The Flip Side of Jealousy

body positivity 2

Comparisons can be risky – even harmful – when it comes to matters of beauty, body image, and self-esteem. Comparing your own traits to those of your peers and friends often leads to confusion and upset. Comparing your own traits to those of strangers and celebrities often leads to dismay and disappointment. And just about every time you compare your figure, face, hair, body, or proportions to those of someone you’ve deemed prettier, sexier, or somehow superior to yourself, you inevitably trigger jealousy.

Jealousy is awful. It’s an energy-sucking, life-draining emotion that often spawns anger and despair. But it’s also an instinct, and a very strong, natural one that’s nearly impossible to eradicate. Hopefully no one experiences it all day, every day, or feels utterly consumed by it … but I’d wager that most people feel a surge every once in a while. So I’ve been thinking about ways to turn that sporadic jealousy around to make it less harmful and more beneficial. I’m wondering if you’re very, very careful, if you can’t extract something positive from comparison-based jealousy. Let’s see what you think of this experimental idea:

When you observe someone who has an absolutely amazing set of curves, you may feel envy. You may wish you had those curves for yourself. You may feel like you’re missing out on something great by having your curves instead of hers. But consider this: Somewhere out in this great, big, diverse world of ours is someone who feels jealous of YOU. Someone has looked at you and coveted your hair, nails, breasts, calves, eyelashes, skin, or smile. Someone has looked at your face, figure, or body, and felt a stab of envy. There is beauty in every body, and people recognize it when they see it. And when they recognize it, they frequently envy it.

I am in no way saying that body comparison is wise, nor jealousy healthy. Neither is a productive use of time or energy, especially ongoing. But both the activity of comparison and the experience of jealousy are nearly impossible to avoid, and I just wonder if considering their flip side could be beneficial, at least in terms of gaining perspective.

Because when we feel jealous, we feel it in a very one-sided, infuriating, self-deprecating manner. Stopping to realize that our own beauty may evoke feelings of jealousy in others may feel self-centered or contrived, but it’s a very pragmatic means of remembering that all bodies contain goodness, and all human forms have enviable qualities. Just because you hate your hair doesn’t mean it’s objectively hate-able; Someone else may see your locks and wish to have ones just like ’em. Just because you feel too old or tiny or fat or hairy to be beautiful doesn’t mean that others look at you and see those things. Someone out there glances at you and sees perfect teeth, utter grace, strong shoulders, or any number of jealousy-inducing qualities that you likely ignore or overlook. You want what others have and malign your own features, but others want what YOU have. They want what you naturally possess, and even take for granted. It’s not the jealousy that’s really important, it’s the gratitude for your own unique body that acknowledging its enviability can bring.

It’s a tricky proposition, this. It may not encourage new body and beauty comparisons – seeing as it harnesses comparisons that you’re already making – but it does give you a reason to hang out in that territory a bit longer than you might’ve otherwise. Then again, if you’re over there feeling envious and making comparisons anyway, having a little mental check to keep things from spiraling downward could be helpful.

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37 Responses to “The Flip Side of Jealousy”

  1. Katie

    Great post, Sal. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently.

    I find that if I feel jealous of someone I know well, and feel comfortable doing so, then I complement them ‘You have such beautiful shoes’ etc. Engaging in a conversation with them usually eradicates any negative feelings.

    I like your idea and will definitely be trying it! I like that it’s powerful and independent.

    • Anat

      Like the idea about complimenting other people, generally a good idea and makes every feel much better about themselves. We should all pay more compliments – though of course, only sincere ones!

  2. MM

    I had this very thought and experience!!! I saw a girl and was just blown away by her beauty. She had glorious curly hair. I started wishing I looked the way she did, etc. We were at a crosswalk together. Just as the light changed, she smiled at me and said (in a voice tinged with the jealousy I’d been feeling) “I love your hair! What do you use on it? I always wished I had hair like yours.”
    I then had the thought you mentioned….someone thought the very thing I was bemoaning mentally was attractive enough to comment on. Every one of us should remember this!!! Thanks, Sal!!

    *I did return the compliment and we had a good laugh as we crossed the street.

      • Emily I.

        On rare occasion I flat iron my naturally curly blonde hair and leave it that way for days. One time when it was straight I saw a woman walk by with long blonde curly hair and I thought “I wish I had hair like hers!” It took me a few seconds before I remembered that I do! A silly moment, but it brought home how sometimes we only want what we don’t have.

  3. Robert

    Sal, Jealousy has gone on since the edge of time..Although,i completely agree with everything that you said. Even Dr. Phil would have a tough time with this one! Thank-you so much for bringing that out…

  4. Anat

    Oh dear. I have been thinking these things exactly. That I should really appreciate more all of the good things I have going for me.

    I actually was thinking about this in relation to getting older – for instance, I take for granted that the the skin on my chest and neck is beautiful, smooth and taught. It may not always be that way. And it’s not something to take for granted, but rather enjoy it! And feel happy about it, instead of worrying about the size of my thighs all the time.

  5. Bethany

    When I find myself becoming jealous of others, I take it as a sign that there is something that I would like to have in my life, and try to set goals to get there.

    I think your method is perfect for things that I can’t control (hair, body shape, having children, etc.) to keep it all in perspective.

    All in all, I think taking a minute to be grateful for what you have is always key!

  6. Cynthia

    I swear we grow out of this. I can not remember looking at a friend and thinking “oh I wish I had her _________” in recent memory. I know that I was prey to those sort of feelings in high school and college, but as I got focused on my career and developed a friend group that was centered around common causes and interests instead of, say “going out”, that kind of jealousy just stopped coming up as much.

    I do still get some professional jealousy or “talent envy” but then, I can never delude myself that I couldn’t be in a better place if I put more effort into it. It’s less easy to unproductively envy someone if you can think to yourself “well, then start making an effort to write more/make more professional contacts/practice your isolations every day and see what happens”.

    Any body envy moments I have right at the moment are focused on my own self — as in “oh, why can’t you just be as disciplined as you were 2 years ago”.

    • crst

      Totally agree that many of us grow out of this. Hitting 40 seems to be the trick for me and many of my friends. However I think that being secure in the rest of your life (career, family, etc.) is another necessary ingredient.

  7. Grace

    I think there is a difference between jealousy and appreciation. I often find myself just wowed by someone’s style, grace, hair, smile, flirty ways, glorious eyes, you name it. But I don’t really find myself feeling jealous at those moments. I think it’s a combination of “growing out of it” as Cynthia said(above), and also of feeling, at those moments, more the way I do witnessing a beautiful sunset, or a wild animal… rather than the way I feel looking in the mirror. At the risk of being too zenny about it, physical beauty is something to be enjoyed but not held too close to our hearts.

    • Tara

      I’m in 100% agreement with this. I enjoy admiring qualities in others, whether they are physical, intellectual or emotional. It doesn’t make me feel jealous; it makes me happy and appreciative. I don’t think I feel the instant urge to compare myself to others when I notice a quality I admire in someone else. I suppose I know I have some admirable qualities myself and don’t feel the need to compete with anyone. I think that’s the key – realizing that life isn’t a competition.

      • sarah

        I’m with Tara here; I enjoy seeing a beautiful or smart or well-dressed person in their element, doing their thing, and I take enjoyment from appreciating their qualities. A little comparison may be natural, and some people may even thrive on “healthy competition,” but for me, comparison and competition are toxic. I already have a lot of drive and energy, I don’t need competition or comparison to motivate me. They only seem to taint my relationships with other human beings. So I work hard to keep competition/comparison out of my life, as much as possible, and just appreciate all those beautiful things as they come! My life is much happier this way!

  8. jcb

    I don’t think you necessarily have to stop and think of yourself as being equally enviable – just accept the fact that, inevitably, you’ll find some things about yourself more lovable than others, and this may be reflected in momentary jealousy. Everyone has distinctive traits and abilities they would never trade for anything, and I think this is what people have to remember. For instance, 9 people out of 10 might well agree that girl X has a better figure than I do, based on society’s standards of beauty, or nicer hair, or whatever. But could that girl do my job, have my friends, or claim my cultural heritage? I think the ultimate question is: sure, I wish I had X’s hair, but do I wish I were X? I think, if you have that attitude, it’s easier not to feel prolonged jealousy. And I think anyone who has done anything they feel only they could do – I feel this goes for most of us – is capable of feeling this way.

  9. Harriet

    I had a related experience once: When I was in college, one of my roommates brought a friend to our apartment to visit. I met her but didn’t spend much time talking with them. After the friend left, my roommate said her friend had said of me, “She probably thinks she’s God’s gift to men.” That was the last thing I was thinking!!!! I was very insecure about my looks and everything else. I still wonder how on earth I made an impression like that.

  10. Jessica

    I don’t feel the jealously thing with other women. There are millions of gorgeous ladies on this planet. Yeah, I’ve thought “I wish I had skin like that or flat abs like that” but I don’t and I don’t dwell on it. Like both Grace and Tara said, it’s just admiration. I like who I am and just because another person has traits I might admire, that doesn’t take anything away from me–so what is there to be jealous of? I think you can love your own unique beauty and that in others as well.

  11. V

    It’s not hard to see that we’re jealous when we’re insecure, we admire when we feel confident, but what about when we’re over-confident and then look down on people? What works then? I notice that I feel a little insecure around people who are over confident. Ha! Ah what it is to be human! 🙂

  12. alice

    I’m going to echo several of the wonderful comments here in saying that I also don’t feel jealousy over other women’s looks. I admire other’s beauty when I see it, but the fact is, my flat chest and sparse eyebrows and what have you make me feel like me. And I am perfectly happy being me. I guess I see myself and others as whole units instead of a collection of parts and so it’s simply impossible for me to think about just swapping parts. I’m either me, or someone else. Does that make sense?

  13. Michelle McGrath

    This is a great post on a subject that people often try to ignore or be in denial about…’ve raised some excellent points. One thing I realised about jealousy a few years ago is that it really is an amazing tool for self-examination. When we feel jealous it’s a part of us that is crying out for attention (that we can only give to ourselves) that feels it is missing out or lacking in some way. It’s an opportunity to embrace deeper levels of self-love….on the other side of jealousy is a chance to develop deep compassion for those parts of ourselves that we often try to ignore or suppress when we are feeling those uncomfortable, horrible feelings….
    Great job!

  14. Holly

    This post is so timely for me to read. I just got back from my doctor’s office. Working in that office are several physician assistants, all women, who often collaborate when you have an appointment so you often see more than one. I was just wondering if it was a rule that to work in that office, you have to have flawless skin (all shades) , striking eyes in colors ranging from vivid green to chocolate brown, and long dark lashes that I would think are fake except they look so natural. They’re great at their jobs and so nice that it’s hard to be jealous, but I always leave feeling blotchy, sloppy, acutely aware of my pale blond lashes, and awed at their loveliness.

  15. anne

    I tell myself life is not a zero-sum game. We can all have straight A’s, we are all pretty and beautiful. I’ve been singing that to myself since junior high.

  16. Anne

    I hate to admit it, but sometimes I do fall prey to the jealousy thing. There is someone in my circle of acquaintances whose thin thighs inspire my envy. I think I could let it go more easily if it were not for the fact that we often do water sports together and the difference in or figures is right our there for everyone to see. (our families just got back from a trip to Hawaii together) Oddly enough it is the only thing I get envious about; I’m sure it has more to do with my own insecurities that anything else. I have friends that are wealthier, more accomplished, more talented but while I admire them, and live vicariously through them, I am never jealous of them.

    I’ll bet my next month’s clothes budget that if “Gorgeous Gams” friend and I had 2 or 3 drinks together she might be willing to trade in those legs for some of the blessings I have in my life. I often try to remind myself that my body, curvy thighs and all, has brought me to where I am in life; which is a really good place. To wish for something else is totally ungrateful.

  17. GenkiOriana

    Hmm. Jealousy. I’m usually not jealous of appearance but more of actions. Like I find myself jealous I didn’t get to spend time with so and so, or jealous I didn’t get to do x or y. I’m trying to think of the last time I was jealous of someone’s physical appearance and I can’t really recall. Maybe my friend’s hair? Since it’s so pretty? But it comes and goes, so I never really dwell on it. I find the harder emotion to handle with on a regular basis would be anger. Maybe that’s weird. 🙂

  18. Erin @ Fierce Beagle

    This is a tough one, because I sometimes find myself comparing myself positively against others, to make myself feel better, and then I end up feeling worse because I’m judging someone else. I think reminding myself that there are qualities in me that others admire is the more beneficial and less icky way of comparing myself to others in a positive light.

  19. Eliza

    Sorry, I’ve strayed pretty far off topic in my comment, but your post provoked a few thoughts I’ve been struggling with, and I thought I’d share. I definitely have struggled with jealousy at times, particularly as a young teen. But recently I wonder whether redirecting energy away from jealousy/negative thoughts/etc. and towards self love/body apprieciation actually does real good, or merely makes a problem more palletable without really addressing the deeper issue. Sal, I know you champion beauty that falls outside the conventional standards, and I really do respect what you do on this blog. But isn’t learning to appreciate our bodies just an opposite take on the same old issue of self image? Whether we love our body or hate it, we’re still thinking about it. It seems to me that if I learn to appreicate my appearance, I’m investing it with as much power (albeit a more pleasant power) as when I constantly put my body down. I guess what I’m asking is whether we can really be happy if we learn to love our appearence, or whether it might be more productive to simply become indifferent to it.

    • Sal

      Hmm, definitely something to think about. I’ll definitely have more to say about this eventually, but my initial reaction is to say that for me personally, I wouldn’t want to be totally indifferent to my body. I feel like having an active relationship with and awareness of the body is a great way to feel more whole and grounded. But I understand that body love can feel like the flip side of body loathing, and that being more indifferent or neutral might feel healthier for some. Great point, Eliza.

  20. Libbie

    Two quick thoughts on this:

    I grew up feeling terribly jealous of my sister. As much as I adore her, I could never help feeling extreme jealousy because she has always had the most incredible hair — thick, curly, and the most beautiful shade of auburn. She also has a lovely face and flawless skin — things I’ve never had. Everywhere we went people would go out of their way to cross stores or parking lots and tell my sister how beautiful she was (which embarrassed her, frankly — she was very shy up until her mid-twenties) and would say nothing at all to me. Men would ask her for dates from the time she was about fifteen (and I do mean grown men, who often mistook her for an older woman), and I was never asked on a date until I was 30 years old! It really didn’t help that my family always compared me to her, either. I will never forget my thirteenth birthday, when my mom gave me make-up (I had no interest in it) and told me I needed to learn how to use it if I wanted to be pretty like my sister.

    In spite of our physical differences and my jealousy, my sister and I have always been very close and loving. We know each other better than anybody else knows us. So I’ve always seen her various insecurities and all the struggles she’s had to love herself in spite of how gorgeous she’s always been. Whenever I feel myself envying another person who looks the way I wish I looked, I recall all the times my sister has confided in me all her worries and fears that she’s not good enough. I remember that everybody struggles to love themselves for at least part of their lives. It makes it easier to sympathize with them instead of envying them.

    Second, I also love the idea of paying a compliment to the people you envy. Not only does it make you feel more friendly toward them, but it probably makes them feel better about themselves, since we all have insecurities, just like my sis. 🙂

    Sorry for the long post! This one really hit home with me.

  21. Elizabeth

    When I was pregnant with my first son, I started to see the nastiness and competitveness in women over pregnancy weight gain and loss and I came to refer to comparison as , “The black hole of comparison,” but you’ve given me some things to think about. I think it’s only natural that we compare each other, and I think you’re right, there is something helpful about considering that we as humans are all doing that to each other all the time. I saw Diane von Furstenburg in an interview not too long ago and she said something to the effect that for every woman across the room that you notice, YOU are someone else’s woman across the room. It’s an interesting perspective shift. As always, thank you for your insights Sal!

  22. Allie

    Just wanted to point out that jealousy is not the same as envy. Your whole post is about envy, not jealousy. Jealousy involves a third person. For example, you may feel jealous if you catch your boyfriend/husband glancing at another girl. Or you may get jealous if your best friend hangs out a lot with a new friend they made. Otherwise, good post.

    • Sal

      Hmm. That’s not a distinction I’m familiar with:

      The “envy” definition states, “Envy and jealousy are very close in meaning. Envy denotes a longing to possess something awarded to or achieved by another: to feel envy when a friend inherits a fortune. Jealousy, on the other hand, denotes a feeling of resentment that another has gained something that one more rightfully deserves: to feel jealousy when a coworker receives a promotion. Jealousy also refers to anguish caused by fear of unfaithfulness.”

      So I see where you’re coming from, but believe jealousy applies to these examples, too.

  23. QM

    I’ve felt it, too, mostly because I’ve never been, errr … gifted by Mother Nature, shall we say. I honestly don’t think anyone has ever looked at me with envy about anything. But now that I’m older, I’ve learned that jealousy is futile. That’s the way it is – some people are beautiful, some are smart, some are both and, well, some are neither ! Crying about it won’t help. The world actually need people like me to emphasize the beauty/intelligence of others. I’m kind of a global complementary color 🙂

    As a sidenote, I’ve read a lot of things about how Photoshopped celebrities harms self-esteem by showing unattainable perfection. I don’t understand that : my self-esteem is actually more likely to be harmed by the very real and very perfect persons I see everyday on the street !

  24. ktrain

    I think this a pretty good mental trick to not be catty but it could also requires that the person in question has a pretty high self esteem.

    It’s pretty hard to fault someone for being jealous if they are by most definitions not attractive. This is especially true if they are getting treated badly because of it. This doesn’t mean they can spit in their coffee of the person they are jealous of but I do think we need to be understanding.

    And since we know there is a direct correlation between life success and physical attractiveness it’s also less likely that jealous person can fall back on those successes. For those people suppressing jealously with, “ok but I have this going for me,” probably just leads to what i call the emotional circle of death where people just spiral down.

  25. Grace H

    Two thoughts:

    1) I’ve had an experience like this before… I was walking down the street, and happened to see two girls walking that were really pretty, and suddenly there was this twinge of jealousy. The negative self-talk inevitably popped up, until it was squashed when I overheard one girl say to the other, “I really wish I was cute enough to cut my hair as short as that girl’s.” Wait, she was jealous of me? That was a big ego boost that day!

    2) This reminded me of an interview I heard a few years back with a designer (I think it was Michael Kors, but don’t quote me on that) where he was encouraging taking fashion risks. The general idea of his quote was that “for every one person you may overhear that doesn’t like your outfit, there’s probably 10 people thinking to themselves how awesome that outfit is.”

  26. Harz

    I love reading all these anecdotes! I came here because I just finished watching the film ‘The Truth About Cats & Dogs’ and thinking how Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman are both such stunning women in different ways. The thing is, I have a friend who is so gorgeous nobody can chat with her for 5 minutes without telling her she’s beautiful. She could easily win a Miss Universe contest. She’s been subjected to the most awful treatment by some people because of her stunning looks. Yet she’s one of the most amazingly warm, kind, loving and generous people you will meet. We have a great friendship. The funny thing is she’s always been just as envious of my curves and hair as I have been of her face. We both feel that if we only had each other’s assets, we’d be the perfect woman! But maybe – and this is the point that hit home as I watched this movie tonight – there is no such thing for a reason! In all my life, I’ve never met a woman who had it all. I think this is the most beautiful thing about women, that we’re all so varied and beautiful in our own ways, and there’s something there for everyone, men! (and dykes) Comparing ourselves to each other is disempowering. Ultimately, the one thing that can turn a woman from hot to irresistible is supreme confidence.