A letter recently written to New York Magazine's "Dear Therapist" column has the internet collectively side-eyeing. The woman in it is concerned about some of her friends because — gasp — they're not conventionally attractive.
Apparently, she pays close attention to her friends' looks, because she's figured out she has one group of friends "that would typically be considered very attractive, slim, and fit" and then other friends who don't fit these standards. It's clear which group she feels she belongs in, because she describes herself as "reasonably attractive."
"My problem is this: I have two friends who would not be described as conventionally attractive," she wrote. "They are both longing for a partner and a family, and as we all get farther into our 30s, this is becoming increasingly problematic."
She then goes on to attribute these friends' problems in relationships to their looks. "I have done my best to listen and be empathetic," she wrote. "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."
People are seriously questioning whether she's as good a friend as she says she is, given the fact that she's so focused on her friends' looks and pities people who really don't sound like they need it.
Don't worry: The column's writer, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, set the record straight that you don't need to be conventionally attractive to have success in dating or to be happy. She told the story of a client of hers who was very average-looking but had the idea that her looks were a disadvantage. She was grateful that her friends overlooked her appearance and remained friends with her because of her personality. She said her friends weren't part of the problem, but Gottlieb was concerned about the fact that she felt lucky to be friends with them.
"On the one hand, she felt valued by being included," she said. "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."
Gottlieb suspects the letter-writer's friends may be in the same position. "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,'" she wrote.
"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'?" she continued. "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."
The whole response is worth reading, because it draws an important distinction between acknowledging that some people are more conventionally attractive than others and making a big deal of it — and between supporting your friends and pitying them.