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?