The idiomatic expression, “She’s more than a pretty face,” is often used to praise those who defeat the stereotype that all “pretty faces” are two-dimensional. Until recently, I could never understand why beautiful girls became so frustrated when their peers congratulated them with this turn of phrase. But since arriving at Yale, I have come to learn how it feels to have someone define you based on a first impression.
From the moment I utter a word, I am placed into a box. I am British; the accent gives me away. Any interaction I have with someone new quickly devolves into commentary on my background: “You’re from England? Wow, that’s so cool. Say [stereotypically English-sounding word]. Do you know the Queen?”
Conversations like this began at orientation, continued into the first day of class, and well, it’s now second semester, and these interactions are still taking place. At first, it was an exciting phenomenon for me. Having a British accent didn’t make me cool in high school — everybody had one! I felt a little special — I had something that made me stand out, and I knew that wasn’t going to be easy at a place like Yale. I had gained celebrity status from Day One, simply by being the token “British girl in JE.”
But then I began to hear of conversations akin to “I don’t know if I’m attracted to her or her accent,” and “She just sounds so intelligent — must be because of the way she talks,” and excitement about my newfound fame quickly turned to frustration. Why couldn’t people see past the accent? I probably sounded intelligent because I was saying something intelligent, and maybe (just maybe!) you liked me because of me and not the cadence of my English roots. I finally related to those “pretty-faced girls” — I was being objectified for something I couldn’t control.
Don’t get me wrong; I am incredibly proud of my British heritage. In fact, maybe a little too proud! If you were to visit my room, the abundance of Union Jack paraphernalia is evidence of my citizenship. And I wouldn’t have signed up to teach my accent to the cast of the Freshman Show if I were uncomfortable with being British. But my pride in the Union Jack shouldn’t reduce me to a mere emblem of the crown.
I know that I didn’t get into Yale to make exchanges on the streets sound prettier, but I sometimes find myself wondering if everybody else knows that, too. I’m not vying for waves of praise and awe, but I’m pretty sure my accent isn’t the only thing special about me. I would love it if one day someone found an alternative to “You’re Stephanie Addenbrooke? The British one, right?” I can’t be the only person at Yale who wants to shake off a stereotype. As my old youth club’s motto dictated, “Labels are for jars, not people.”
Sometimes I am tempted to put on an American accent for a day. I always wonder if I’ll be treated differently, however irrational that fear may seem. I’d just like for people to pay attention to what I’m saying — not how I’m saying it.