If We Really Want to Empower Women, We Have to Fight the Brains vs. Beauty Myth

Jennifer Lopez says that people underestimate her, but this problem isn’t a new one.
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Jennifer Lopez says that people underestimate her, but this problem isn’t a new one.

In a recent interview for W Magazine, Jennifer Lopez speaks to the challenge she’s faced in her industry, as a woman, to be taken seriously. “People may now think I’m ‘nice,’ but they still act surprised when I’m smart,” she said.

Lopez, who is worth $300 million dollars according to Celebrity Net Worth, seems to be experiencing the dichotomy that takes place when people categorize women as either having brains or beauty, not both.

“It’s a man’s world,” Lopez continued. “Truly, people in a business setting do not value a woman as much as a man. I feel like I’m constantly having to prove myself. If a man does one thing well, people immediately say he’s a genius. Women have to do something remarkable over and over and over. And, even then, they get questions about their love life.” 

Lopez has pinpointed a common issue women face today. Unconsciously perhaps, many people take women less seriously than men, especially if they’re beautiful.

“People underestimate me," Lopez told the magazine. "They always have, and maybe that’s for the best. It’s fun to prove them wrong.”

This is certainly something that rings true to me. I still remember my senior year of high school, when I took AP French. During the first semester of this course, I sat next to the guy who had the highest GPA in our class. I had studied hard for our first exam, and I hoped to do well in the course overall (college credits and all that). We received our test grades back on a Friday, and I remember that specifically because I was wearing my poms squad uniform. As I waited for the teacher to pass back my test, I mentioned to our future valedictorian that I was apprehensive about my grade.

My teacher set the paper face down on my desk, and when I flipped it over I saw a bright red 98 percent in the upper right hand corner. I sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.

“How’d you do?” the valedictorian asked.

I lifted my paper to show him. He raised his eyebrows.

“Are you surprised?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. “Just relieved.”

“Hmm.” He said, and then he looked me up and down from my feet to my head and said, “I’m fairly surprised.”

For over a decade I’ve made exceptions for this guy. I’ve justified his comments, thinking, “In his defense, I was wearing a drill team uniform. I had a bow in my hair, for goodness sake. I had acrylic nails back then.” But you know what? Wearing a pleated flyaway skirt didn’t actually make me bad at French. My ability to conjugate a verb was not affected by my hair bow. My clothing and my appearance had nothing to do with the fact that I achieved academic success in that class or other classes. My appearance and my intellect are not mutually exclusive, and I’ve grown to realize it was unfair for him to judge my academic abilities based on the way I looked.

Fighting these stereotypes creates a confusing reality to navigate for women. It’s no wonder that as adults we’re struggling to have it all; we’re in a constant battle to be viewed as whole people.

For women in the public eye, the battle for wholeness appears almost unattainable. It seems that the well-rounded woman is something of a unicorn, a status only achieved by perhaps Angelina Jolie or Amal Clooney. Yet even in a Google search for Amal Clooney, a barrister and human rights activist, the first eight articles are focused on her physical appearance.

Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, argues that society rewards “beauty on the outside over health on the inside. Women must not be blamed for choosing short-term beauty ‘fixes’ that harm our long-term health.” In this comment, she’s referring to physical health, but I would argue that women are also sacrificing emotional and intellectual health as well. When we allow beauty to override our intellect, when we give in to the stigma; we sacrifice our individual well-being. We sacrifice our wholeness.

Some women today, like Lopez, push against this categorization, aiming to reflect their talent while not hiding their beauty. Others, like Kim Kardashian, play the game to their advantage, sacrificing her perceived wholeness to make a profit (while I don’t agree with her methods, she has capitalized on her society-valued assets arguably better than anyone else). Marilyn Monroe positioned herself similarly over sixty years ago. Intellectual prowess is not seen as the premiere asset for women, especially attractive women. By playing to this male-driven marginalization, we allow beauty to continually overshadow and negate intellect. And that comes at a cost.

I, for one, am done with identifying as "either/or." I will no longer make exceptions for my high school pom squad exterior or the intelligence I have despite it. And while we may see the beauty of Lopez on TV and in her music videos, we need to remember that her gorgeous exterior is only a fraction of who she truly is.

If, as women, we want to have it all, or at least strive to that end, we need to affirm it all in each other. We need to view each other first as the whole, nuanced people that we are. If we want women to have real empowerment—and encouragement to be our truest fullest version of ourselves—we need to give it freely. There’s more than enough to go around.

Art: Cate Parr