Thursday, June 11, 2009

Killing the Fat Angel in The House

It’s boring, isn’t it, how often we tell ourselves these stories of silencing the voices of criticism and defeat?

I can teach my students to sympathize with Lily Briscoe’s efforts in To the Lighthouse to get past Charles Tansley’s “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” but as I teach the passage, it feels to me like a story from another era. So does the story in Woolf’s essay, “Professions for Women,” of killing the angel in the house. I am confident in my profession. I am happy with my writing: it’s never as good as I want it to be, it’s not nearly as good as I’d once dreamed it would be, but it perks along and I am generally all right with what I write and how it’s received.

Still, though, one of the meanest things anyone has ever said to me continues to ring in my ears when I get tired or start to falter. I’m ready to be done with it, but I’m not quite sure how to let it go.

Years ago, a boyfriend and I had some people over for dinner. This couple, his college friend and wife, are good-looking, athletic, easy-going. They are a lot like the Seattle people of my youth: smart liberals, committed to living an ethical life as long as they can still wear technical fabrics on their weekend outdoor challenges. I liked them a lot and, though I suspected they didn’t like me, I really tried my best to be my warmest self that night. I pushed my bookishness and clumsiness to the side, embraced as much as I could about open water kayaking and the importance of volunteering at the local midwifery practice. I did all this, cooked dinner, smiled, and tried to keep my equilibrium.

At the end of the night, after an evening that had gone from my being nervous to my being relaxed and everything being genuinely lovely, I looked at my guy. He had a real glow of affection in his eyes. I noticed this because I don’t usually get that look. I’m pretty enough. A handsome woman, I suppose. But I don’t spend a lot of time on my looks—I love pretty clothes, but other things in life—books, friends, cheese, social justice, flowers—are more important, so I get dressed in the morning, run a brush through my hair and call that good enough. Plus, I’m busy, competent, practical, and a little nervous. Not a seductress, but a nice woman trying her best. Not the kind of person who gets fond glances or inspires double takes. Sometimes, I remind myself to try to slow down enough to note the looks of affection, the moments of flirtation, so when they come I don’t miss them utterly. So this look on his face, I noticed.

“I was just thinking,” he said, “that if you lost ten pounds, you’d be as pretty as Jess.”

I know.

It totally shocked me, too. It still does. I mean, twenty years ago, when I went to Oxford for summer school, I was friends with a very pretty woman. She left the class after three weeks and I stayed on for another three. The night she left, someone came up to me and said, “I wonder what it will be like for you now that you’re not hanging out with someone so much prettier than you.” I was stunned: I knew Elizabeth was beautiful, but I had never thought of myself as her ugly friend. No more had I ever thought of myself as less pretty or fatter than Jess. If you’d asked me, objectively, to rank myself against these women, I would have said we were very different types. That’s all. For all my anxieties about beauty and weight, I liked these women and, in liking them, didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them as greater beauties.

I look back on the Oxford comment and laugh. I don’t remember it exactly. I don’t know who said it. It seems clearly like the remark of a mean person, jealous that I had befriended her idea of “the prettiest girl here.”

The difficulty in exorcising the “if you lost ten pounds….” remark is that it was said by someone I loved. In a moment when I felt especially full of love and especially confident that he loved me. How do you forget boneheaded meanness at that level?

I’m no longer angry at the old boyfriend for this. It was clearly a testosterone blurt: a moment of uncontrollable male idiocy. But the lesson I took from that night—that people who love you may also be ranking you on some “objective” scale of their own making, that at any moment (especially when you let your guard down) someone you love may be at the ready with your grade for the evening—is harder to forget. It’s made me cautious, self-doubting, and self-hating. It comes back to me in private moments—just before falling asleep, on a run—and fills me with grief and rage. I would love to move on. But how?


genevieve said...

Oh my dear Anne. This is so beautifully put, that all I can say is "OW, OW, OW" and thank you for saying it for everyone. All us clever, busy women who have to slow down to notice those moments and then get a stabbing...Bless you.
And let's all move on; these things say more about the speaker than the person they seek to wound. Always.

Jade Park said...

Referred here via Tayari--and so I am a new visitor to your blog. Your post reverberates with me, I totally hear you. And thank you for putting it out there for all of us.

Your post is going to start some healing for women, because reading about your experience will help us get distance from our pain (yes, I've had someone I love tell me the EXACT same thing...I've had someone I love tell me very similar, equally hurtful things...all of which have sadly taken root in my psyche). And I hope that writing this down so beautifully will help you get distance from your pain as well.

genevieve said...

in fact I could probably write a book about one of my speakers...heh.
I have just discovered WYNC Classical thanks to you, Anne. YAY.

Louise said...

Dearest Anne,

Everyone I have ever loved has said something mean, sometimes really mean to me. I still remember my dear and darling and now deceased father telling me, when I was all of 8 or 9 and longing to be like the other girls and have long hair, that 'I wouldn't suit it'. I didn't know what he meant then, or why he said it. But you know, now that he is seven years dead, my hair is longer than it's ever been...

How do we move on? By recognising that their abandonment is not ours, but also recognising that if we still acknowledge it somewhere then there is a truth in it for us. I still regret not going to Oxbridge, probably always will; how do I move on from that? By thinking 'well how would my life be different or better if I had gone there' and then making those things happen. Maybe you need to do that too? Would you have stayed with him if he hadn't said it? And how would that have changed your life? Do you think he's right, and that you should lose ten pounds? Is that why it bothers you? And how would it then feel to lose them? Like a victory, because you did it for you, or like a defeat, because you did it for him?

Going back to the Oxbridge thing, which I think is my biggest regret, one of the things that I tell myself is that my experiences and friends would not have been the same if I'd gone there. Do I regret the ones that I have had and still have? No, not for a minute. And I certainly don't regret being friends with you. My biggest regret led to some of my greatest gifts. I bet not staying with that guy, for this reason or another, and not succumbing to some mythical and mysogynist notion of required weight loss has led you to some of your greatest gifts too. Like the ability to write like an angel...

lots of love pet xxxx

just another opinion said...

He's gone, and you're here, and you are moving strangers with your honesty and achingly beautiful prose. Meanness is ultimately the speaker's/actor's problem--you are not what they say you are, but they are what they do. You don't need to forget it; you are transforming it. (I also came via Tayari Jones' blog)

Anonymous said...

I am also coming here from Tayari's website. Thank you for sharing your story. Who amongst us doesn't have a similar story. When I was eight, my father laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a doctor. He said I could be a nurse, but only my brother could be a doctor and that was why he got the chemistry set.

Flash forward 50 years. I didn't become a doctor or a nurse more out of anger than anything else and my brother after barely finishing high school still can't keep a job.

Unknown said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

I come from a private family & blogging--let along blogging about things that hurt--feels strange at times. But it was my hope that I could exorcise this little bit of meanness by putting it out into the universe as a rotten thing that happened to someone, like so many rotten little things that happen to someone. I feel like it worked a little bit, thanks to all your comments.

At the same time, how sad, how sad, how sad.

We know how much it matters to be kind to each other, but again and again, we shower those close to us with cruelty.

Surely genevieve and just another opinion say, we are still here & the comment reflects more on the speaker than on us. Still, how deep those wounds run, how much energy we spend fighting back the trolls.


Edward Champion said...

This sometimes happens among men too.

"If only you made twenty thousand more dollars a year, you'd be as successful as Jesse."

Stephanie said...

Coming here from Tayari's site and came there from the Girlbomb (Janice Erlbaum)blog.

An adult friend of my adult uncle once said to me when I was 13 or so, "You know, if you wore make-up, you could be pretty."

Nice, huh?

I guess we just have to accept the fact that there are either congenitally cruel or congenitally stupid people out there and get on with it.

Of course, having a come-back like the one Edward Champion didn't know he'd suggested is nice, too. I'll remember that.

However, at 13, I didn't have a come-back. I was shocked silent and could only stare. I don't think the idiot even knew what he did to me. When I told my uncle -- years later -- he laughed, very much in character for that man. Grrr.

Just read some Naomi Wolf, watch Dr. Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly 3 and everything will fall into perspective.

Then tell all the women you know how gorgeous they are. Tell all the girls. Tell yourself. And love yourself. Not everyone is going to, but you should (others should, too, but it's not your fault if they are fools!).

Edward Champion said...

For anyone having difficulty dealing with the bullies and the boors who want to tear you down, there is one great Eleanor Roosevelt quote that I live by: "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent."

Patty in VA said...

Wow, your post really reverberated w/ me. (and just for the record, though we've never met, I am a great admirer of yours and your work and words...Love your blog!). A few years ago, i was training for my first long-distance bike ride. I was/am not an athlete, but I was training to ride my bike from Boston to New York, the very first time I had ever attempted anything like that. One day, I was out on an 80 mile training ride, by myself, and a truck w/ a couple of guys drove past and yelled, "Get off the road, you fat shit!"
Now -- they didn't mean anything to me; it was a cruel comment by a couple of guys I didn't know -- but I was reduced to tears -- and in that moment, I was crushed, unable to see that I was out riding my bike EIGHTY miles -- strong, brave, capable -- and instead feeling instantly awful. I actually heard a voice inside ask: what do you think you're doing? You won't ever be able to do this ride...!

Well, I did -- and i've been cycling ever since. I still hear that comment in my private times -- it does get to me still -- so I'm not sure I have advice about how to ignore or get over. Except to look to those people who DO love us and DON'T judge us in that way and ACCEPT us for the people that we are, in all our beauty and imperfections! Thanks for the moving post.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog (and loved the enriching discussions on 3504 as well). One thing this post and similar anecdotes reveal is how easily people are, or allow themselves to be, influenced by appearance, assumptions, and expectations, and how unthinkingly they project this onto others. It seems embarrassing that those who insult others reveal their own superficiality. Realizing that such a selfish remark is coming from a self-centered person should balance our reaction; even though their comment is hurtful, we later see it shows more about that person than ourselves. The remark may strike a nerve if it touches our insecurities, which then are resurrected and reinforced. Some self doubt can serve as a catalyst, too much creates a prison. At that moment it may be hard to bear, but as my friend observed about those who makes rash comments about mental illness, they speak out of ignorance. If they understood more about it or themselves they wouldn't be so hurtful toward others.

In order to put it in perspective, but not be smug or judgmental of them in return, I am reminded of the story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, "Is that so?"

Anonymous said...

Oh, Anne, thanks for sharing such personal experiences with us -- and for doing it so beautifully.

I certainly can relate to everything you wrote, and I don't think I know a woman who couldn't. We are all victims of "looksism" to one degree or another, and that is such a shame, especially when the rude remark comes from someone we know and love.

It's so true what everyone has said -- that if someone is rude to us, it is their problem, not ours. Anyone who presumes to "grade" one of us would do better reflecting on how he or she might improve his or her own personality or character. Often, that is exactly what the critic is trying to avoid.

J.L. DeFrank said...

I recently came across your blog and thought you and your readers might also be interested in another favorite of mine, an online lit mag called Narrative Magazine (at It has featured Woolf before and offers its contents for free. It also accepts all types of submissions (fiction, poetry, art, photography, non-fiction, etc.) Narrative also has a few contests going on now that I think your readers might enjoy. Hope you have a chance to check it out and maybe mention it in your blog or links section!

Anonymous said...

Here by way of one of Tayari Jones' past blog. There is a tremendous amount of hurt swirling within your story. The saddest element is that it is a true story. Know that anything someone says to you whether pleasant or hurtful has absolutely nothing to do with you. It is merely their perspective and their feelings and you should dare not try to understand nor accept. When we have our own rooted and positive feelings of ourselves, the hurtful as well as the pleasant do not affect us. The good is always good to hear but if we accept neither, become unaffected by neither and hold firm to our rooted views of ourselves we are better able to survive. Your blog was posted last month and I hope you have found a way to uproot what you have let grow within you and know beyond a shadow of a doubt his comment had absolutely nothing at all to do with you. Happy healing. Take care. Lenore S.