Online clothing retailer Betabrand’s new ad campaign has made a splash. Their new spring collection is modeled exclusively by PhDs and doctoral candidates. As founder Chris Lindland wrote in a statement, “Our designers cooked up a collection of smart fashions for spring, so why not display them on the bodies of women with really big brains?”
Despite the fact that I am a professional feminist killjoy, I’m not here to rain on everyone’s parade. I think the campaign is a Good Thing. Insofar as a for-profit campaign can have an ethical weight, I’d even say it’s feminist. We may wish we lived in a world without beauty standards, and may try to resist their pull. (I’ve tried. I’m trying.) But, where we stand right now, beauty determines women’s opportunities in real ways. Girls act, and fear, accordingly. Showing a young student that PhDs can be pretty — that there’s nothing inherently unattractive about intelligence and success — may encourage her to widen her academic ambitions. Don’t worry, you won’t grow horns and lose your curls if you go to grad school.
We shouldn’t have to reassure girls that smarts won’t make them ugly. It’s an absurd idea, but it also implicitly prioritizes looks over books, as though our advice would be different if, in fact, studying did make girls ugly. Yet criticizing the patriarchy doesn’t make it disappear. We can appreciate this campaign for doing some helpful work even if it won’t usher in the revolution.
But we also shouldn’t overstate the ads’ message. My friend Liz at Policy Mic commended the brand for “prov[ing] that smart is beautiful,” but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. It’s not the models’ intelligence that make them beautiful: it’s their beauty. While Lindland described his model recruitment as “look[ing] beyond the ranks of the professional beautiful,” the women are thin, clear-skinned, and symmetrically-featured. They’d still be attractive if they didn’t have PhDs. And, whatever, that’s cool! As I said above, the fact that smart women can be beautiful may be a disturbingly surprising and important message for young women (although the brand’s token diversity means the ads will likely to speak to only a limited demographic). But let’s not pretend these models derive their charm from their extensive knowledge of particle physics or 16th century Finnish decorative arts any more than Dove or Aerie’s models are pretty because they’re “natural.” They’re pretty because they’re pretty, in the same way all models are.
I might sound nit-picky, but eliding this distinction erases the double burden to be both smart and beautiful placed on women. Remember The Beauty Myth: Successful men can be attractive because they’re successful, but we require women to invest more and more in the project of beauty the more powerful they become. If they refuse, they are punished in and out of work, but playing by the rules diverts time and energy from the pursuit of their goals. Either choice comes at professional and personal cost. Sure, bosses and plenty of suitors appreciate intelligence, but these smarts must be paired with all the well-groomed feminine charms we demand of all women. If only smart were beautiful, our lives would be a lot easier.
Maybe you think I’m taking this all too literally: no one, you’d say, is claiming that intelligence actually makes women pretty, only that we should celebrate female smarts. Perhaps that’s right — but then let’s get rid of the language of attractiveness. When we use “beautiful” as a synonym for “good” — e.g. “she has a beautiful soul” — we preserve the value structure we seek to complicate. However well-meaning, the insistence that “smart is beautiful” confirms that beauty is the ultimate value to which all others are compared. Instead, if we want young girls to care more about their studies, let’s tell them that education is powerful, exciting, enjoyable, important. Smart doesn’t need to be beautiful to be great.