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Embracing Both Beauty and Brains: My Journey of Self-Discovery

I vividly remember asking my parents one day while riding in the car, somewhere around the age of nine or ten, if it was possible for me to be both beautiful and smart. During that time, I was obsessed with the show Sister, Sister, as many of us were. Each sister represented two different feminine ideals: the bookworm and the social butterfly. To my childhood eyes, both Tia and Tamera were drop-dead gorgeous. I wanted so badly to embody their sense of fashion and to have my hair mimic their gorgeous bouncy curls.

The Influence of Media

As time went on, I started to notice a theme in the shows and movies that I loved watching. All of the women focused so much time and attention on the way they looked. They were fashionable, sexy, chic, and gorgeous. The ones that were smart were the nerds, the hidden beauties. The girls that needed to be "transformed" through a makeover to be deemed attractive by their peers. After her make over, her grades would drop, her friends no longer enjoyed hanging out with her, and her personality shifted from kind to cocky. Need an example, look no further than the movie, Mean Girls. So, I began to wonder: is it possible for a girl to be both beautiful and smart, or do I have to choose?

A Childhood Question

That was the question I asked my parents that day while riding in the car. They sat in silence for a moment before responding, "Do you want to be beautiful or smart?" I quickly answered, "Smart." I loved reading and always excelled at school. I knew I looked nothing like the beautiful women I saw on TV, so I figured I had a better shot at excelling in society if I kept my nose in books. I spent most of my adolescent years daydreaming about what it would feel like to be sexy, fashionable, and stylish, thinking to myself, "I made my choice. Beauty and fashion are not for me. I need to stick to my education."

College Reflection

My senior year in college, I wrote an essay for one of my English finals about that moment in the car when I asked my parents if I was permitted to be both beautiful and smart or if I had to choose one over the other. It was in this essay that I began to deeply analyze all of the images that had been propagated to me as a child.

From Disney films to popular TV shows, the dichotomy between beauty and intelligence was clear. In Disney films, princesses like Cinderella are portrayed as beautiful and meek. Cinderella’s main attributes are her kindness and beauty, and her transformation into a glamorous figure is what ultimately leads to her happy ending. Intelligence or any form of wit is not a part of her narrative.

In another classic, Beauty and the Beast, Belle is harassed by society for always having her nose in a book and moving through life as an understated beauty. Despite her intelligence and love for reading, Belle is perceived as odd by her village. The only man who loved her for being truly herself was a beast. Yikes!

In TV shows like Saved by the Bell, the character of Jessie Spano is smart and ambitious, often portrayed in a serious, studious light, while Kelly Kapowski is the beautiful cheerleader who is the object of everyone's affection. Rarely are characters like Jessie given the chance to be both the smart girl and the one everyone admires for her beauty.

In movies like She's All That, the trope of transforming a nerdy girl into a beauty queen is prevalent. Laney Boggs starts as a smart, artsy girl who is unnoticed until she undergoes a makeover. Only then is she deemed attractive and worthy of attention.

This trend continues in Mean Girls, where Cady Heron, a mathlete, must downplay her intelligence and conform to the beauty standards of “The Plastics” to fit in. Because we all know being a mathlete is social suicide. LOL. She eventually learns to balance both, but not without first experiencing significant conflict and identity crisis.

Even in the popular show Sister, Sister, which I adored as a child, the sisters Tia and Tamera represent two different feminine ideals: Tia is the bookworm and Tamera is the social butterfly. Both are gorgeous, but their characters initially fall into distinct categories that emphasize either brains or beauty.

Discovering Balance

Two decades later, I see the world differently. First and foremost, I know it's possible to be both. I love spending time reading, journaling, meditating, and having intellectual conversations with my peers. I have also allowed myself to start enjoying fashion, particularly lingerie, intimate apparel, satin slips, camisoles, and cute matching lounge sets. Things that I can adorn my body with while engaging in the activities I love. Who says I can't put on a chic bodysuit while lounging in bed reading a good book? No one! The answer is absolutely no one. We are allowed to feel beautiful, empowered, and intelligent. We can throw on a lace camisole while making a cup of coffee in the morning. We can step out onto the balcony with a cup of tea wearing a satin open-back slip.


I am so grateful that over the years, I have discovered that what we see on television—what is constantly propagated to us as women—is only half the story. We can be both Tia and Tamera, metaphorically speaking, of course. It took me years to allow myself to be more than "smart," to take myself out of the box and see what else the world had to offer. I had to surround myself with people who championed my journey and release those who preferred I stayed limited to excelling only in the realm of academia. Today, I am forever grateful!

Cheers to brains and beauty!

Jessica Nichole, PhD



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