No Country for Frumpy Women

No Country for Frumpy Women

Have you noticed how women in almost every professional field today are subjected to a hotness rating?

Here’s a rating of the sexiness of women in academically elite colleges. Then there’s the fellow who wrote a blog a few weeks ago listing hot female authors he wouldn’t mind sleeping with (they’re queuing up outside his door right now, I’m sure).

I hear told that terminally fatuous marketing departments in commercial publishing houses covet sexy female novelists. Publicity photos certainly suggest that this is true. A fellow writer once told me about a first-time novelist who wrote a beautiful book. It created a lot of pre-publication excitement with her publisher. They planned a big publicity spree—until she appeared in person. They trimmed back their publicity plans substantially because she was heavy-set. Her putatively un-beautiful looks overruled the beauty of her book. This strikes me as particularly sad, and venal. The page should be an alternative world that’s held to its own criteria.  It’s an old-fashioned idea, one that I defend proudly, that the canvas or the book or the professional achievement has nothing to do with your physical appearance (unless, say, you’re a model), and that those worlds shouldn’t be demeaned by the intrusion of a petty culture of hotness.

What’s next, a hotness and sexy pre-screen for neuroscientists? Oh, never mind: Remember the neuroscientist who enjoyed an inglorious three seconds of fame for complaining on Facebook that the female neuroscientists at his convention weren’t hot enough to have sex with?

There’s nothing wrong with noticing beauty. There’s nothing wrong with cherishing one’s appearance, or complimenting loveliness, style, and beauty that we perceive in others. Everyone likes to be appreciated; everyone should be able to take pride in at least some aspect of their bodies, and enjoy their sexiness. But might we treat adoration of someone’s beauty as a private gift that we give to that person, rather than as a commodity for public judgment, comment, appraisal, and listing? Might we keep our hotness lists to ourselves, out of deference for the totality of women’s humanity?

In the history of American beauty and brains, we’ve gone from the norm in the 1950s that females couldn’t be beautiful and smart, to the feminist intervention in the 1970s that females could be beautiful and smart (both, or neither, or one or the other) to the post-feminist mood that females must be beautiful and smart.  

See how newfound freedoms slide into duties? Just being smart no longer cuts it. We want sexiness, too, as narrowly defined by the Photoshop-wielding distortionists of mainstream media.

In my mother’s day, you were either brainy or pretty. You were a Plain Jane with smarts, or a cheerleader. For some time, this was the prevailing opposition, in caricature. Dating manuals of the 1950s instructed the nerdy, intellectually vivacious girl to tame or mute her smarts while on the marriage market. “Boys seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” the jingle went. There weren't a lot of opportunities for the girl brainiac who wanted a career, or to use her intellect to its fullest. But for those who did stake out this turf in the pre-feminist days, at least they weren't expected to be hot, too.

In the late 1960s and 1970s feminism collapsed the beauty or brains opposition. It was a momentous triumph. "Bright" girls became plausibly marriageable; "cute" girls became plausibly smart. Women's liberation took the beauty or brains limitation and turned it into a beauty and brains possibility. Gloria Steinem herself exuded a lot of sexy energy. Feminists also challenged the entire notion, of course, that women’s worth was defined by cup size or looks. Taming the beast of beauty, they promoted women’s success by competition, achievement, and intellect rather than sexual barter, boobs, or their willingness to sleep their way into a career.

Since then we’ve moved from an idea that women could be smart and pretty, to the ideal that they must be. When I had a post-doctoral fellowship at Brown in the mid-1990s I was invited by undergraduate women to speak on a panel about Playboy's annual recruitment for their Women of the Ivy League issue. Some students felt the issue trivialized women’s intelligence; others objected that it enforced the apparent oddity that a pretty woman could be smart.

It disturbed me because it seemed to add yet another layer of obligation or “achievement” for these already hyper-competitive women: Be a medieval scholar and a Centerfold! As I wrote in my marriage book, the dream of “Having it All” became the nightmare of Doing it All fast enough.

Beauty’s shallow tyranny is such today that even material that purports to subvert the beauty regime ends up reinforcing it. Golda Poretsky has a wonderful critique of a viral Dove soap video about “real beauty.” The video is enthralled with conventional beauty ideas, even as it claims to subvert them.  Women overcome beauty insecurity when they discover that their imagined flaws aren't that bad or noticeable.  In other words, beauty is still the gold standard of self-esteem. You just need to figure out that you have more of it than you thought. To which Poretsky questions, what if others don’t really see you as beautiful, or more beautiful than you think? And, the big question: “who cares?”

The Dove video reproduces with no documentation whatsoever the meme that women are their “worst enemies” in thinking about beauty. Actually, no. Women may have internalized fears of being unlovely to such an extent that they now self-police, self-monitor, and self-judge, but their real “worst enemies” in the matter are, of course, the companies, popular media and corporations—Dove included—that make a fortune by the idealization of narrowly-defined physical beauty, and by the stoking of beauty insecurity.

It’s quite a feat. Dove and other companies create beauty standards that women internalize to the extent that they self-judge, and then Dove swoops in, positioning itself not as the author of the insecurity but as its critic, and declares that women themselves are their worst enemies!

Enough already.  Could we try to notice something else about our fellow humans? How about: wit, smarts, punctuality, friendliness, unselfishness, affability, politeness, tenacity, commitment, ambition, panache, imagination, nice manners, athleticism, good character, perspicacity, or arm span. Anything. It’s no more far-fetched to have a list of “10 Most Witty,” or “10 Most Friendly.” And if we want to do something superficial, then how about “10 Most Stylish.”

 Anything, please, but hotness. I want my girl nerds back—not the “Slut Nerds” or the “Sexy Nerds” or the “Hot Nerds.” Just the nerd nerds, please. I want the happily, proudly un-hot on dust jackets. I promise I’ll buy your book.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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