Perpetuating the "Nerd" Stereotype

[yup, I was reading to her]

When I walked onto campus this morning I was greeted with signs reminding the students to dress up for the various spirit days this week.* One of them in particular struck that little chord buried in my chest that makes me feel sad, a touch angry, defensive, and even a little nostalgic all at the same time.  Nerd Day is coming soon, guys.

When I was younger I started wearing glasses in first grade. Horrible glasses. For some reason my mom let me, a young child with little fashion sense, choose and they were big, plastic, and pink (see above). I repeated the process the year after with purple ones.  A few years later I got a pair of wire frames with argyle print (I am seriously grimacing while typing this). And so on and so forth until it didn’t matter because I was hiding them in my backpack and just pulling them out when I needed to see the board (they then got bent and were even uglier). Very, very few of my peers wore frames and the ones that did weren’t necessarily known as the cool ones. I was young. I wanted to be cool. I was not.

And then to compound the glasses issue was my love of reading, learning, and my overall “smart kid” status. I was given my first chapter book, Charlotte’s Web, for Christmas in first grade and I was 500% hooked. No, 1,000,000%. I read that bad boy three times before the New Year and as soon as I got to a library it was all over. I could care less about playing at recess, interacting with kids on the bus, or coloring when my in-class assignments were done like the other kids did. It was all books, all the time. This was also not seen as cool, nor was the fact I nearly aced everything, asked for extra projects, and finished everything early in class (way to brag, Christine, way to brag).

I was never blatantly bullied, except this one time when this boy who I liked clearly was mocked how I pushed up my glasses, walked, and sniffled from allergies (hello, our k-8 was in the middle of orchards and fields, thanks). But other than that I’m sure I was just too busy reading The Babysitter’s Club to notice those that probably ridiculed me behind my back. Nonetheless, I knew I was a little bit different. I wasn’t invited to as many birthday parties, I always felt that the group I claimed as friends wouldn’t miss me if I was gone, and no one rushed to be in my group in class.  

I felt like a nerd and called myself one internally. I felt excluded because I wore glasses, didn’t dress trendily, and liked school. It hurt. It was embarrassing. Luckily when I went to high school I was enveloped into the IB program, where we were all over-achievers and knew that the only way to a good college and the careers we desired was a disciplined academic mindset. But the damage prior to ninth grade had been done (I even resisted glasses until I was adult, sadly).

So when I saw the poster hanging in a high school encouraging kids to dress like a nerd it stung a bit. I know there are plenty of kids like me who feel insecure because of their desires to read at lunch or stay after class to do an extra project. They feel like nerds and they’re called nerds. And here we are encouraging the student body to mock this “type” of person? You know that’s what will happen; there will be suspenders, pants pulled up Steve Urkel-style, and glasses galore, all utilized to make “nerds” seem uncool. And while I know it’s done in good fun and no one means harm, it’s just a sad little blast from the past.

On a broader, more social level the perpetuation of stereotypes also bothers me. We, as a people, have such a huge problem putting people into boxes and then deciding if we like these boxes or not. Why encourage the labeling? Why poke fun at those who enjoy something harmless and positive and maybe don’t dress like everyone else? This is even more sobering when we consider the fact that more and more young kids attempt suicide for feeling different and for being bullied.

I know in this day and age there’s a “people are being too sensitive” rhetoric that’s being spread amongst some. But, as an admittedly sensitive person, I have to say that this dismissive mentality ends up being more harmful than anything. No, I don’t think we should all get a participation trophy, but I take issue with certain, potentially vulnerable, groups being targeted, purposefully or not. And there are many people who wear their “nerd” badge proudly, and to them I say “Good for you. You are strong and confident.” And while I now have thicker skin and am comfortable with my hobbies and love of learning, I once was not, so to those that aren’t so self-assured, I understand how it feels. Words, and their connotation, can hurt.

Let’s face it. Somewhere there’s a little kid wearing glasses, reading outside, feeling excluded, and being called a nerd, by herself or by others. Or maybe it’s a forty-year-old programmer who struggles to get a date and is called a nerd by colleagues in the break room. It’s the kid who is crazy-passionate about dinosaurs, astronomy, chess, old movies, or whatever else the masses don’t care to understand or develop an interest in. You are telling them that the “type” they’ve been stereotyped as is a joke.

Can’t we just dress up in our favorite sports team jerseys or like musicians or something?

*Just to clarify: In no way, shape, or form do I think those at my school who decided the spirit days had malicious intent when making this decision. I know it came from a place of fun and was an attempt to involve the kids in an activity; I love where I work and I respect my colleagues. Our campus typically fosters an environment of academic  success and I am always pleased that most kids seem really comfortable. But  I also feel strongly about this topic, though, so I am taking to my platform to politely disagree and defend those that might not otherwise.


  1. This is almost exactly what I was thinking yesterday. I even had this discussion, almost in the same words, with a few AP students. They were saying, "I wear glasses and I study a lot, so I'm coming as myself tomorrow, ha ha." Bravo.

  2. I've come to embrace the nerd sterotype. But I fully recognize that others haven't. It's def used as a derogatory term. Being a geek is cool. A nerd is just not. And I hate that. So I want to read during lunch? So what? So i'm good at school. You should be asking me for help not mocking me.

  3. YES YES YES. I have a similar negative reaction to "dress like you're 100 years old for the 100th day of school!". WHYYYYYY? Why are we making this a thing of mocking and stereotypes?

  4. I also got glasses in first grade and picked pink-and-purple frames. I wasn't bullied with any kind of consistency, but I do remember being made fun of for the glasses and also probably just wasn't paying attention to people who made fun of me while I read at recess (I had to keep moving though because the recess aide was out to get me for not 'playing' during recess like the other kids). Anyway, kind of cool to see how our experiences are similar, although I didn't identify as a nerd until much later in life :-)

  5. I appreciate your thoughts and perspective since I was (am) pretty nerdy myself -- but I'm not sure I would have had the same reaction upon hearing about a Nerd Day. I think this is partly because I wore a uniform to school from K-12, so the clothing aspect wasn't so much of an issue for me. I was a bookworm, always did well in school, and never felt cool in any way shape or form. I wasn't bullied, but remember absolutely hating any attention being brought to my grades or academics -- being announced on the Honor Roll when report cards were given out, being valedictorian of 8th grade, high school teachers making a big public deal about high scores on math tests in a really challenging class -- I just wanted to crawl under my desk and hide anytime I had that kind of attention on me. I still wanted to do well, but I really did not want people to know about it. I imagine I am not the only one who felt that way and it's a shame for kids to be embarrassed about doing well in school AND I don't think it was necessarily very kind to the kids who didn't have top scores either.