Three insults in the South hide glistening blades of snark:
1. Bless her heart.
2. She’s just big-boned.
3. But she’s beautiful inside.
Beautiful is a tricky adjective when it applies to women, no matter where you live. [And, come on. Beautiful inside? Unless you’re a radiologist, how would you know?]
I’m just going to go out on a limb here. Beautiful = gender bias
Like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, gender bias starts early, practically in utero. She writes:
“Gymboree once sold onesies proclaiming ‘Smart like Daddy’ for boys and ‘Pretty like Mommy’ for girls. The same year, J.C. Penney marketed a T-shirt for teenage girls that bragged, ‘I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.’ These things did not happen in 1951. They happened in 2011.”
So when I pick up an annual issue of my community’s “Twenty-Five Most Beautiful Women of the Upstate,” am I the only one who winces?
More than two dozen women who are entrepreneurs, volunteers and smart, savvy leaders of all ages and backgrounds.
And they’re beautiful?
Why no issue featuring the “Twenty-five most handsome men”?
Don’t get me wrong. Calendars with bare-chested firemen holding kittens? No problem. Playboy? Fine.
But equating successful women with the word beautiful is…old school and no longer charming. It’s anachronism that some would consider a “micro aggression.”
May I offer some updated synonyms? Admired. Accomplished. Successful. Intriguing. Beautiful? I’m not going to fall back on my fainting couch. I’m not insulted. Just…disappointed.
I remember moving back to the South as a high school student, finding myself surrounded by beauty contests and pageants. A Miss Yearbook. A Miss Homecoming. A Miss Class Beauty. A Miss High School.
Appearance. Beauty. Objects-in-training, in other words.
A teacher asked why I wouldn't participate. “Why aren’t you in the pageant?” In a sort of accusatory tone, like, Come on. What's wrong with you? Participate, honey.
Because I can’t put my talent on stage, I told her. With a lewd, smart-ass tone that got me…detention. Hey, I meant writing!
Even then I knew. When it comes to leading and succeeding, beautiful is beside the point. Even if you’re beautiful inside.