Since you asked: The jealous woman

by Cary Tennis

By Salon Staff
Published April 24, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Read the story.

Are you trying to be the sensitive male here? Why on earth didn't you tell Jealous Chick to get a grip on herself? She thinks she "might be more sensitive than most women." Um, her boyfriend is afraid to go out of the house for fear that she will think he's looking at someone else. I'd say that's a bit more than "more sensitive." She plays the gender card and effectively neutralizes anything you might have to say on the matter, whining about how society has made her a jealous harridan. Bullshit. Anyone who feels physical pain at billboards needs some serious psychiatric help, not a dose of activism.

She asks how any woman can truly feel good about how she looks, given all of this, and the answer is: by getting a grip, by listening to what actual males "say" on the subject and not what her Women's Studies courses told her and her own neuroses reinforced. Her boyfriend is a heterosexual or bisexual male. Either way, he's attracted to women. If there were no billboards in the world, he might still end up attracted to her best friend, the bank teller, his doctor, whoever. She would still have a problem going to the beach or pool with him, or even (evidently) a restaurant. That's not society's fault. Straight people with sex drives are attracted to members of the opposite sex and this is not a bad thing. She has no evidence, no reason to fear that this guy is straying. None. She doesn't even blame him. So she needs to get some therapy until she can stop punishing him for being a guy.

-- Marissa Gritter

I think you're off the mark on your answer to jealous. Unless her boyfriend is really a callous slug, this isn't even about him. If she dumped him, and got a new guy, she would still have this problem and will continue to have it unless she does something about herself. Yes, we are daily provided with pictures of women in magazines, advertising, newspapers, billboards, and real women at the mall, the restaurant, and gas station.

I used to have a cartoon on my refrigerator that said "You know, there's always someone younger and better looking than you out there". And ... there always will be. If she is having so much trouble simply adapting to the human condition -- that there is always potentially a "better mate" out there -- she is never going to be happy. First of all, she has to give her boyfriend some credit: If he was truly looking only for someone younger and better looking, he would go find one of them, and secondly, she has to come to grips with herself and how she fits into the general scheme of things. Some women never do. They are doomed to spend their whole lives worrying about how their looks stack up next to someone else's, instead of thinking about something both more interesting and more valuable.

-- Anne Whitacre

Love the column, read it all the time. I just wanted to give an alternate possibility to jealous. What clued me in was when she said "I'm unable to keep from wondering how often my boyfriend wishes he could touch this one's breasts, find his way between that one's thighs." I was exactly the same way for my entire adult life until I figured out something about myself. All the upset and emotion was really to do with what I was thinking, not what he was. As soon as I accepted my own feelings towards beautiful women, the whole problem went away. Not that it was easy; it has actually been quite painful but that is another story. Now, my husband and I can share those feelings and I don't have to be sick about it all the time. I don't act on them, I am happily married and monogamous, but, man, what a relief to find out what was really at the bottom of it. I was so certain it was his issue and that he was a complete hussy with no regard to my feelings. Poor guy.

-- Irene Frost

She's a loony, a nutbar! She needs to hopped up on meds! My god, I don't even want to think about a person like that being politically active. It would remind me of university. What a horrible world she wants to live in. Maybe she should've moved to Afghanistan when she had the chance: There, no looking was allowed.

-- Jane Sorensen

If it makes Jealous feel any better, even the models and actresses on the billboards don't look that good. I spent several years working in magazines and saw what these women looked like before the lighting, makeup and Photoshop. Were they ugly? Of course not. But they weren't the goddesses they look like in the ads either.

What's more, these women are professionally good looking, which means they spend huge hunks of time at the gym and the plastic surgeon's office. No woman with a normal life could ever spend that much time on her looks.

Finally, Jealous should remember that men may look at the actresses and models, but that doesn't mean they aren't thrilled when they get a chance to see your less-than-perfect nekkid body. I've never met a man who complained about my thighs or belly while he was getting some. If her man does, she should dump his sorry ass for one of the 90 percent of the male population who will appreciate her body just as it is.

-- Alisa Rivera

Cary, you are usually so right on, in ways that are startling and brilliantly insightful, and so free of cant and cliché, that I have to tell you: You're wrong about this one.

This woman isn't angry about the objectification of women. If every billboard and TV commercial disappeared in some Talibanic revolution, she'd still be pissed. Her boyfriend could wear blinkers, shoot his television and wall himself into her boudoir, and she'd still suspect him -- of remembering his Victoria's Secret catalogs, or imagining Gisele as an houri.

The whole tenor of her complaint is this: "I want to be the most beautiful girl in the world, and I can't be, because I can't live on a photo shoot and be fluffed by stylists and lighting specialists all the time. And because I am not infinitely wealthy."

She's competitive, and at a dizzying level -- she's competing with the ideal. You'll notice she doesn't mention her boyfriend's glances at ACTUAL women; it's as if the actual is too trivial to bother with.

-- Michele Kellett

It saddened me that Jealous wanted to feel that for Just One Night, she was all he needed to look at. There is a difference between a guy who looks (all of them) and a guy who looks and doesn't notice the woman he's with. My husband appreciates attractive women. He also makes me feel like a queen, and that's what makes the difference for me. Maybe Jealous' boyfriend is just a cad.

-- Christine Owens

I'm a regular reader of your column and damn near always respect your advice, but I think you dropped the ball on Jealous. Yes, I agree that backing up complaints with action is important, but I don't think the real issue here is political justice for women. Becoming the next Katherine MacKinnon is not going to solve her problem.

Where I live, the images Jealous describes aren't just on billboards and buses, they're standing next to you in the subway, on line at the deli, and worst of all at the gym, and they're as perfect and gorgeous as magazine covers. And yes, our culture commodifies women's bodies and sexuality. We are force-fed an unrelenting stream of images day in and day out that titillate our significant others and spark a complicated range of responses in us from naked envy and self-loathing to the desire to emulate their perfection. But many of us manage to feel pretty good about ourselves anyway. That doesn't mean we don't grapple with the same concerns Jealous has, but we are not wracked by them to the extent that she apparently is. They simply don't take up as much room in our lives, emotionally.

One other thing. Jealous is fooling only herself if she thinks men don't struggle with such comparisons. They do. The emphasis may be different, but no less pervasive. (Ask any single, straight guy the first thing women want to know about him, and he'll tell you it's how much he makes.) If we really want things to be better, if we really want to change the way women and men see each other, we have to be no less concerned about the roles men are expected to assume in our culture. Nothing is gained when we generalize blame. This doesn't mean Jealous shouldn't feel what she feels so long as she finds a way to work through it. Only then can she become part of the solution.

-- Ali Springs

I was trying to get up the nerve to send a question to "Since You Asked" when the heavens opened and I saw Cary's response to Jealous. It's the perfect excuse to sound off, because I am The Boyfriend in a situation which has been (at times) very similar to this one.

In short, I think that Cary's response focused on one aspect of Jealous's question at the expense of the others. A part of this question was about gender equality and politics, but most of it was whether the feelings Jealous was having were understandable. And the answer is YES, of course they are! She can try to change the world but changing her here-and-now is more important; redirecting her outrage to politics is almost undoubtedly going to wreck her relationship before she sees any results. If Jealous doesn't do something about the tension in her relationship, becoming a militant feminist, with all the man-hating that often (but not always) comes along with it, is not going to help her love herself and trust her boyfriend.

You can't get mad at your boyfriend if he's not doing anything wrong, but you do have the right to expect his support and to expect him to try to understand what you're feeling. But give him a while to come around; when they say men are from Mars, what they mean in this case is that few men can understand what their self-image might be like if they had grown up seeing women in business suits and seeing men in frilly lace Speedos. Men are bred to be consumers and women producers of this image, and it's hard to break the mindset.

At the risk of sounding obvious: Yes, there are other women that feel like you do. Some of them keep quiet, others hold bitch sessions with their girlfriends (which is the way to go, if you have that option), still more decide to hate men (particularly those who produce magazines and movies), and in a twist, some others decide to hate women (see the book "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman") for playing the peacock and making physical beauty such an important thing. All of these are women who feel caught in a beauty contest that they can't win. There are guys who must feel this way too; there are plenty of teenage boys who wax their chests and wear man makeup. But it is more difficult for women to relax and feel pretty, and moreover, to not feel like their looks are constantly being judged. Some people can ignore the stuff that bothers them, but some, like you, physically can't. It's like having a permanent pit in your stomach.

The answer, I think, is to focus on your personal relationship with your boyfriend. The main thing to remember is: You can't control what he looks at. Period. Getting mad will only make it worse; you need to develop the kind of openness with each other so that he can understand how it hurts and you can understand how much he wishes it didn't. I think you already understand that and what he looks at isn't even exactly the problem: It's what YOU look at. All I can tell you is that when you feel most threatened and hurt, your boyfriend is probably not gazing appreciatively at anything; he's probably quietly hoping you're not feeling threatened or hurt. It's not as bad as you're afraid it is. If I were him, I would be exasperated with you for feeling so bad all the time that you've neglected your relationship and the security and happiness it's supposed to provide you both. In committed relationships, physical chemistry is important, but if you're not secure and happy together, get a helmet. As for his "fantasies," I know that after a while, I stopped noticing physical attributes on other people and just noticed smiles and laughter. That's what we boyfriends fantasize about. I love the way my girlfriend looks, even when she doesn't. Looks are never the issue, and if you know that your boyfriend really wants to make it with a Victoria's Secret model, dump his ass, because he doesn't deserve you, and you don't deserve the pain of being second best.

Physical beauty is overrated, so stop buying it. What you want is to feel secure and happy, and more than likely that's what he wants too. My dumb first-step suggestion would be to take your boyfriend to Disney World or, if that's too much, to Chuck E Cheese. Unless he's got a thing for mice, you can be guaranteed that he's looking at you, and honestly, family entertainment may be the best kind of entertainment for you right now. But remember, you are adults, and need to graduate back to the world of adult lives and adult conversations about adult issues. Just make sure you re-learn how to have fun in the meantime.

-- Dan Mason

A few words for Jealous, if I may: No matter how beautiful you are, if you judge yourself by the sum of your parts, then there will always be a woman who is more beautiful. If the only reason your boyfriend wants to be with you is that you have the most perfect breasts in three counties, then you'll never be secure, you'll never sleep at night, and you'll end up with stomach problems, because better breasts are on the rise, as we speak. You're perfect just as you are, and if you know that deep in your heart, then the right man will adore you for you, no matter whose shiny new parts occasionally strut by and force him to temporarily lose his place in a sentence. I have a man like that, and so will you if that's what you're looking for.

-- Emily Simon

I loooooove your advice, but I think you missed the mark in your response to Jealous. While you urged her to get involved politically in stopping the exploitation of women in advertising (a worthy goal, to be sure), isn't the deeper problem the fact that Jealous thinks her own good looks are the only worthy thing about her? I mean, what kind of self-image can one have if a two-dimensional image on a billboard incites jealousy?

Live by beauty; die by beauty. Looks are the most superficial of all the traits we creatures have. Jealous might try to get a little depth, to notice that she has something going on beneath her skin (soul? character? personality?) while the billboard has only ... paste.

-- Lana Lee

Salon Staff

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