What does intelligence look like? | Sadia Ahmed

He is wearing a designer suit. Clean-shaven, a refined British accent, and he carries with him an unmistakable air of knowledge and self-confidence. His Oxford shoes are polished, and not even his tie bears a single crease or speck. His face is stern but amicable, his eyes are appropriately bespectacled, and the watch on his wrist quickly reveals that his taste in fashion is extravagantly minimalistic. This man seems to exude intelligence, and all his respectable appearance seems to be missing is a book about nuclear physics or ancient philosophy wedged between his palms.

Sometimes we can’t avoid thinking that this is the standard we must meet in order to come across as intelligent – that the conventional, universally accepted ‘look’ of intelligence is as static and narrow as this, and that our own appearances are simply not compatible with it.

This is precisely why I am so critical of rigid uniform policies, within both educational institutions and workplaces. Rather like the common (fallacious) assumption that intelligence somehow shares a positive correlation with one’s fluency in the English language in particular, the idea that the clothes you choose to wear or the style you choose to adopt should affect how intellectually capable others perceive you as is ridiculous, and simply wrong.

In reality, intelligence looks like many things:


It looks like the boy who wears matt black oval sunglasses and a tailcoat on a daily basis.

It looks like the girl with electric blue highlights in her long braided hair.

Intelligence also looks like the girl who wears pink flowery dresses, glittery eye-shadow and fierce winged eyeliner.

It looks like women who wear saris and hijabs, their arms painted with Mendhi.

It looks like men who wear turbans and yarmulkes, who sport ‘man buns’ and dreadlocks.

It sounds like people with strong cockney accents, or tinges of a second or third language.


My argument here is not that it’s a good idea to show up to school or to job interviews un-showered, wearing stained clothes, looking like you have just rolled out of bed, nor do I think it is a good idea to shun yourself from intellectual and academic pursuits like reading and trying to expand your vocabulary. My view is that you should embrace your own individual style, and that the world should adjust to your personal version of what intelligence looks like, and not the other way around.

You are not just another brick in the wall, and you do not need to drastically alter yourself in order to gain recognition or validation for your cognitive capabilities. Intelligence is a strange thing, existing in countless different forms; its manifestations in the material world are not (and should not be) exclusively reserved for a certain ‘type’ of person.

So what does intelligence look like? Well, it exists in numerous (various) physical forms, and guess what? You happen to be one of them. It’s important that you resist the pressure to change yourself for the sake of meeting certain societal expectations that will inevitably be placed on you.

As long as you’re not an unkind, unwashed miscreant, embrace who you are and what you look like;

the rest of the world will eventually adjust. 


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