Have you heard the one about the Staunchly Dowdy Patient Who Refused To Be Attractive?
Dr. David J. Hellerstein, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed called The Dowdy Patient.
In it, he writes about Greta, a 30-something patient who “deeply yearned” for a romantic relationship. Despite being described as a “really interesting person” whose “otherwise enviable existence, which included Ivy League degrees, a Wall Street career, a downtown loft,” Greta couldn’t seem to lock down a man.
Why? Because she refused to be attractive. REFUSED TO BE ATTRACTIVE. REFUSED TO BE ATTRACTIVE.
The problem, Hellerstein surmised, didn’t lie in Greta’s looks — which he charitably describes as “fine” — but rather, in how she put herself together. “With her homely dresses and unstylish hairdo, Greta looked like someone you’d see in a 1950s Good Housekeeping magazine.”
Greta’s dresses were homely, TO HIM. Her hairdo was unstylish, TO HIM. (Well, to him and his officemate who asked, “So who is that dowdy person that always comes at lunchtime?”)
We don’t know how Greta felt in her clothes. Maybe she felt good. Maybe she gave zero fucks about fashion. After all, her clothes don’t seem to have held her back in any other area of her life. Greta, by all accounts, is a successful woman.
The only thing she isn’t successful at is looking like the sort of person her therapist — and one other random dude her therapist works adjacent to and whose opinion literally doesn’t matter — might find attractive. (That’s exactly two men, for the record. How that became ALL MEN FIND YOU REPELLENT PLZ CHANGE ASAP is fascinating.)
Hellerstein’s op-ed upholds the idea that if Greta had adhered to cultural feminine beauty standards, she’d be more attractive to the opposite sex and find the romantic relationship she deeply yearns for. Maybe she could get a makeover! That will solve EVERYTHING!
We all know that’s Bibbidi Bobbidi bullshit. Most thinking people with brains also know that attractiveness and style are subjective, and neither are guarantees of love, sex and affection. If that were the case, only thin people with symmetrical faces would bone.
I’ve had some tragic haircuts. I’ve experimented with all kinds of makeup looks and hair colors. Some have worked for me, some objectively have not. I don’t always “dress for my body type.” I regularly wear things that appear on those Fashion Trends Men Hate lists that still continue to pop up despite the fact that no one cares about what men think about fashion trends.
And somehow, I have managed to find love and/or people who want to have sex with me.
Hellerstein’s fixation on Greta’s appearance seems to have blinded him to the fact that she might be having problems in her love life for, you know, any other reason. Weirder still, he takes her dowdiness very personally. As though she is being dowdy ON PURPOSE.
Maybe a female or gay male therapist would have had an easier time addressing this topic with Greta. But for me, as a straight male working with a straight female patient, every option seemed blocked. Basically, no matter how I tried to put it, I would be saying, “I find you unappealing.”
Or maybe a GOOD therapist would have had an easier time addressing this topic with Greta.
Ultimately, though, the Staunchly Dowdy Patient Who Refused To Be Attractive would be Hellerstein’s waterloo.
Every therapist at some point discovers his limitations, be it a type of person he can’t help or an issue he is unable to successfully address. For whatever reason — a poor match of patient and doctor? my own deficiencies as a therapist? the complexities of our society’s gender relations? — the dowdy patient was mine.