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When Do Girls Stop Trying to Look Smart?

When Do Girls Stop Trying to Look Smart?

I can't remember when I learned women had a marginalized history, but I remember thinking it didn't make sense; girls were smarter than boys. There was evidence of it everywhere in elementary school. Boys forgot their homework, kept disheveled desks, and never participated. Because of this I'm not really surprised to learn a new study found girls believe they are cleverer, better behaved, and harder working than boys, and by age eight boys believe girls are better, too.

Yet in junior high, something changes and a lot of girls stop trying. It becomes uncool to look smart, which reminds me of my high school self. While I never wanted to look stupid, I had a rule to actively curb looking like a kissup: I never, or at least very rarely, answered more than one question per class. Enough to satisfy participation requirements, but not enough to get a bad rap among students.

All this reminds me of a This American Life episode where Robin Epstein, a question writer for a now-defunct trivia show for teenage girls, lamented how hugely she overestimated teen girls' intelligence. The show was a disaster. Girls could hardly answer anything, and the questions had to be dumbed down until they looked like boy-crazy ditzes. The very stereotype the show was trying to fight.


In This American Life, Robin cites research done by feminist Carol Gilligan, who has written several books on girls and women. She found that until age 11, girls want to raise their hands and give the right answer, but around 12 or 13 something changes and looking smart becomes a liability.

Given the age, I can only presume that change is puberty and an interest in boys. Maybe they don't want to intimidate the boys who've conceded girls are smarter since age eight? What do you think changes?

Image Source: Thinkstock
Join The Conversation
amber512 amber512 6 years
I was always the small fish in the big pond of honors classes. I qualified for them, but just barely. So I spent most of my time trying to study as hard as possible so I could get along with all of those smarties!
Studio16 Studio16 6 years
I don't remember when I stopped acting smart, but I do remember that I started acting stupid around the time I started high school. Because "smart girls only got attention from dorky guys." I will admit, it did get me attention, but probably not the best kind.
KadBunny KadBunny 6 years
When it came to boys, it wasn't til senior year that a disinterest in school became a real turn-off for me. Before then I'll admit I dumbed down my demeanor, too. For both genders. No one wants to be called "Miss Perfect" or a know-it-all. (Even if, at times, I did know it all. LOL. Just kidding. ;)) I did the same things though. I didn't feel comfortable raising my hand more than once. I can't count the number of times I was screaming an answer in my head, but already reached the 1-answer quota, then hearing the teacher say the exact same thing I was thinking and going "DAMN". Totally regret it now, but hey. Groupthink.
kimmieb124 kimmieb124 6 years
I don't think it's just about boys. I work in a middle school and bullying and teasing peaks with this age group. Girls are especially mean to each other and desperately want to blend in and not be singled out. Because being smart can make someone stand out, girls try to hide it in order to fit in and not be stuck on the bottom rung of the social hierarchy.
Frenched Frenched 6 years
I never really tried to downplay my "smartness" in school. I was always proud of it. Well, now that I come to think about it, I did try to downplay a bit because I started getting comments from my female classmates calling me "Miss Perfect" and stuff and that actually hurt me a bit. I wanted to keep getting good grades, but I was just really modest about it. A bit shy in school so I didn't really raise my hand at all.
onlysourcherry onlysourcherry 6 years
Okay, I'll be the first one here to admit that I was an A student all through grade school and, just like the article says, I then decided to act ditzy when I got to middle school. I still got A's, but I was super embarrassed about them. I think it was because my friends went ditzy around this same time and I wanted to still fit in with the cool girls. Thank god I got over it in high school!
Girl-Jen Girl-Jen 6 years
The only thing that I can think of is teasing. When I was a little kid, I treated school as a game show. I thought it was awesome to answer all the questions and answer them right! As I got older, I started getting picked on. By the time I was in middle school, my goal was to call as little attention to myself as possible. I still did well in school (because, hey, it seemed like the only thing I could do well!), but I did so in a very quiet, unassuming way.
GlowingMoon GlowingMoon 6 years
I have no idea, as this does NOT relate to me. I've always been intelligent (if I do say so myself :)), and done well in school. I never hid that. :) Incidentally, the boys and men I attracted liked that I'm smart. My husband included.
skigurl skigurl 6 years
I never purposely stopped trying to look smart. I always was and everyone knew it, but guys never seemed to care. However, answering a million questions during class is just downright annoying, so maybe if I downplayed that aspect of my "smarts" I was just doing so because I, too, found it annoying when people kissed ass too much and took up too much time in class with their incessant questions and comments. Because I'm smart in school but also smart socially. I can't stand brains (or anyone) who don't know they're annoying.
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