The ethics and aesthetics of being a Duke student



By Write(H)ers participant Elena Botella, T'13

When I was at a Professor’s house, a fellow student was talking to his young (maybe 5-year-old?) daughter, and told her that she was very cute.  “You can’t call me cute,” the girl said, “but you can call me smart.”

For centuries (or millennia) women have been held to a high standard of personal grooming and appearance, and yet, when women attempt to conform to this standard, they are often considered frivolous.  It is almost certainly the case that female Duke students spend more time and money on their clothing and grooming than do male Duke students, and no matter how educated or progressive a circle of women, it is likely that they will establish goodwill amongst one another through complimenting each other shoes.

It seems to me that this is a conflict facing all women, but women at a place like Duke in particular: can we fully occupy the world of ideas when weighed by contemplation of our material self?  One recalls the story that Albert Einstein could not be bothered to wear socks. At times I am convinced that my decision, and the decision of other women, to dedicate an outsize amount of attention (relative to men) on appearance represents a huge amount of deadweight loss for society – put simply, we have more important things to think about. And yet, research suggests that women wearing makeup are perceived to be more intelligent and competent.    

More optimistically, aesthetics and ethics may be a part of the same coin.  At best, the traditionally “feminine” domains of furniture and fashion might make the world a more beautiful place, appealing to a set of interests less arbitrary than commercialism and less superficial than class anxiety: interests like creativity, harmony, and perhaps with a mind to how our neurology interacts to color, shape, or particular images.

I am torn – and I feel guilty.