Life as an Extreme Sport

The Problem with Highlighting Beauty Along with Brains

So apparently Business Insider thought that they would do the world a solid and highlight the fact that scientists can be attractive, sexy people, too. It seems the idea that there can be more to being a scientist than a messy-haired, lab-coat-wearing dweeb is not only newsworthy, but list-worthy.

Now, on the one hand, in a world where the People’s Sexiest list generates dialog for weeks, I can see why someone would think that the same should be done for scientists. And the other hand really appreciates the fact that the list was split 50/50, male and female. In the past, a list like this would have been invariably dominated by women; equal opportunity oogling FTW.

But the gripping hand. Oh, that gripping hand.

Business Insider is trying to cast this list of sexy scientists as some sort of outreach list – people who are sexy, who make science sexy. The problem is, it’s alienating as fuck. Suddenly, there’s one more area of life to be judged by looks rather than anything else, and for many people, especially many women, science has been a refuge where brains are what matter (or at least what matter first). Unlike many areas of life, in science, what you can do matters more than how you look.

Speaking from experience, starting at a young age, girls are pressured to conform to social norms about weight and appearance. I remember this vividly because I was always tall for my age, I am a natural blonde, and I hit menarche and puberty years before most of my classmates.“Amazon” was the politer name I was called. “Bazoonga Boobs” was much less polite, and sadly more common. I don’t recommend hitting bra size DD when you’re 12. It was, in a word, hell. “You could be so pretty if” coupled with being different than my peers; kids are kids and they were vicious and cruel. My refuge, the place where what I looked like didn’t matter, was the science and computer lab, where my brain could run wild and free and I was judged based on how I thought and nothing else. I was judged based on what I could control, because I could learn the scientific method, I could research and I could form hypotheses; I could experiment and importantly, I could stretch my mind in a zone where my height just meant I could reach the top shelf of chemicals, where all that mattered about my hair was that it was pulled back, and what I wore and even what my body looked like was hidden by a white lab coat.

And I can imagine how I would have felt, at 12 years of age, had I come across a list like this, because I still feel twinges of it now, regardless of largely having shaken off cultural conditioning over the years. The women are so pretty, so successful, (so much younger!). Something I can never be. So why bother? Why bother at all, when brain is being judged in conjunction with body against an ideal I could only achieve through surgery (and how nice for people commenting on the Business Insider piece to note that’s an option).

We already know that low self-esteem negatively harms teen girls, and we’re starting to see more acknowledgement of how this damages teen boys, as well. Science, at least for the people I associated with (and still do associate with) was a refuge from the pressures and a place where our self-esteem could flourish, and we could be proud of ourselves for our achievements, not our ability to be the culturally-sanctioned right shape and size for our gender.

While I believe that Business Insider had at least some decent motive, in attempting to show that scientists can be “all kinds of people,” by only focusing on the exact opposite of the “dweeb scientist” image, the article only serves to spread the toxic notion that beauty is an important criteria for evaluating a person.

As Jacquelyn Gill ‏so succinctly noted on Twitter, “Highlighting “sexy” scientists doesn’t make science more accessible, interesting or relevant. It [merely] fetishizes some scientists as curiosity.”

7 comments

  1. The list creator says they wanted to show that scientists can be ‘sexy’ and not just ‘scary’. Which is in itself an interesting dichotomy…

    I was always the weird kid with the glasses who knew ‘more than she should’. Reading the 50 sexy scis list brought me back to that feeling of *not* being sexy but feeling like you *should* be or you’re failing somehow.

    I did notice though that a lot of the ppl on the list were also really creative – musicians, fashion designers, poets…Maybe they could have had a list of sci/art crossovers and left the sexy out altogether.

    1. Well, to be fair, this did include 25 men. But I do think that it has a different effect on them than it does on women. I’d be interested in hearing male voices on this, though!

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