Three months ago, a host of a radio show interviewed me after reading a post I'd written for my blog. When the interview was over, the radio host made a brief, off-the-record comment that stayed with me.
(Disclaimer: I’m about to get into some pretty contentious stuff. If you can’t take the heat, head over to the X on the top right of your browser and click that bad boy now).
“Sheena,” the host began, “while reading your article, I pictured you looking like Amy Schumer. Then I found out what you looked like" -- I guess by Googling me -- "and it was a pleasant surprise.”
At first, her words seemed harmless; in fact, I was flattered. I thanked her and hung up the phone.
As I thought about it more, I began to feel uncomfortable. Wait, I thought. Was that a backhanded compliment to me or a straight-up insult for Amy Schumer? Or -- worse -- was it a dig at me?!
It wasn't the first time someone had put down my worth. One of the many reasons things didn't work out with my douchewad ex is that his sexism wore me out.
For example: When our relationship was still young, I showed him a song I'd written. At first, he was surprised by what I'd produced. And then he laughed. I was unnerved by how quickly he could change his mind.
"Oh, Sheena," he said. "This is cute. You gonna go finish putting on makeup now?”
Cute? I didn't want people to find my work cute; I wanted them to feel things because of it.
“I feel like you’re discrediting my work,” I fired back. “It isn’t shoddy, and I’m not stupid.”
But no matter what I said, I was just a pretty face to him.
I ended that relationship, and I’ve begun a new period of reflection. Lately, I've been thinking about one thing in particular: Why don’t we believe a woman can be smart and beautiful? Why does she always have to be one or the other?
Think about it. We see Adriana Lima as beautiful and Lena Dunham as smart. Scarlett Johansson is a looker, but Mindy Kaling is a brainiac.
And good writers (like me, presumably, in the interviewer's mind) are compared to Amy Schumer (and there's nothing wrong with looking like Amy Schumer).
But God forbid any one of the women possess more than one praiseworthy quality. People's judgments about women are confounding.
I’ll tell you why we don’t believe a woman can be both: because we let a woman’s beauty blind us. Beauty and brains are strong forces, but we seem concerned with just one.
We use beauty as an excuse to stop ourselves from getting to know a beautiful woman as deeply as we would get to know someone else. By failing to dig beneath the surface, we erroneously assume beautiful women are dumb.
People operate under the widely held misconception that pretty girls get everything they want -- and that they use their looks to get what they want. They assume pretty girls are handed nice things on silver platters.
If I could count the number of times someone said some version of this to me, I’d be out of fingers and toes (side note: I’m already out of patience).
A jackass accused me of using my looks at a bar to get the bartender's attention. It's true that they may have helped a little, but that same jackass assumed I was pretty but simple-minded. He couldn't have been more wrong.
I'd used my smarts, too. I was determined. I pushed my way through the crowds just like everyone else -- while tolerating relentless elbowing and shoving -- and made my way to the front.
But he tried to discredit my effort. I wasn’t "given" anything: I earned that f*cking beer the same way the jackass standing next to me did.
Let’s take Taylor Swift, an example easier to swallow than a spoonful of apple sauce. Public opinion has turned against her because she made the switch from country crooner to unapologetic pop princess (who just so happens to pose with a model posse).
Dayna Evans examines (poorly) on Gawker how society takes the idea of a beautiful woman and turns it on its head:
“Lena Dunham said her experience on stage with Swift’s model friends made her feel chubby and short, and you have to wonder if someone in Dunham’s position feels that way, preteens and young women watching all this immaculate perfection probably feel even worse.”
But Evans forgot something. People's newfound hatred for Swift isn't due to a fault in Ms. Swift’s character; it's because of insecurities that parallel Dunham's.
Evans’ argument has a foundation shakier than the San Andreas Fault. She makes claims with little evidence -- the same way my ex and that radio host did.
Okay, so Swift likes to take pictures with her equally-as-beautiful #squad; it isn’t her fault that she’s thin, leggy and has the eyes of an angel. It's genetics.
But the fact is that she’s hot, and her friends are hot, and we make generalizations about her because then we can categorize Swift more easily. And by processing her public image in such a way, we make women feel as though they have to pick and choose between being beautiful and making something worth reading, or seeing or listening to.
We can't be both; if we were, we'd be unstoppable (if unsupported).
The more Swift appeals to her beauty and femininity, the less credible we find her music.
We listen to it with a grain of salt. We’ve become master fabricators, making up stories to belittle her and, most importantly, her art.
She got into this business for the music, and she’s learned to stay in it by continuing to make good music, coupled with shaking what her mama gave her.
The danger lies in the following: Not only do we bash on celebrities -- leaving a bad example for the audiences who follow entertainment news -- but we also hate on the "regular" woman. By body- or- mind-shaming, we trivialize a woman’s feelings and damage her self-esteem.
We have to stop classifying women as either brainy or beautiful. It’s because of our faulty compartmentalization that we lose clarity.
If we can learn to stop viewing beauty and brains as separate entities, we can learn to appreciate a woman as a whole -- and see her for who she really is.
The most important point I want to make is a woman doesn’t want to be called only beautiful. On its own, the compliment is weak; it means little on its own. Just ask my slick-as-hell coworker.
To the men out there reading this: Keep that in mind the next time you try to pick a girl up in a bar by calling her "beautiful." You prove your naïveté by seeing only her physical worth.
T-Swizzy works hard, people. So do I. Perhaps we’re threatened by a smart, beautiful woman because the world is her oyster, and that scares the absolute sh*t outta the rest of us.
But let’s not forget that pretty girls have problems and get their hearts broken, too. Let’s not undermine their accomplishments because of they way that they look.
The next time you meet a beautiful woman, I’d like you to judge her only after she’s opened her mouth. In the end, it’s only her words that count. The words of my ex are immortalized, but that doesn’t make them true.
Your move, ex-boyfriend.