October 19, 2012

Changing the conversation

Comments that assume link between intelligence and level of attractiveness have no redeeming value.

On Wednesday, reports surfaced that Dario Maestripieri, Professor in Comparative Human Development and Human Biology at the U of C, made a controversial comment on his personal Facebook page, remarking on the perceived unattractiveness of his female colleagues at a recent conference. In part, Maestripieri said, “What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone….” Maestripieri’s comments were posted on the personal forum of Facebook, are egregious in their own right, and are his own shameful doing entirely. That being said, this incident offers the University community an opportunity to reexamine our culture of “self-deprecation”—especially in relation to the physical attractiveness of students—and how that culture can condone assumptions which are just as baseless and offensive.

The U of C has long been known for its commitment to the life of the mind and the more purely academic pursuits of higher education. This reputation has given rise to jokes about the ugliness of U of C students, from adages like, “where the squirrels are better looking than the girls,” to assertions that “the only thing that will go down on you is your GPA.” These casual, callous insults to the physical appearances and sexual proclivities of students on campus stopped being funny long ago. They now only echo the same juvenile sentiments present in Maestripieri’s comments.

Comments lamenting the unattractiveness of the student body are often accepted as being part of the U of C’s self-deprecating culture. However, this “self-deprecation” that permeates campus is especially troubling because it’s often just plain deprecation—there’s nothing self-deprecating about, for instance, a male student thoughtlessly putting down all of his female peers, or the reverse. Such generalizations are used as a crutch when students discuss social life, dating, and campus identity, but all of these seemingly harmless comments can become more malicious when they evolve into concrete beliefs about the student body.

Associating the depth of intellectual interests with a perceived lack of physical beauty fosters a culture of permissiveness towards derogatory comments. Negative remarks about peers’ appearances make blanket statements about their social lives and demeanors more acceptable. Though recently the popular sentiment among students is that the U of C gets more attractive the further away it gets from its last Uncommon App class, such comments stem from the same type of confused associations—that “normal” is “attractive” and that “weird” is not. It’s about time that we distance ourselves from these kinds of normative assumptions. While not as outrageous as Maestripieri’s comments, the belief that intelligence should be related to any other trait—be it attractiveness, normalcy, or social skills—is just as unproductive and illogical.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.