I have a mentor who is an eating disorder specialist in Los Angeles. She shared with me the story of a very famous actress she worked with a few years ago who had been suffering with life-long bulimia. During the time she was treating this women my mentor found herself waiting idly at the dentists office, thumbing through a People Magazine with her client in the featured interview. The piece claimed to offer the inside story on how this actress “keeps so fit”, and promised to reveal her “exercise and diet secrets”. Of course the actress did not share her secret suffering, and instead advocated “a balanced diet, high in protein, lots of water, and always enough room for birthday cake.”
Women all over the country may have read that interview and thought, “why don’t I look like this movie star- I eat that way, what’s wrong with me?” Little did they know this woman hasn’t had birthday cake since she was 6, throws up 13 times a day, has no intimate relationships, and tore her esophagus last year after a particularly violent purge.
Don’t read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.
My mentor shares this story with her clients and students as a reminder that we never know what someone else’s inner world is like, no matter how pristine the exterior presents. This actress looked like she had a “perfect body” which we assume translates to the perfect life. Her therapist said she described her existence as “a living hell, everyday.”
Comparison drains your energy and insults your individuality. You are meant to have your legs to walk through the world, not mine. You have unique eyes to see the world, and a unique voice to communicate what those eyes see in a way no one else possibly can. I’m reminded of Martha Graham’s sage advice to her dancers:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
If we stuck to our business, as Martha suggests, and accepted and embraced our whole selves, our figures and forms, our so-called flaws, there are several other businesses that would start to run into trouble. The billion-dollar weight-loss industry, for example. Or the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry. My father worked in finance and once met a marketing executive for Maybelline who told him they weren’t selling make up, they were selling hope. Confident women (and men) make less robust consumers. There is less to buy when there is nothing to fix.
In 2009, the Boston University School of Medicine conducted a study of Centenarians across the planet: humans who not only live to be over a hundred but are healthy and thriving. Among the shared traits of all those interviewed were a diet of whole foods, as opposed to “food-like stuff”, and a lack of envy. True nourishment for a long and happy life: real food and forgoing jealousy.
The green-eyed monster is corrosive. Jealousy devours you. Envy divides us and makes us brittle and bitter. It inspires the worst kind of schadenfreude, discourages cooperation, and moves us away from being present and grateful in our lives. The less present and grateful we are the more we suffer, rendering us more vulnerable to envy’s snare. When we indulge in jealousy we are distracted from any proactive work our life might need- perhaps the very work that could address whatever it is we think we are so lacking. As they say, the grass is greener where you water it.
Comparison is the thief of Joy. And equanimity. And friendship. And generosity. And self-compassion. Let the true greatness of others inspire instead of condemn. Work through whatever false programming you have that someone else’s success or talent detracts from your own. And don’t buy the hype. The magazine model you are comparing yourself to tore her esophagus last year, the Facebook profile you are comparing yourself to has been pruned to perfection, the photos in your timeline you are comparing and despairing over have been photoshopped and instagram filtered and are seldom about bad days. Everyone has scars, even if you can’t see them. What we don’t envy is the suffering of others, even though, on a fundamental level, it is what we all share. Let’s build compassion for that shared suffering and train ourselves to see the truth: the many ways we are alike, the wonderful ways we are different, and how unnecessary, and downright harmful it can be to compare and keep score.