Thursday, December 1, 2011

on envy; or, how you survive being rejected for another woman

So last night I went out with a friend whom I shall call Olivia, because she is beautiful and loved and talented, and this used to cause some inner grumblings in me along the lines of "excellently done, if God did all". Fourteen years later, it has endured wind and weather, and I am thankfully no longer anywhere as bad about envy as I once was.

Envy has always been my pet sin. And for a shamefully long chunk of my life, I envied my friends to such a toxic degree that it genuinely affected my ability to be happy for them. Envied one her beauty, another her brains, a third her musical ability. And I envied them all - and others who were not my friends - for their seeming ability to be happy and sexy while imperfect. For not hating themselves enough.

True story: my freshman year of college, I was involved in a relationship that I would call sordid except that that makes it sound much more interesting than it was. One night, at a cast party, the guy in question and I were talking when another girl walked by us. She was wearing a tight-fitting dress, and she did not have a perfectly flat stomach.

Before I had even recovered from the mental spiral into which the idea of choosing to wear a tight-fitting dress when you do not have a perfectly flat stomach sent me, the guy I was with poked her in said stomach and said, "Belly!" And she laughed.

My jaw hit the floor. I could not believe he had just been so unbelievably rude, and stuttered out something to that effect. They both laughed, and he said, "It's an in-joke."

The fact that it took me, with my naturally jealous nature, a couple weeks to realize that they might as well have been holding up a sign reading HEY BEATRICE, WE ARE SLEEPING TOGETHER! is testament to how astonished and utterly bewildered I was at the idea that a physical imperfection (as judged by a photoshopping media) could be the source of an in-joke. Could be something about a woman which a man might find endearing.

I regarded that girl not just with envy, but with actual fear. Her confidence seemed the equivalent of having a superpower, and drastically unfair. Why could she be okay with her body? And why couldn't I be okay with mine?

Over the years, this kept happening. My friends walked into rooms believing themselves worthy of attention and affection, and received it. I walked in having spent the previous three hours staring balefully into the mirror and judging myself as undeserving of anything but pity or repulsion, and then was surprised that I went home alone. Only perfection would ever have been enough, and my standards for perfection were unattainable. Even if my skin had suddenly become completely clear, even when my stomach was flat for that brief period senior year of college (it's called the coffee and tequila diet, and is not recommended), I would find things to hate about my hair and my bone structure and my hands.

There was no such thing as "the best I can look". There was only "the best anyone on earth, including supermodels, can look," and because I could not look like that I was ugly. Full stop. And girls who did not seem to hate themselves as passionately as I hated myself caused me to emotionally implode with envy.

My point? This is a VERY long and drawn-out way of saying that it would have been safe to assume that the discovery of my husband's affair would send me into a complete death spiral of self-loathing, especially considering that the Mistress presents as infinitely self-confident and believing herself to be the epitome of awesome. (I say "presents as" rather than "is" because the girl has stayed in a relationship with a married man for two years and counting now. Someone with a real sense of self-worth, rather than an exhibistionistic simulacrum of it, wouldn't do that.) Also she has no hips. I would have thought this would cause a major regression in me.

Surprisingly, it didn't. In the (eek) sixteen years between the "Belly!" incident and now, I have managed to learn a few things. Many of the girls I thought believed themselves to be the hottest thing in the room actually had eating disorders and / or massively low self-esteem, and simply had ways of manifesting those things which did not follow my modus operandi of "sulk in a corner and then call the boys 'shallow' for ignoring you". At some point I figured out that this body and face are all I get and I should make some peace with them (I succeed as long as no one pulls out a camera: see this for how cameras treat me). And, most importantly, I realized that it's not a competition.

I mean that quite literally. If a man, say, my husband, is trying to decide between his wife and a woman unlike his wife in every possible way, then we are not competing for him. He has already concluded that his wife is no longer what he wants. The only way it could ever be an actual competition is if he had met someone who was exactly like me in every possible way but also happened to look like Gisele Bündchen, and then I would "lose" because I did not look like that. (And even this does not work as a scenario, because if she did look like Gisele Bündchen, she would not be exactly like me because she would have had a completely different adolescence and early adulthood.) Or if this abstract other woman could play the cello or speak seven languages or give a definition of postmodernism on the fly. Then I would feel Not Good Enough. Then there would be baleful staring into mirrors and telling myself, "Well, what did you expect?"

But that is not what happened, at all. He decided he wanted someone completely different, not that he wanted a better version of me. At the risk of deeming myself a special snowflake, there is no better version of me but me, now, compared to my previous self. And I feel like I can actually apply this to the horrifying prospect of dating again, that I hopefully will never again slink out of a social situation looking back at the extroverted women with glorious hair and telling myself, "I can't compete with that." Because while glorious hair does play a role in getting the initial attention, either a man wants me or he wants someone else. If extroversion is what makes his heart flutter, then trying to be extroverted in the name of competing with someone for whom it comes naturally, for the sake of a man whose preferences do not include the kind of person I am, would be the most time-wasting thing I could do. And I have no intention of wasting one more moment of my life on a man who doesn't want me as I am.

(Yes, this is where the wise confident women among you say, "Goodness, Beatrice, I could have told you this years ago." To which I say, "Some of us have very gradual learning curves; let's just be thankful I am actually learning something from this beyond how many chocolates can fit in my mouth at one time." [Answer: a lot.])

So, last night Olivia and I went out to dinner, and then back to her house, with her adorable dog and adorable kittens and lovely husband - whom I shall not call Sebastian, but rather Feste, because he is funny and musical and I saw a production of Twelfth Night this summer in which Feste was in love with Olivia and I quite liked that. And I did not think that their love is drawn from a finite amount in the universe, meaning there is less left for me; and I did not walk out of their cozy house thinking that I will never have a place like that and it isn't fair. I drove home smiling, because I had spent an evening with wonderful friends who make me happy, and I cuddled my dogs and went to bed.

There will, of course, be days I am not nearly as philosophical about it as this. There will be days I am capable of typing nothing but STUPID HIPSTER THINKS SHE'S SO AWESOME; FLAMES.... ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE... But I believe that in the end the philosophy will come out on top.


  1. My goodness, you are so amazing. And every time I read something you've written, this time included, I think to myself, "I really hope she writes a book some day, so I can read what she has to say for lots and lots of pages."

  2. I just lost my more eloquent comment to the vagaries of my computer.

    I find myself more comfortable in rooms where I've managed to identify one woman heavier than I am. I'm still trying to unlearn that.

    You blow me away.

  3. If there's anything I hope to teach my tiny baby girl it's to not hate herself when she grows up. It's such an easy thing to do, and yet such a horrible waste of time. I'm very proud of you for your growth and for your lovely new-found self acceptance which I have to tell you is wonderfully infectious!

  4. And every time I read something you've written, this time included, I think to myself, "I really hope she writes a book some day, so I can read what she has to say for lots and lots of pages."

    YES, absolutely.