Tonight, I settled in with a glass of wine in my hand, and began watching Legally Blonde for the 100th time. It’s been a crappy week and it’s only Tuesday. When I am feeling particularly dejected, there is only one thing that can get me back on my feet in less than two hours, and that’s this early 2000s film.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, the story essentially goes like this: Girl is continuously underestimated. Girl proves everyone wrong by getting into Harvard Law School. No one respects her still; in fact, it gets even worse. It isn’t until she wins a LITERAL MURDER TRIAL that people take her remotely seriously. Oh, and she wears a lot of pink the whole time, start to finish.
I’ve been obsessed with this movie since I was 11, because it centers around a woman who doesn’t fit other people’s idea of what a serious intellectual should look like, but she literally doesn’t care, and slays anyway.
I am about to take a pretty daunting step in my career, and it’s taking every shred of confidence I have. Thus, I have way less emotional energy to expend cushioning myself against the barrage of misogyny that waits for any woman trying to do anything brave. My defenses are down, so I’ve gotta let it out.
My personality and visual appearance create the perfect blend of traits that make people think I’d be qualified to babysit their kids, but leads to surprise and discomfort when I am presented in a professional, authoritative context.
It’s difficult to explain what it feels like to watch people look at you with a mix of surprise/discomposure/smirky-ness when you get up in front of a room to speak. I am hyperaware of how my physical body is surveyed any time I am presenting to a group. I see eyes drift up and down and back up again to such an extent that I remember consciously standing behind the podium when I was teaching in an effort to shield at least my lower half from scrutiny. This is a common experience for women of any size and shape, but my high voice with its slightly lisp-y, feminine cadence seems to confirm what my body already represents. I literally feel like Elle Woods in a bunny suit every damn day
But in my career in academia, my most counter-productive trait goes beyond the physical. People believe that smart people are cynical. They expect people in intellectual contexts to be jaded, and to be so educated about the outside world and its failings that it crushes them into unfeeling, stoic beings. I am not cynical, I never act jaded, and I am the literal opposite of stoic. I am aware that the world can be (and kind of is) awful most of the time, but it doesn’t carry over into how I present myself.
This is problematic, though, because our society has taught us to believe that youthful energy is naïve. There’s this conception that anyone who appears to be light-hearted must be unaware. People completely neglect to consider that a happy disposition can be cultivated and intentional, and not the result of obliviousness.
I don’t find it useful to present myself wearing my beleaguered soul on my sleeve. It doesn’t work for me, so I decide—I decide not to do that. But, because of all the additional traits I possess beyond my personality that remind people of their neighborhood girl scout rather than their boss, I get people looking at me like this from the jump-
I could easily decide to wear less form-fitting clothing, to wear taller shoes, to contour my round face, to act so utterly ‘over it’ that people start to be afraid of me. But then what? There would still be people who will not take me seriously by virtue of the fact that I am a woman, and I lose every quality that makes me approachable. Then I’ve lost my sense of self for a small gain of an already ignorant audience.
I know the answer is simple—it’s to keep on going, and to laugh when I’m underestimated. But even someone who is typically determined to be happy gets tired, and I am so, so tired. I’ve come to realize that no amount of degrees or professional accomplishments will prevent people from seeing me how they want to see me, and I need to be okay with that as I move forward.
I know what you’re probably thinking:
But it isn’t just one stupid prick. It’s hundreds. I feel like I am constantly trying to bridge the gap between people’s expectations based on my appearance, and what I actually bring to the table. I know that I need to shut out people who don’t perceive me correctly, and I need to be braver and I need to charge ahead, full speed–but doing that isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
It might happen after my 101st viewing of this movie. It might not happen until I’m 75 and retired and only surround myself with people who aren’t complete boneheads. Regardless, I need to keep reminding myself that, were a gambling lady, I’d put all the money on myself each and every time. At some point, I’ve gotta trust that I’ll win.