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.
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.”