Why Praising Someone For Their Brain Is Just As “Shallow” As Praising Them For Their Beauty

"What's wrong?" "I know you were online when I tweeted that story about Jason Kidd. Why didn't you retweet me?"

“What’s wrong?” “I know you were online when I tweeted that story about Jason Kidd. Why didn’t you retweet me?”

While it was generally well-received, yesterday’s guest post from Chris E. garnered some pretty pointed criticism. Some I anticipated (a young and attractive newlywed making any complaint whatsoever about married life is going to feel some pushback). And, some caught me by surprise. I had no idea that some people think that wanting some form of validation from the opposite sex—and feeling weirded out when it’s not there—made a person (at best) insecure or even (at worst) mentally ill.

This left me with two conclusions:

1. VSB has somehow managed to collect some of the most grounded, unflappable, and self-assured men and women who have ever existed. 


2. Some of you are full of shit. 

While I (obviously) can’t speak for everyone, I think we all seek validation in some way or another. And, sometimes this validation is from strangers. Perhaps we don’t all desire to continue to be hit on after we’re already married or told we’re sexy, but really how is that any different from tweeting something especially insightful and anxiously waiting to see how many retweets you get or telling a small joke at the end of a staff meeting and smiling to yourself after making a few people laugh? In each case, you did something to garner an insignificant response that made you feel a little better about your day. Why is one “better” than the other?

Oh yeah. Because seeking and receiving brain-based validation is “better” than seeking and receiving beauty-based validation. Beauty-based validation—basically, validation based on something completely superficial and completely out of your control—is shallow, while brain based validation means you did something that anyone could have potentially done, but you just did it better.

Makes perfect sense until you realize this is bullshit as well.

Just as some people were born with more beauty-related gifts that others—natural curves, defined cheekbones, symmetric faces, clear skin, perfect teeth, etc—some of us were born with more brain-based gifts. Maybe you were born with an above average IQ. Maybe you learned to read at two. Maybe you’re able to do complex equations in your head while others need calculators. Maybe you’ve always had an advanced verbal intelligence, and you’ve always been the funniest and wittiest person in the room.

Either way, these are positive traits you really had absolutely nothing to do with. Sure, you went to school and read books and shit to enhance what you were already given, but all you did was enhance what you were already given. Your hard work didn’t give you those talents. Your mommy and daddy did. In this context, taking an architecture class to maintain and build on an already advanced spatial intelligence is no different than staying fit and using a skin regiment to maintain and build on your natural looks.

Obviously, there are people who managed to make themselves smarter through hard work, persistence, and will. But even they started somewhere and were more equipped to grow intellectually than someone born with even less intellectual gifts. Everyone has a range. Some ranges are just more expansive than others. (For instance, I was born with a decent amount of smarts and natural athletic ability, but regardless of how many books I read, games of 24 I played, or weights I lifted, I had no chance of being Stephen Hawking or Lebron James.)

I’m not saying we should stop praising people for their brains. Just that praising a person who was already born smart for their wit is really just as “shallow” as heaping blessings on their booty.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Everyone Can’t Be Beautiful…And That’s Ok!!!

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.”) 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 specifically 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.” 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. 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 lie 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 smart 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 for unnecessary scrutiny

If I’m setting a homegirl up with one of my boys, and I describe him as “tall” even though he  is 5’9”—which is technically 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 of unnecessary 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  likely end up creating a situation where he’s facing an uphill battle because she’s spending the first 15 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 everyone beautiful exists so that the Halle Berrys of the world—women who are almost impossibly 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’s a genius, legitimately 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 disproportionate premium 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 the definition 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 Stone doesn’t matter if you’re not also on the cover of Vogue. 

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

The Practicality of “Ugly Affirmative Action”

***The Hill Review — a literary magazine blending essays, excerpts, reviews, fiction, poetry, criticism, cartoons and more to capture all things African-American culture — is launching Monday, September 12th. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and, if interested in being a part of this, hit us up at submissions@thehillreview.com (But please read our submission guidelines first)***

Yeah, it's not looking good for his earning potential

I’m a pretty big fan of words. I enjoy typing them, reading them, researching them, and, on many occasions, inventing them. (What, you thought “cunnilingusness” was a real word?)

In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to type a sentence, be “eh” about a certain word, go to a thesaurus at dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster to find a more appropriate word, and lose myself there; spending 20 minutes clicking on and learning new definitions, tenses, and antonyms. Along with my latent nerd tendencies, I think this obsession with finding the perfect word comes from a fear of being misunderstood; a neurosis that manifests as me making certain there’s no wiggle room when trying to convey some points.

Anyway, I’m bringing this up because, despite this need to be perfectly clear, there’s one word I try my damnedest not to use even if it seems like the optimum fit; a word so pejorative and condemning that I’d rather create a euphemistic phrase for it instead of just typing or speaking it: Ugly

What separates ugly from other common non-vulgar pejorative adjectives (dumb, stupid, fat, etc) — and why I’m reluctant to use it — is that it’s rarely accurate (“ugly” suggests a universal aesthetic belligerence — a quality very few people possess) and, more importantly, ugly sticks.

You can laugh off and forget being called stupid or dumb or even “unattractive” (the ultimate kind euphemism for “ugly”), but ugly tends to dig a tad deeper and tends to sound a tad meaner. We’re aware that being ugly might be the ultimate human albatross, and even jokingly giving a person that distinction is basically saying “your life is always going to suck, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

And, if you think I’m being too harsh about the burden of ugliness, check this out.

From “Ugly? You May Have a Case”

BEING good-looking is useful in so many ways.

In addition to whatever personal pleasure it gives you, being attractive also helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages. Each of these facts has been demonstrated over the past 20 years by many economists and other researchers. The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.

Beauty is as much an issue for men as for women. While extensive research shows that women’s looks have bigger impacts in the market for mates, another large group of studies demonstrates that men’s looks have bigger impacts on the job.

This excerpt was written by University of Texas economics professor Daniel E. Hamermesh, whose new book “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful” explores a “duh!” premise and finds some intriguing results, including the “fact” that there actually is a universal standard of beauty and ugliness.

You might argue that people can’t be classified by their looks — that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That aphorism is correct in one sense: if asked who is the most beautiful person in a group of beautiful people, you and I might well have different answers. But when it comes to differentiating classes of attractiveness, we all view beauty similarly: someone whom you consider good-looking will be viewed similarly by most others; someone you consider ugly will be viewed as ugly by most others. In one study, more than half of a group of people were assessed identically by each of two observers using a five-point scale; and very few assessments differed by more than one point.

Basically, we’ll debate exactly where people on the top ten and people on the bottom ten percent of the looks scale should rank (“Yeah, she’s good looking, but she’s an 8.7 instead of a 9“), but we’ll all come to the same consensus that they definitely belong in their “good-looking” or “not good-looking” categories.

So, is there any way to rectify the fact that, on average, ugly people will make almost a quarter-million dollars less over their lifetimes than attractive people? Well, Hamermesh has a somewhat contrived (but somewhat practical) remedy for that problem.

A more radical solution may be needed: why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?

We actually already do offer such protections in a few places, including in some jurisdictions in California, and in the District of Columbia, where discriminatory treatment based on looks in hiring, promotions, housing and other areas is prohibited. Ugliness could be protected generally in the United States by small extensions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Ugly people could be allowed to seek help from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other agencies in overcoming the effects of discrimination. We could even have affirmative-action programs for the ugly.

Now, I haven’t read his book yet (and this point might be addressed in it), but I question his methodology. While he suggests that employers discriminate against ugly people, it’s possible that people who’ve been called ugly their entire lives have developed a learned helplessness that affects their self-esteem and ultimately hinders their professional progress. The make less money because they’re worse workers and less ambitious, and they’re worse workers and less ambitious because they’re less confident.

Still, the idea of ugly affirmative action is an interesting one, and I’d be curious to see exactly how they’d construct the application process. (I imagine it would involve a ton of masks and funhouse mirrors.)

Anyway, people of VSB.com, I’m curious: Do you think that ugly is too powerful of a word to be used lightly? Also, do you incorporate it in your lexicon, or do you try to use kinder euphemisms like “unattractive?”

Also, if it is true that ugly people get discriminated against, ugly affirmative action isn’t really that crazy of an idea, right?

—The Champ

Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

Pretty sure this guy is going to lie to you ladies.

I have a serious question. I know, I know. Normally when I say I have a serious question, its not really that serious. In fact it’s the anti-serious, kind of like how painting a macrame scarf (WTF?) can be somebody’s anti-drug. Again, this one is serious.


Have any of you people every met somebody in real life that was actually…breathtaking? Or stunning? Or somebody that actually took your breath away on sight?

See? Serious.

I thought really long and hard about this one day and I realized that I’ve never actually seen a woman with my own two eyes who I’ve deemed as either of those terms. But men especially thrown those words out at women like darts – BONG BONG – when we meet them. Hell, Marcus Graham called Skeletor breathtaking when he met her by the elevators in Boomerang. And it was game then obviously. Mostly because Jacqueline Broyer was not, in fact, breathtaking.

Let’s get this out the way. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But there are two things that are fact: busted as the f*ck and absolutely banging. At least in the realm of female attractiveness. The middle tier (or the 90 percent non-outliers on the bell curve) all come down to personal preference really. But it never fails, you go out and there is some simp ninja telling some woman who couldn’t take anybody’s breath if she was a starring alien in Lifeforce.

Here’s an anecdote that might refute most of what I’m saying and prove it at the same time. I know I contradicted myself, look I don’t need that now. There has been once in my entire life where a woman has stopped me dead in my tracks. I was at Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta in like 2003 and Mick’s was still open. It was the summer and I was visiting from out of town and I walked into the Foot Locker entrance. I walked around the banister and and saw a homegirl of mine that used to date one of my boys. I saw her from a distance because she was lightskint as all hell.

Anyway, as I start to approach her I actually stopped dead in my tracks and just yelled out “DAMN!” I was stunned for 1.5 seconds by just how absolutely gorgeous she looked.

And she was at work. As a waitress. At a restaurant. Not dolled up or anything. I can honestly say that I’ve never had that reaction since.

Even when I see her now I don’t have the same reaction though she can live off of that one day forever for all I care. Point is, I’ve lived a good long life thus far and have seen scores of women. Definitely at least four score. Now perhaps my standards are a bit high (fairly or unfairly) but superbad is superbad whether your a pr0n star or a librarian. Pr0n star librarians get extra points. That’s what mama used to say. She also told me to take my time young man and don’t rush to get old. But that’s neither here nor there.

All this to say, every time I hear a dude say that some woman is breathtaking or stunning…I think he’s lying. Every.Time.

But my guess is that men say it because women eat it up. Also, I can’t imagine a woman actually telling a man that he was either of those things. That’s too much of a leg up for him. She’ll end up naked before she can spell out whatever word she used to compliment him. I have had plenty of women tell me that they thought some particular chap was “gorgeous” or “beautiful”. I’m never quite sure what to do with that information. In fact, as I re-read what I just wrote, I’m not even sure what to do with that. And I wrote it.

Ladies, if you call me beautiful, I’m assuming that means you want my wang.

Anyway, good people of the V.S.B., have you ever actually met anybody who you’d consider to be breahtaking, etc? And more importantly, ladies, just how much do you think men lie to get you interested? If a man were to tell you that he thought you were stunning, would you believe him? (If your ego wasn’t involved)? Fellas, have you ever told a woman she was breathtaking…and didn’t mean it but thought she wanted to hear it?

Let’s help that chick stuck lonely at the bar people. Help her


Four Ways To “Re-Brand” Black Women

***Before we begin, we’d just like to welcome the lovely Liz Burr to “club 30″ today. She is the wind beneath our wings, the sim card in our smartphone, the Oreo pieces in our cookies and cream milkshake. Basically, she is the shit, and please wish her a very masculine birthday.***

"Paging Don at Sterling, Cooper, Draper Price"

There’s a running inter-office joke about “strong Black women.” I’d explain, but it won’t be funny because it’s one of those ‘you had to be there to get it’ insider things. But it all stems from how for the annual Do Right Men Issue years ago, there were like fifty guys featured and we asked all fifty, “What do you love most about Black women?” The logic was, Black women get so-piled on (that was for you Psychology Today) and many feel so unappreciated, overlooked, and criticized by Black men, that it would be a nice shout out to the ladies. Don’t recall the exact number, but almost all of them started out with, “they are strong…”

This excerpt is from Demetria Lucas’ “The Re-Branding of Black Women,” a piece that asks if our favorite go-to terms to favorably describe black women contribute to the feeling that sistas are somehow less feminine than other types of women. To that, I offer a resounding YES.

We can pretend all we want that there’s no such thing as a masculine adjective, but words like strong and resourceful and enduring and supportive sound more like you’re describing a plow horse or some industrial strength Brillo pads than a woman. Yes, women can definitely be “strong and resourceful and enduring and supportive,” when these types of words are always the first things we say when asked to volunteer what we love and respect about black women, it’s not difficult to start to understand why many of us don’t immediately associate “sista” with “feminine.”

It may seem like I’m playing a semantics game by harping on our word choice, but when attempting to re-brand black women — changing the conversation from “black women are less womanly” to “black women are the epitome of femininity” — everything matters. And yes, like Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) and Old Spice (whose series of quirky ads with Isaiah Mustafa resulted in an 11% growth in sales after the first “I’m on a horse” spot aired), black women are due for a serious re-branding.

Why? Well, it’s not that black women are any less beautiful, smart, feminine, and womanly than any other group of women. They’ve just had a couple hundred years worth of some really, really shitty PR.

Anyway, while we can’t change everything overnight, there are some things that we (black men and women) can start and stop doing to begin this process. Throwing away “strong” and thinking of another, softer go-to term when trying to describe black women (shit, how about “soft?”) is step one, and here’s a few more things we can all do.

Stop paying attention to idiots

This means no more conversation, text, blog, tweet, and email space should be given to Slim Thug, Albert Haynesworth, Yung Berg or any other not really all that high-profile imbecile who might have something disparaging to say about black women. Seriously, who the f*ck gives a f*ck about anything any of these people have to say about anything?

Sh*t, in the case of Yung Berg and Slim Thug, we’ve actually made them more famous and more relevant by paying attention to them (Yes, I’m guilty of this as well. Thanks for reminding me.), and entertaining these motherf*ckers does nothing but continue the “woe is me and my ugly-ass” mindset that leads to ghastly documentaries like “Dark Girls” being made.

End affirmative-action attraction

Look, if we want to be on an even playing field, I think we — and by “we” I mean “enlightened and educated negroes” — need to stop the well-intentioned but ultimately self-defeating process of referring to someone as beautiful just because they happen to be darker-skinned. Like with any other possible complexion, there are millions of extremely beautiful dark-skinned women. And, just like with any other possible complexion, there are millions of dark-skinned women who probably wouldn’t be at the top of most people’s looks scale…and that’s ok!!!

Life isn’t a 10 and under soccer league where every participant gets an award, and always making sure to include a token dark skinned girl when speaking of very pretty women is shameless pandering that 1) makes people tune us out because it seems like we’re “trying too hard” and 2) subconsciously reinforces the idea that a woman has to be considered beautiful by all for her to be useful¹. Just because a woman might never be on the cover of Vogue or Cosmo or XXL doesn’t mean that she can’t be on the cover of Time or Life or Black Enterprise, and it definitely doesn’t mean that there won’t be men or even just one man who is very attracted to her.

Create and maintain environments that allow women to be…ladies

While the rough exteriors and demeanors many African-American women work to maintain have been the cause of much consternation, many women either do this as a defensive mechanism or a learned and emulative behavior from those using it as a defensive mechanism. Basically, they learned to act that way because the environments that many of them grow up in forced them to learn to act that way.

And, while we can’t do much about racism, gentrification, the drug war, the recession, Detroit, or Michelle Malkin, we all (black men and black women) can work to create a community where a visibly unburdened sista is the rule instead of the too rare exception.

Anyway, people of VSB: The homie Demetria began this conversation, and I’d like to extend it. In light of the Dark Girls documentary (this year’s early favorite in the annual “Hard To Watch” awards), the Psychology Today Mess and more, do you think black women just need a little “re-branding?” If so, what else would you do to start this process?

¹This is something I’ve been guilty of as well. It’s no accident that I 1) make sure to list brown to dark-skinned black women (ie: Kenya Moore, Nona Gaye, Bria Myles, etc) when I namedrop attractive women and 2) make sure to list lighter skinned women and/or white women (ie: Lisa Lampanelli, Evelyn Lozada, etc) when naming random unattractive women. Shameless panderer I am.

—The Champ

No rapture means that God wants you to stay on Earth and purchase the paperback or the $9.99 Kindle version of “Your Degrees Wont Keep You Warm at Night: The Very Smart Brothas Guide to Dating, Mating, and Fighting Crime”