stupid, plain girl.
It makes me incredibly self-conscious. Is that man who listens to me rattle away my opinion inwardly complaining about how plain and stupid I am? Is that smart lady I admire barely holding her peace together by a half-smile at my uneducated presence? Do people gossip about me in the "yes, but" language of the cruel world -- "She's a sweet girl and almost pretty and rather smart for her age, but"? Do I do that?
Everywhere I turn I see a girl I cannot be. The heroine is always very pretty and charming and smart, who keeps her head in trouble and her ego out of the mud. The girls who get press are those in the Honor Society, in the beauty contests, in the Who's Who.
The motto of this world is "Notice the pretty and the smart and the successful as you would have them notice you." All kindness and applause goes to those people who seem so prevalent despite the high odds. Or as Algy Moncrieff says, "The only way to behave to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to some one else if she is plain."
Here I ought to change gears and preach how I overcame the world's negativity, how, really, we oughtn't to let the realities of the world dictate our worth and how we can be smart, pretty and successful without being them at all.
Confession: It still bugs me that I am too stupid, plain and normal to be anything special in the whole sea of smart, beautiful and successful women. I don't know how to properly complain about the thought processes of others (and myself) when we unconsciously pin people into unflattering pigeonholes. I haven't the slightest idea how to be SP&S.
But I do have another reality that, while not eliminating entrenched human prejudices, should be some comfort: smart, pretty and successful does not exist. Any fool can be thought smart in a circle of fools. It's only when he moves up a circle that he realizes how ridiculous he is. Any girl can be the beautiful one of the family or the school or the state, but she could never be objectively beautiful amidst all the conflicting impressions. Anyone can be successful in a low-key situation.
"Success," my friend once said, "is not dependent on your successes but others' failures."
Our crushed spirits and the snobs would like us to think that beauty, intelligence and success is objective and universally obvious, but it isn't. As long as people fail, imperfect people will be thought as perfect. So ride comfortably on the knowledge that even Miss America, Ms. CEO and Dr. Scholastica exists only in the minds of those too narrow-minded to find beauty, intelligence and success in the real world.