Beauty V. Brains: I am a Millennial Girl

by Taylor Riley


I was born to be a writer. My mother was intent on making me the next Nellie Bly beginning when she found out she was going to have her first child, a girl, to whom she gave a gender ambiguous name so people would only judge her by her skills. While other mothers put headphones to their bellies in hopes of a musical prodigy, my mother, although a vain woman, did appreciate the power of knowledge and read to me in the womb.

By age seven, I was sitting on my childhood home’s splintered two-seat porch swing. I took my tattered, wide-ruled composition book with a binding covered with pink and blue Lisa Frank characters and reported on what was going on in my neighborhood.

A car was going over fifty miles per hour today on our street and the speed limit is twenty-five, I wrote. It might’ve been just an observation to some, but to me, it was a record of the times. A report from a four-eyed mini reporter.

My dad was the influence who instilled in me how important education really was to a person, but he also created my perfectionism. It was never an option not to go to college. My dad did not care if I had the best prom dress, and didn’t understand why I spent so much on highlights to look flawless in my senior pictures. It was all about being smart, graduating college, and making something of myself.


I grew up in rural Kentucky with knobby knees, a gangly body, and a gap-toothed smile. I wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the room at an early age, traditionally speaking. Yet I knew I had a gregarious personality. Still, when you’re a kid, others see only the Coke bottle frames that you wear each day. Vanity was something that our family has passed on through the generations.

My grandmother dyed her hair blonde until she died at eighty-five. She didn’t want anyone to know a single gray hair existed. My mom always obsessed over her weight. An avid runner in her early years, she had me, her only child, and quit exercising.

“I need to lose this big tire,” she told me as she stared into the mirror, pulling at her stomach. She was  maybe twenty pounds overweight, but she was beautiful, always looking at least ten years younger than it said on her driver’s license. Men flirted with her at the grocery store, even at sixty. But still, my mom would say to me, “I wish I was half as beautiful as you.”

She put such an emphasis on beauty, pointing out that I needed a wax when my bushy brows got out of control and highlighting my mousy brown hair starting when I was twelve. When I reached high school, I became vulnerable, as many are at that age, to bullies. My first memory of this came from a girl on my dance team coming up to me on the practice floor.

“Getting a little pudgy there, Taylor?” she told me, squeezing my belly. I wore a cropped shirt and yoga pants.

That was when the first diet began.

I was seventeen when I realized boys were noticing me. I had finally learned how to do my makeup and hair and I was dressing for my body. I was always more mature looking than my classmates, but finally I wasn’t the ugly duckling. I was eighteen when I started partying and hooking up with boys. I had dyed my hair blonde from my natural brunette, and suddenly, I was desirable, fuckable even. I entered college with a newfound sense of confidence: boys loved me and I was considered the fun, beautiful blonde I’d always wanted to be. I used my looks to gain popularity with not only the girls in my sorority, but lots of boys on campus.

Along with finding the confidence I needed through boys and booze, I was using eating and exercise as a way to control my life. I still dreamed of being a journalist, but I barely scraped by in undergrad, going from having a 4.0 in high school to landing on academic probation a couple times in college. Being smart was on the back burner; I wanted to be hot and wanted.


I’ve been told I’m pretty.

I’ve been told I’m smart.

I’ve been told I’m neither.

Turns out, I can be both.

I still wonder why it’s so hard to believe that someone can be both pretty and smart.

Pretty and smart are two things that I am, and I’m many other things, too.

I’m funny. I’m determined. I’m a good friend, daughter, and girlfriend.

I wake up some days feeling pretty. Some days feeling smart. Some days, I feel depressed and can’t think of a single positive thing about myself.

I’m a working journalist and an essayist going through an MFA program, and I know I’m smart. Some days, I feel like it’s all a sham and someone will tell me I’m not smart enough for my career.

I still want to be beautiful. I still pay way too much for highlights and watch makeup tutorials online to make sure my cheekbones are highlighted just so.

But I don’t have to choose one or the other.

I can be both pretty and smart.