Monday, December 16, 2013

Nature Abhors A Math Nerd In Sparkly Shoes

Elisabeth of Bohemia-Palatinate, known for her correspondence with Descartes, with hunting spear and enviable arch expression.
A couple of weeks ago MathBabe wrote an interesting post -- "I’m already fat so I may as well be smart" -- where she talked about the ways being fat had freed her up to live the kind of life she wanted. The basic idea was that, particularly as a young person, she was already outside the "cool kid" and "thin sexy girl" paradigms; she thus didn't have to worry about those things and just did the weird nerdy things she wanted.

You should read the whole thing, but here's a quick sample:
"Namely, being a fat school kid meant that I was so uncool, so outside of normal social activity with boys and the like, that I was freed up to be as smart and as nerdy as I wanted, with very little stress about how that would 'look.' You’re already fat, so why not be smart too? You’re not doing anything else, nobody’s paying attention to you, and there’s nothing to gossip about, so might as well join the math team."
This got me thinking about my own very different experience years ago as a girl/young woman who was into math and other nerdy things. When I was a kid I was thin, and kind of girly. But I was never a cool kid. Basically my social status was that non-cool-kid who has a small number of good friends who are also non-cool-kids. Mostly I didn't care about the cool kids and their opinions -- except for trying to dodge their stupid attempts to belittle or harass or whatever.

My whole life I thought of math as cool -- how could something so creative and yet hard edged not be cool? So for me the problem was never a conflict between cool and not-cool, or a concern that doing math would make me uncool. I was proud to be good at math and eager for everyone to know I was.

The problem for me was something else: basically, I had so little in common with the nerdy boys that they seemed like aliens to me. And in my experience at least, nerdy guys of all kinds have often seemed to enjoy the company of other guys.

So the social issue for me was never one of how to be freed from the coolness hegemony. I was already free of the coolness hegemony. The social issue for me was the pressure of being the singular exception or weirdo in a small group of people I had nothing in common with.

Just a couple of illustrative memories. When I was in 8th grade computers were just becoming the kind of thing a kid could learn to use, and I signed up for a class learning programming in BASIC. Nobody needed to sell me on this or "make it fun for girls": I thought it was great. But I was also a girly-girl who took dance classes and liked clothes. Continuing with computers meant days and days spent in windowless rooms with 8th grade boys with whom I had no other shared interest or even style of communication. I was like, "forget it."

We didn't have a math club but I'm sure I would have felt similarly about that. I got into drama and found other fun weirdos to spend time with.

When I went to college I majored in math, and again I was often the only girl in a sea of guys. The complicated truth is even when there were women, I felt I we had nothing in common. The other people in my math classes were often opaque to me. I wasn't into sci-fi and they weren't into novels, and shoes. We looked at one another like birds of different species across a wide lagoon.

This drove me nuts. Thankfully math is the kind of thing that makes sense to do alone because if there had been group work and collective study projects I would have been out of there so fast it would have made your head spin.

I've always maintained that there's nothing inherently or essentially conflicting about being intellectually ambitious and wearing girly fancy clothes. I identify with this four-year-old, who wants to be a princess: when told that being a princess is "boring" because all you do is wear a "nice dress" all day, she says OK, she'll become a "princess firefighter." (As regular readers know, being a princess is NOT about nice dresses and is in fact serious business! But I digress.)

There's also nothing conflicting about being into math and into sparkly shoes, or being into computers and being into Anne of Green Gables.

The world, however, does not make it easy.

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