Ugly duckling

I can't seem to get over the fact that my sister is a raving beauty and I'm not.

By Cary Tennis
January 10, 2004 3:56AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I've been trying -- pretty unsuccessfully -- to deal with a longtime problem that may seem shallow, but which nevertheless causes me real pain: My younger sister, whom I love very much, is a stunning beauty, and I am not.

I'm not being hard on myself here -- just honest. I have a lot of great qualities; I'm compassionate and smart and funny, and I have a good job and a wonderful husband (who swears he only has eyes for me). But physically, I'm nothing to write home about. I do as much as I can to make myself look/feel as good as I can. I work out, eat and dress well and make sure I am carefully groomed. Still, I have a plain face and a relatively dumpy figure -- both of which are rapidly approaching 40.


My sister is nine years younger, and the sort of tall, lithe, flawlessly complected beauty that turns heads everywhere. She has been approached in the past by modeling agents -- once when we were walking together on a city street -- and both men and women tend to fall all over themselves around her. To her credit, my sis has never let this sort of attention go to her head; she is carefree and insouciant about her beauty (although she can still look better in a pair of sweat pants than most people do in a Valentino gown).

I know that life's not fair, Cary, and that unless I want to consider going into debt for millions to surgically alter my face and body (I don't), I'm just going to have to accept that I'm the uglier of the two of us. But even after spending all these years as my sister's sister, I still have a really hard time with it. I love and admire my sister, and I try not to let my jealousy over her looks interfere with our relationship. But there are times when I can slide into feeling crushingly, embarrassingly sorry for myself over it. This can be especially bad during the holiday season, when there are lots of family gatherings and parties for my sister to shine at.

One of my new year's resolutions is to find a therapist who can help me with this issue, although it may take a few months before I can afford it. In the meantime, any advice you can offer about how to get through the next couple of weeks with my self-esteem more or less intact would be greatly appreciated.


The Other Sister

Dear Other Sister,

Alas, the holidays are at an end and I am just coming to your question. However, I read it before the holiday break and so have been considering it throughout our short but cruel season of convertible couches and second cousins. It touched me in a particular way because I too feel as though I go through life preceded by a more beautiful, talented and radiant sister upon whom all the world's adoration has been exhausted, so that by the time it gets to me I am perpetually a little thirsty and a little hungry, a little in the shadows of some breathtaking beauty compared to which I am rather uninteresting and plain.


I feel this in spite of all the gratitude I can muster for the gifts that I possess. Indeed, not only could I enumerate the miraculous things I have been given, but I can categorically declare that there is no beautiful sister who precedes me except history. Well, it is true that books have already been written that shine more beautifully and with more easy grace than anything I will ever write. Nonetheless, here I am, working at my clumsy craft in this drafty room, in clothes from Old Navy, in undistinguished glasses, hacking away at the undergrowth on already well-trod ground. I could make myself feel pretty low if I kept at this line of reasoning. And feeling low is not so bad, actually; there's something attractive about wallowing in the drama of being second-best. It is a kind of critique of the world's justice, and thus a critique of God, if you like to put it that way.

But there's the nub, of course. If you believe that there is some perfection and grace in the world, if you have any reverence for the world and for your own place in it, if you actually feel yourself to be a part of nature's grandeur, then any critique of your own shortcomings becomes eventually a critique of the grandeur of nature itself. If you are preceded by a beautiful maiden upon whom all the flashbulbs flash and to whom all the microphones are pointed, there must be some meaning in it.


Frankly, I'd rather be the one up there with the microphones and the flashbulbs. I've got a lot to say if they would only ask me. But they're not asking. So I must work at what I work at. I must conjure up gratitude out of the plentiful air. With me, of course, it is not a question of my beauty, for I am a grown man with a florid Cornish mug, crooked teeth and drooping eyelids, lucky only in that lines of character improve a man's face. With me it is a question of fame and preeminence, of praise and acclaim, of wrapping myself in a cloak of cashmere words like swaddling clothes. Oh, it's an eternal infantile hunger, impossible to assuage, as I've known for many years, but that doesn't make the hunger abate. No, it's hunger and it's self-regard and it's a lack of gratitude for the sky.

It doesn't do any good to be grateful for the beauty of your sister, does it? You can only be grateful for the things that you yourself have. You can think your way through it, but you also have to train yourself simply not to do certain things. That is perhaps what a therapist can help you with. It's a matter of learning habits. I have had to train myself not to wrap myself into a tight ball of envy and spite at the easy successes of other men who sell words. It's helped quite a bit, actually, to pretend to be glad at their success. It's also helped to simply admit the intensity and nuttiness of my constant jealousy. It's helped to air it out, as it were.

And therein lies a trick of paradox we learned in AA. Pray for those you most resent. Pray that they get everything they want. It's a pretty good trick. If you can pray for someone to get all they want, somehow it takes the burden off of you. Resist the temptation to pray that she gets a skin disease or grows fat. Pray that she becomes more beautiful every day, and that everyone admires her as never before. Pray that she gets a great litter of gorgeous children and a house in the Hamptons overlooking clear waters. Pray that her face appears on the cover of magazines. Actually, don't get too specific -- it's easy to slip into spite, isn't it, imagining her face on the Weekly World News? So stay away from specifics. Just pray that she gets everything she wants.


I know it sounds nutty, but by thinking of those I envy not as people but as grand natural wonders, I am relieved of the thought that I might somehow become them, and thus am relieved of envy. I would marvel at Mount Fuji but not envy it, because I am not a mountain. I can celebrate the success of someone with whom I feel secretly and basely competitive if I think of them not as a sprinter at my elbow but as a snow-covered volcano glimpsed on a clear day from Tokyo. Think of your sister as Mount Rushmore, a compelling outcropping of terrestrial excellence, amazing and strange but unrelated to you, to be wondered at and admired but certainly not envied.

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Cary Tennis

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