Message to girls: brain power more important

September 15, 1998|By Susan Jane Gilman

DO YOUNG women care more about their bodies than their brains? Time magazine recently answered "yes." In a cover story titled "Is feminism dead?" Time reported that young women today equate power with glamour and beauty. Said one 18-year-old: "Girl power means you wear hot pants and a bra with some sequins on it."

Yet the very same week, another piece of news made quieter headlines. According to the Census Bureau, for the first time in history, more women than men ages 25-29 are earning college and graduate degrees. This level of education, the study found, enables women to earn at least 40 percent more than their high school educated peers. It also improves women's income dramatically more than men's.

And so, as girls head back to school, it's important to remind them that their brains, not a bustier, are the real source of "girl power."

Monroe's lesson

No woman's beauty has ever outlived her, with the possible exception of Marilyn Monroe -- and that's largely because Andy Warhol turned her face into wallpaper. And Monroe's image serves mostly as a hallmark of tragedy -- a reminder that looks ultimately do not win women love, happiness or respect.

The women who have truly changed the world have done so because of their conviction and intellect. Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Indira Gandhi, even Oprah Winfrey -- none of them made an impact because they were cute girls in hot pants. Millions of lives have been saved because Clara Barton founded the Red Cross. Margaret Sanger, who pioneered birth control, has done more than Madonna to liberate women sexually. Rosa Parks never made the cover of People bTC magazine, but her impact on history is certainly greater than Jenny McCarthy's.

Brains over beauty

As far as I know, Sojourner Truth never wore a sequined bikini. Nor, for that matter, did Joan of Arc or Golda Meir. Mother Teresa was not exactly a "10" in the looks department. Ditto for Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably the most important woman of the 20th century. And while Camille Paglia may argue that beauty and sexuality are the greatest sources of women's power, her own influence was gained through academia, not the Miss America pageant.

Obviously, it's important for girls to be healthy and feel good in their own skin. And there's just no getting around the fact that looks are still the premium form of currency in much of junior high and high school. Girls everywhere understand that beauty has the power to excite teen-age boys. But face it: So does a box of doughnuts. I want my younger sisters to aspire to more than being a flavor-of-the-month -- or a Spice.

The women of tomorrow need a reality check: Ultimately, their brains, not their bodies, have the capacity to enlighten and influence the world well into the next century. Why should they obsess about the shape of their legs when they can shape history? Real girl power lies between their ears.

Susan Jane Gilman is an editor for Hues, a young women's magazine. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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