While reorganizing a couple of my closets a few weeks ago, I came across a few folders saved from my time as an educator. After going through the usual reminisces (ie: “Wow. David Jones. I wonder if he ever graduated college?”) and projections (ie: “Wow. Sasha Johnson. I’m sure she’s one of the top
strippers hairdressers in Atlanta now.”)Â that occur when seeing names you haven’t seen in a while, I found the evaluations of a couple dozen or so students who were assigned to complete a semester long project.
Although these evaluations were based on their work on the project, they were specificallyÂ tailored to each student, providing a panoramic assessment of all of their work so far that year. But, although they were supposed to be unique to each student’s particular characteristics, I noticed the same word popping up in every single one of the evaluations: Smart
One was “…hard-working, smart, and funny.”Â Another was “…laidback, smart, but occasionally disinterested.” One was even “…too smart to just be a distraction.” There was a variation of smart in each of the 25 or so evaluations I read. Thing is, at least 10 (and as many as 15) of those evaluations were lies. I did not have a classroom full of smart kids. Some were decidedly unsmart. A couple were f*cking idiots.
If you take 25 random high school students, some of them are going to be smart, some of them are going to be average, and some are going to be below average.Â That’s just the way the world works, and in my own rush to assign above average intelligence to each student, I lied. It wasn’t an intentional lie, but it was a lieÂ nonetheless.
And, to be clear, just because a student doesn’t have above-average intelligence doesn’t mean that I needed to call them stupid or dumb. There are thousands of other positive adjectives that can be used—adjectives that would do a better job of truly describing a student than just falling back on “smart”—and it’s the job of a teacher/evaluator to find and incorporate them. But, in my haste to make everyone feel good, I failed them.
I thought of this yesterday while reading an online excerpt of a magazine profile on a notable female celebrity. This woman is many very positive things—extremely smart, talented, witty, accomplished, graceful, engaging, noble, athletic, altruistic, rich, etc—but “beautiful” is not one of them. I will not say who this person was, but trust me when I tell you that hers wouldn’t be the 1st, 2nd, or 122nd name thought of when thinking of beautiful celebrities. Yet, when the author of the piece was describing her, “beautiful” was stuck in there, so obviously perfunctory and so obviously wrong that I re-read the paragraph to make sure they were still talking about the same person.
I realize that beauty, like intelligence—shit, like everything-–is relative. I also realize that exactly what constitutes beauty varies from person to person. (Well, varies somewhat.) But, while reasonable people will agree that most people aren’t smartÂ or tall or athletic—because, well, the definitions of tall, smart, and athletic are inherently exclusionary—some of these same reasonable people throw reason out the window when beauty is in the picture.
And, when you allow a self-conscious political correctness to stretch the definition of a superlative adjective to include everyone, three things occur.
1. It makes the word meaningless
Basically, if everyone is beautiful, no one is beautiful.
2. It sets people up forÂ unnecessaryÂ scrutiny
If I’m setting a homegirl up with one of my boys, and I describe him as “tall” even though he Â is 5’9”—which isÂ technicallyÂ taller than the average American male—I’ve basically set her up to be disappointed, made myself seem like a liar, and set him up for a shitload ofÂ unnecessaryÂ judgment.
It’s not that I should have just called him short. If I would have focused on his other positive qualities, his height probably wouldn’t have been an issue. But, by stretching the truth, I’d Â likely end up creating a situation where he’s facing an uphill battle because she’s spending the first 15Â minutes of the date thinking to herself “I know this n*gga Champ didn’t have the nerve to call this dude tall! WTF?”
And, most importantly…
3. It does the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do
I realize that this push to make everyoneÂ beautiful exists so that the Halle Berrys of the world—women who are almost impossiblyÂ gorgeous—aren’t the only ones made to feel pretty, appreciated, attractive, and, most importantly, valuable. And, while I do think beautiful is overused, there are two sets of people who can never use that word too much when describing the women they care about: fathers and significant others. Daughters should always be made to feel beautiful by their dads, and women have no business being in relationships with men who don’t make them feel like they’re uniquely beautiful.
But, while the intent is noble, bending over backwards to call every woman beautiful does nothing but reinforce the idea that beauty is the only trait a woman can possibly possess that matters. It doesn’t matter if she’sÂ a genius,Â legitimatelyÂ brilliant, outrageously witty, or impossibly accomplished. She can cure cancer, swim across the Pacific, ghostproduce the rest of “Detox” for Dr. Dre, and perform a successful exorcism on Katt Williams, but beautiful still has to somehow find its way into any description of her.
I know, I know, I know, I know. There’s a disproportionateÂ premiumÂ on a woman’s beauty/physical attraction (or lack thereof), and it’s unfair to suggest that women stop doing something that’s only done because of male influence. This may be true, but continually testing the elasticity of theÂ definitionÂ of beautiful to fit everyone isn’t the way to change that. It worsens it actually, reemphasizing the idea that making the covers of Time, People, Black Enterprise, Wired, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Rolling StoneÂ doesn’t matter if you’re not also on the cover of Vogue.Â
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)