I'm a princess in love with a troll

I hate to admit it, but on a fashionable street I dropped my boyfriend's hand.

Published April 3, 2007 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

A couple of quick things. One, about the letters section: I have mainly stayed out of it, preferring to let the discussion range freely and find its own boundaries. However, one boundary I feel strongly about is anonymity. So today I deleted a number of posts in which identifying information about participants was disclosed.

On a different note, remember the Screamer Dude column, where the letter writer had a neighbor who "started out with the redneck buzz cut and wife-beater shirt, but has since let his freak flag fly, put on 20 pounds of muscle, and seems to be a permanent fixture in the parking lot late at night, arriving from his stripper job at 4:30 in the morning." Well, the letter writer told me this morning that he has taken three steps: found a person at the neighborhood association who would listen and e-mailed continual updates to that person; made timely calls to the cops; and got at least one other neighbor to call the cops.

The result: The Screamer Dude was evicted and, when he continued partying on the premises in his '70s vintage sedan, was arrested for trespassing. I'm always sorry to see someone's fun ended, but I think his neighbors all deserved a peaceful night's sleep, so it sounds like a happy ending.

Now to today's letter:

Dear Cary,

You recently touched upon the issues of competition and superficiality in your article about the woman who was competing with her best friend for the Perfect Man. But what about when the competition isn't from outside, and there's not so much a sense of winning a prize but confronting the ugly demon of one's own superficial tendencies?

Here's where the navel-gazing comes in. I have a wonderful boyfriend: brilliant, funny, will do anything for me, all the good stuff, you know? And I tend to be attracted to men with sexy brains, while lusty bodies are fun eye candy but often lack substance. I also think my partner is cute and charming in a hobbit-like way. That sort of gives away what's next, doesn't it? When we are out together -- and I absolutely hate myself for thinking this -- I sometimes feel a little embarrassed, because, well, cuteness is rather in the eye of the beholder and he also might come across as hunchbacked, chubby and just slightly troll-like.

It shames me to even write those words, because he is truly a sweet and lovable creature, and not Quasimodo by most reckonings. I should also say that I do not particularly think of myself as some kind of fantastic babe, but digging a bit into the past may give you insight to the nature of my discomfort. Consider that when I was young, I was cruelly and relentlessly tormented by other girls for being ugly, bucktoothed and bespectacled. This sort of thing is very hard on a girl, you know.

I then sort of magically grew out of that somewhere around 18, and now in my late 20s have been the recipient of many very kind compliments on my appearance, enough to have done some (very) minor modeling and been the subject of a few paintings. The word "archetype" has even been used, which of course is extremely flattering (well, in the right context, of course!).Yet there is still (and I suspect always will be) a part of me who is still that sad and unlovely little duck, and part of that manifests as being quite aware that there are probably plenty of people who would still find me unattractive.

Still, while not excessively obsessed about my appearance, I do make some effort to try to look well-put-together and nice. Given this history, it might be evident why walking down the street with my darling causes some self-consciousness. I'm mortified to say that I have on a few occasions not held his hand because of incidental stares (especially in the more fashionable parts of town -- which should really cause me to sneer and hold him tighter, right?). I also have been bugging him more frequently to stop hunching (he's already shorter than me and his posture makes it worse). By all accounts I should not (and tell myself regularly that I do not) care what others think, and what is most important is that my dear is smart and funny and loves me. He doesn't dress badly and is exceedingly polite (verging on obsequious, but that's another issue).

Yet this feeling keeps nibbling away. It's not so present that it should cause us to break up, but I'm wondering what can be done about my reaction, which is frankly just disgraceful. I've read all the feminist fairy tales about princesses who fall in love with short, strange men and so forth, and I wholeheartedly support that -- at least I very much want to. So why can't I make this situation work for me and forget about all the silly trappings of our appearance-engrossed culture? I hate that it has the power to torment me, but my efforts to ignore it have met walls. Any ideas of how to eliminate this beast once and for all?

Elf Loves Hobbit

Dear Elf,

What I love about your letter is the way you love your boyfriend and hate yourself for having the thoughts that you have. It is profoundly human, and very complex. You are doing your best to deal with this. I will try to point you in a helpful direction.

In a sense, we do wear each other when we go out. We do not say to each other, I'll be wearing you this evening, and you'll be wearing me. So could I wear you in that velvet smoking jacket? And you can wear me in my white gown that draws admiring stares? We don't admit that we are wearing each other, nor that what we are wearing brings us glory or shame, that we secretly at times want to fling off the garment that is our partner.

But no matter how special you look, whether your boyfriend looks fabulous or slovenly, remember this: It is you who feels the shame. The shame is in your own heart. It comes from that deep place in you where you do not feel good enough. It comes from those memories of being the ugly duckling. It comes from that powerful wish to be revered as a princess.

I saw a princess in the Paris airport last year. She was tall and wore a crown. As I stared at her, wondering if she really was a princess, and thinking to catch her eye, her gaze went out across the tops of all our heads and her eyes passed through me like a knife and I was cut and blessed -- cut, but cut by such a beautiful princess that to be cut was to be blessed. And then she was gone in an instant.

The difference in our stations was palpable. That was a princess. I am a commoner.

I'm cool with that.

You alone can give yourself the deep, existential approval and love that you need.

You don't need a judge and jury on a fashionable street to give you what you need. You need an existential spa treatment in the Valley of Self-Acceptance. You need a big, hot bubble bath of deep compassion. You need to cover your hurt, questing, wounded self in a eucalyptus of forgiveness. You need to remind yourself how beautiful you are, and that you have the right to choose any boyfriend you like, because your beauty is enough for both of you.

It may not seem at first that this is true about how much power you give the crowd. You do not consciously say to them, "O glittering crowd on the very fashionable street, my most humble apologies for this despicable creature who has attached himself to me! I am so sorry. He does not know how wise you are in your judgments. Forgive me for cluttering up your loveliness with this eyesore! I am deeply sorry for my transgression! Will you please allow us to pass, even though we are contemptible?"

What you really would like to say to the crowd, I suspect, is something like this: "O glittering crowd on the fashionable street, have you met my wonderful boyfriend? Have you any idea how cool he is? Just look at him! He may not look all that cool at first glance, but he is very wonderful, polite and humble but also strong and brilliant, and very funny too! And isn't it cool that he does not look like you, that he even hunches over a little and is kind of chubby? Don't you agree that he's very, very cool?"

If this is what is in your mind when you approach them, you will perhaps hold your head up high and clutch him closer to you. And of course the only way you have the courage to maintain this point of view is that you have granted yourself a vast supply of self-love.

Now having said that, I'm not saying appearance isn't important, nor am I suggesting that you delude yourself into thinking you are what you are not. I am talking about simple honesty and self-respect. Most of the time we look good enough. Sometimes we are ordinary and we appear ordinary. We are not always dazzling.

Sometimes it would be nice to say to the crowd, "Hello, crowd, as you see, this evening I am dressed in quite ordinary a fashion, even perhaps a boring or ugly way, but that is because I am not really feeling so very dazzling this evening and actually prefer to come before you as I am. I trust that you will not be terribly inconvenienced by my lack of dazzling beauty, that you will go on living your lives as you did before you saw me."

Once you get it through your head that fixing your boyfriend isn't going to fix your old shame, maybe you can have some fun with this. You strike me as artistic and iconoclastic. Why don't you and he sort of do a costume thing where you make yourselves beautiful for each other? You know, dress in period costume, put on makeup, or be like goths or something. I really love living in a city of creative misfits, people who were not the king and queen of the prom but who have a deep and evolved sense of beauty. They put themselves together and parade about town and it makes urban life richer. It reminds us of the theatrical possibilities in everyday life. It's a wonderful victory of aesthetics over flesh.

Make it a fun thing. You apparently live near some fashionable areas. So go to a fashionable clothing outlet on one of these fashionable streets and get outfits and go around together as very chic rock 'n' rollers, or as people out of "Les Liaisons dangereuses" or something. Do it up! It will be fun and in the process you may confront these demons of shame in a very concrete way. Because what you seek is a look that says you know the difference between who you are and who you appear to be.

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