what your therapist really thinks

‘I Feel Bad Because My Friends Aren’t Attractive!’

Photo-Illustration: James Gallagher

Dear Therapist,

Please bear with me as I try to give some context for what is going to sound very unpleasant. I am a reasonably attractive woman in her early 30s. I have a long-term, doting partner and we are extremely happy in our relationship. I am part of a female friendship group that would typically be considered very attractive, slim, and fit. Most of us have long-term partners and when we go out, most of us are never short of propositions from male suitors.

My problem is this: I have two friends who would not be described as conventionally attractive. They are both longing for a partner and a family, and as we all get farther into our 30s, this is becoming increasingly problematic.

All I want for them is to be happy, and it’s making me so sad to see such wonderful people being constantly rejected and humiliated in the dating scene. It also seems particularly unfair to me that so many of our mutual friends are objectively beautiful women and receive what is almost an embarrassing amount of attention from men. The comparison is drawn, and it’s obvious what the problem is for these two lovely friends.

I have done my best to listen and be empathetic, I encourage them to find hobbies and ways to meet men outside of our social circle, but they are both at a point now where I would say that they are suffering from some level of depression. I am constantly begging them to seek the help of a therapist so that they can learn to love themselves despite the fact that much of male society thinks they are not worth loving, but they ask me what use that could possibly be when what they truly want is a partner and a family. I’m stuck. I’ve repeated the same encouragement so many times that I have nothing left to say.

I am widely considered to be an honest friend, sometimes even brutally so. I want to support my friends through the difficulty of what they are experiencing but I often find myself saying something flippant in order to avoid the reality of the situation. I want to know how I can help these two loving, worthwhile women. I am tired of seeing them suffer and want to help them to help themselves. I hope I don’t sound heartless when I say they are not “pretty” but I think their success rate in the dating world speaks for itself — they often can’t get past a first date. Please help me!


Desperate to Help

Dear Desperate to Help,

Several years ago, a young woman I’ll call Holly sat on my couch, sobbing, as she recounted a humiliating incident from the weekend before. At a bar, a cute guy came over and struck up a conversation with her, but soon she realized that he was simply doing his friend a favor — his friend, it turned out, had his sights set on Holly’s “gorgeous” friend, and the guy talking to Holly had no actual interest in her. After an hour of flirtation, the gorgeous friend was asked for her number, while Holly was left with, “Well, hey, take care.”

This sort of thing had been happening since high school. At parties, at lunchtime, in the hallways — always, Holly said, her “gorgeous” friends got all the attention. Guys either liked Holly “as a friend,” or used her to get closer to her bevy of beautiful buddies.

Her conclusion? She must be terribly unattractive.

Holly wasn’t unattractive — but nor was she someone who might consistently turn heads. She was attractive in the way that most people are, meaning, not within the media’s very narrow definition. (For women: tall, skinny, large breasts, smooth long hair, carefully applied makeup that doesn’t look like makeup. For men: tall, muscular, chiseled jawline, great hair.) There was nothing unappealing about her appearance, nothing to “repulse” men (her word) or make them “reject” her (again, her word). She wasn’t “unlovable” or “a troll” — not by a long shot. And I don’t mean that she was “nice” or “had a great personality.” I mean that she was a normal-looking woman who, I was sure, many men would find attractive and sexy — and easily fall in love with — if she didn’t walk around with a sign on her forehead that said, “I hope you can get past how ugly I am.”

As a therapist, I couldn’t make this woman into a supermodel. But I could show her that her belief that her appearance was her problem was the problem — not her actual appearance.

Together, we looked at why she had a history of spending so much time in situations that made her feel bad. I wondered what she liked about the friends she chose — both in high school and since then — given how often she felt bad after spending time with them. But she said that they didn’t make her feel bad. Instead, she said, they made her feel that she was cool and funny and entertaining enough to hang out with, even if she wasn’t the prettiest. In this way, they made her feel valued.

Still, I wanted Holly to consider why she also felt “depressed” after hanging out with her friends. On the one hand, she felt valued by being included. On the other, she also felt “less than.” And in subtle ways, without being aware of it, her friends may have thought of her as “less than,” too. I wondered: Did they consider her an equal? Did they pity her? Did it make them feel good about themselves to be in the company of somebody less conventionally attractive? (Studies show that people are perceived to be more attractive when standing with a less attractive person of the same gender.) It’s hard to have a friendship in which one person feels superior. It’s not that people who are more attractive (or talented or intelligent or wealthy or successful) shouldn’t befriend people who are less so and vice versa. It’s only a problem if there’s a sense of superiority that comes with it.

Which brings me to back to you, DTH, and your question about how you can help your two friends. You may not realize how damaging your “I feel so sorry for them” attitude is. While I have no doubt that you care about your friends, there’s a difference between compassion and pity, and if you pity them, even privately, you send them a message that’s not just damaging but untrue. Your contention, for instance, that “the fact that much of male society thinks they are not worth loving” is hardly a “fact.” Sure, the men who hit on the “very attractive, slim, and fit” women in your social circle may not be drawn as strongly to these two friends based on the dynamics of a bar. But how you go from that to the conclusion that “much of male society thinks they are not worth loving” is quite a leap!

How do you explain the statistical majority of women in the world who aren’t “very attractive, slim, and fit” — and yet somehow find themselves married to men who presumably consider them “worth loving”? Observe any public place that’s not a pickup scene — the post office, Costco, the DMV, the TSA line at the airport — and look at the preponderance of women who might not fit the “very attractive, slim, and fit” description but have wedding rings on their fingers or boyfriends holding their hands. Next time you’re jogging around a park on a lovely Sunday, take a look around you. Look at all the average-looking people! Look at all of these not-conventionally-hot people sitting with their partners and families, laughing or kissing or chasing their kids across the grass.

I don’t think you know what “the reality of the situation” is. And without intending to, you’re contributing to your friends’ belief in this so-called reality.

There are plenty of attractive and loving men available to your two friends. These women may “not get past a second date” for reasons that have less to do with their appearance than the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors they’re bringing to those dates. Few young women are so unattractive that they can’t get a second date based on their appearance alone.

About a year after my patient Holly came to see me, she fell in love, and as she experienced a relationship with an attractive guy who found her sexy and so much more, she realized how intent she had been, beginning in high school, on confirming her belief that she was “less than.” By limiting herself to friends who liked her but considered her beneath them in terms of appearance, she was able to perpetuate this belief; and by pushing for these friends to feel sorry for her by putting herself in situations that generally wouldn’t turn out well, she cemented her role in the group as “the unattractive one with the constant dating woes.”

The more she became aware of these patterns, the more she decided to make changes. She focused on areas of commonality with her “gorgeous friends” — hobbies, work, TV shows, her passions and theirs, her worries and theirs — and soon felt on equal footing with them. She also made new friends whose dating lives were more typical, with the requisite frustrations, and discovered something else about herself: In the past, she quickly devalued any guy who showed interest in her: Something must be wrong with him. He must be a loser if he finds me attractive, because clearly I’m not. And, of course, she would unwittingly turn off any guy she was interested in — thus proving herself unlovable and confirming her familiar story. That first relationship didn’t work out, nor did the second, but she gained experience and self-confidence, and the third one did; he became her husband. On her wedding day, none of her “gorgeous” friends — some married, some still single, one divorced — was the least bit surprised that Holly was marrying an attractive guy who found her gorgeous.

I want to suggest, DTH, that you question your assumptions about men and women and attraction and worth, not just for your two friends’ sakes, but also for yours. Eventually, you too will lose your power to draw male eyeballs in the way you do now. One day you’ll be sipping drinks at a table next to some very attractive 25-year-olds, or walking down the street with your teenage daughter and her friends, and find that the propositions from male suitors are directed elsewhere. And by the time that happens, I hope you will have discovered that you are still worth your partner’s love.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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Dear Therapist: ‘I Feel Bad for My Unattractive Friends!’