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"Smart girls"

May. 4, 2018
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Sometimes I feel a tightness in my chest. It’s slow, raw, dragging its feet along my ribs, kicking and scraping. I sit in that tightness, breathe in and out. My head likes to play a game. It’s called You Deserve No Good Things and Never Will. It goes like this: I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve any of the As in my grade reports. I don’t deserve any notes of praise on my essays. I don’t deserve applause after a speech. I don’t deserve publication of my work. I don’t deserve to be recognized, appreciated, or seen. I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve that. I only deserve disappointment, criticism, and underestimation. 

My academic life has been plagued with self-doubt—not the universal, healthy kind, but a perpetual stomachache of self-doubt, lingering and immovable. In middle school, I kept myself invisible and only allowed fragments of my voice to bleed out through my writing, in essays and poems and stories. Every report card I received said the same thing: Sofia’s a great student, but she really needs to speak up more. She’s too quiet. She needs to raise her hand more. She needs to be more confident. My teachers tried. They tried to unearth some vibrancy they thought lived under all of my silence, but they mistook that lack of noise for shyness. I never felt shy. I felt afraid of myself. Quiet, bookish, and lonely, I had things to say but never knew how or why I should say them. The voices that rung around me were mostly male, loud, and self-assured. 

Because of school, a thick skin of inadequacy has hardened around me, captured my bones, and to dig myself out from under, to break this second flesh, sometimes feels impossible. To be labeled the “smart girl” is to be denied failure, mistakes, exploration, and vulnerability. By eighth grade that is exactly who I had become. I never felt like the “smart girl,” as I struggled constantly with math, working until my brain seemed to splinter, and although I loved the humanities, I was tired all the time. I was called the “smart girl” and my teachers (except my math teacher, of course) expected me to be that girl, steadfastly, unfalteringly. I never knew how. I cannot recount the number of times I have been paired with a student—always male—who is the “class clown” or a “troubled kid,” essentially meaning ones who never paid attention, were mean to other kids, never listened to the teacher, and were altogether too much to deal with. Teachers would pull me aside and, in lowered voices, like we shared a sly camaraderie of some sort, say I know (insert kid’s name) is rowdy, so I’m trusting you to take care of him and lead the way. They’d pair the “smart girls” with the “problem boys.” My whole childhood consisted of this trend. I felt wanted, seen, and understood by the teacher, but only later would I come to realize that I was doing their job for them. Only now can I realize how gendered these pairings were. An inherent “maternalism” was assigned to the girls, and a “boys-will-be-boys” attitude to the boys (excuse the use of the gender binary here). 

In high school, this practice slowly dwindled, but still, certain debris of sexism clung to my academic life. I would count the number of times girls raised their hands in comparison to the boys. We did not speak unless we were absolutely sure of what we would say, unless we had polished and refined our thoughts. I never spoke without thinking for minutes on end. This is not to say that only girls do this, but rather, that only girls are consistently socialized to underestimate and undervalue themselves from early on in their lives. I never spoke without promising myself not to sound stupid. The boys, on the other hand, flailed their hands in the air with glee, overconfidence, and nonchalance. They spoke and spoke and spoke some more. They never seemed to think of what they would say before they said it. They would repeat each other. Or a girl would say something “too quietly,” mumbled under her breath or to her friend, or write the answer down, and the boys would reiterate her words exactly, just loudly. The praise was heaped on, and the boys were drenched in praise, encouragement, and surprised delight. 

It’s a generalization, sure, but this is my experience: in school, the bar has always felt lower for white boys. Those who goof off, pay very little attention, roll their eyes at the teacher, make offensive jokes, and text under the table during class always seem to be most appreciated when they speak. I am not alone in this unease. My friends and I have spoken about this double standard, these low expectations to which we would never have the benefit of adhering. We have felt at a loss. Female students of color in particular are often treated in a way that scrutinizes their every word, and if they show a hint of passion or anger in their words (very rightly so), they are frequently labeled the “angry black girl” or even, as I’ve experienced, such uncreative absurdities as the “spicy Latina.” 

Now, at 18, that somewhat innocuous (although frustrating) observation no longer seems innocuous at all. I no longer feel deluded, like I’ve been overinterpreting things, because look at the President of the United States. For a privileged white man, the standards seem to dip lower and lower. His party and supporters seem to forgive—and worse, make excuses for—anything he does. This is not a statement against Republicans. This is a statement against male privilege governing our standards of public discourse, the presidency, and common decency. The way we excuse white men for everything: Roy Moore, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, etc., etc. The standards for a woman, even a white woman, are extraordinarily higher and almost impenetrable. In politics. In everything. Hillary Clinton was, objectively, the most qualified presidential candidate in American history, and yet what truly seemed to destroy her candidacy seemed to be her emails. The 2016 election reaffirmed a sickening ideal I already knew: the first woman to become President must be a perfect woman. Mistakes must not have been made. The white male candidate could: be accused of sexual assault numerous times, mock people with disabilities, be tangled in a plethora of lawsuits, brag about sexual assault, use incredibly vulgar and demeaning language, brag about “being able to shoot someone and get away with it,” pull off a fraud called Trump University, call Mexicans “rapists,” lie in every speech he gives, and not just get away with it all, but be elected President. 

I still second-guess myself every single time I speak up in class, give a speech, or debate politics with a man. I still cannot truly believe it when a teacher praises me, or I am chosen to attend/speak at something. Throughout the nauseating process of college applications, that inadequacy clawed at me, gripped its self-hatred around my neck and tried to choke me. My friends, the young women whom I love—brilliant, fiercely intelligent, passionate, talented, compassionate young women with endless accomplishments—felt the same way. The college process seemed to validate our impostor syndrome. No matter how high the GPA, or if you’d delivered a speech at the UN, interned for a Senator, won 500 awards for your art, or received a 36 on the ACT, we never, ever felt like we were enough. All of that bubbling collective doubt rushed to the surface and hurt, hurt, hurt. The college process felt like a tangible, jarring microcosm of our collective sense of inadequacy. And although that feeling is not unique to women, it is encouraged, ingrained, and taught to us. 

Students of color are taught to work harder than white kids, only to receive half the praise for and benefits of that work. Women are taught to undermine their own intellect. Confidence seems to be a privilege we can only afford to certain people. I believe that everyone should think carefully about what they say, about their beliefs, and constantly reexamine those, but that is very different from the omnipresence of self-hatred, self-doubt, and impostor syndrome that invades our classrooms all too frequently. This tightness in too many of our chests. 

I will be in college very shortly, and what I fear most is bringing this tightness in my chest with me. Women need to be allowed complexity, anger, failure, and unsureness. We cannot demand clean-cut perfection from women, especially not our leaders, when we so wholeheartedly give the benefit of the doubt to white men. If you believe this to be an attack on white men, by the way, you have misunderstood my point—and, of course, it is not my duty to soothe your feelings—because I am not attacking white men; I am attacking the societal beliefs and norms that actually underestimate them in allowing them to do anything they want without much consequence. This norm starts in schools, and it ends there, too, because when girls and women are allowed to be as complicated as anyone else, as fallible, and every student is equally challenged, as well as equally believed in, we combat impostor syndrome and we cultivate a culture that elects complicated, imperfect, qualified, and brilliant women. 

Photo by Maanika Keesara