10 January 2008

A female-friendship's most delicate dance


Of all the films my at least once per week cinematic habit has had me sit through in the past 19 years (for serious, I've already logged three this month and have plans to see my fourth tomorrow evening), very few have resonated as deeply with me as the 2004 indie hit, Sideways.

Now before you open your mouths to accuse me of being that girl who claims to have been uninfluenced by the darling status bestowed by highbrow critics upon The English Patient, Howard's End, Gosford Park and yes, Sideways, be sure to know that I couldn't stand The Queen, shrugged my shoulders and said "eh" after Little Miss Sunshine and pretty much only liked Atonement for the way Keira Knightley looked in her stunning green Jacqueline Durran designed dress.

But anyway, Sideways. Or, as I like to think of it, the film that helped me recognize, understand and accept what I call the '80-20' friendship (i.e., a friendship that "just works" even though friend 'A' gives 80% to friend 'B's' 20%).

Yours may be the exception, but I can't think of a single girlfriend with whom I've had or currently have a close friendship where there exists an unwavering, across the board, perfect equality.

In my many years of building girl-to-girl relationships, there has admittedly -and I think, naturally- been some jealousy on my part. There is the one who attended a better college, persevered past the M.A. to get her J.D. and Ph.D. and whose four bedroom home puts my rental room to shame; there is the one who never fails to have fewer than three men in her pocket, who looks model-pretty without makeup and who never seems to gain an ounce even when she "forgets" to exercise for months at a time; there is the one born into a trust so colossally large the notion of checking the price of something -anything!- before deciding to buy it for herself or for you wouldn't even occur to her; there is the one whose wit is so razor sharp and whose relationship is so exactly what I hope for one day I often find myself throwing my hands into the air in a "why bother?" fashion.

Actually, now that I sit here and really think about it, I'm sure I could come up with similar testimonies for all my girlfriends.

Fortunately, just as immediately and acutely as female jealousies arise, they also tend to fade with each discovery and subsequent reminder of how fiercely loyal and considerate that successful, self-assured, natural size-4 sitting across from you during a pleasant Sunday brunch truly is. The best way to deal with jealousies, I've found, is to raise them (when appropriate) in a playful manner that to everyone else will seem exactly that -playful- but deep down, to the two of you, establishes an I-really-admire-and-yes,-sometimes-get-jealous-over-your-_____ understanding. It lets the other person know that even though you're completely confident in X, Y and Z, ______ is a soft spot.

Being aware of your girls' sensitivities and caring enough to tread lightly -or not at all- in both public and private situations is, for me, the mark of a true friendship.

But what happens when someone you deeply love and whose friendship you hope to always have in your life can't seem to reconcile her jealousy? Or maybe not jealousy, per se, but the difference, the disparity. What to do when that person's success, be it in the area of looks, wealth, charm, talent, or any other envy-inducing trait, always brings with it for them, the pangs of inadequacy and for you, a sense of helplessness?

And herein lies the meaning of the "delicate dance" to which I refer in the post title.

As you know, I've always been a proponent of occasionally setting aside the 'real you' if a less pronounced version thereof is more appropriate. Point in case, a dinner party at your parents' friends very formal home. Save the black polish and severe five-inch Jil Sander platform pumps for another time; wear something you like, obviously, but not something you suspect will raise eyebrows and put your parents in an awkward position.

But what about an occasion less obvious, one in which the awkwardness doesn't have to do with appropriateness but rather the effect your better figure, your more obvious beauty and/or your more stylish wardrobe has on your friend's insecurity?

We regularly put this let-them-shine practice into play when a woman gets married, but what about her birthday party? What about a day when the two of you are shopping for an important outfit for her upcoming interview? A double-date?

The idea of subtly dialing down one's look -or aspects thereof- so as not to exacerbate a good friend's insecurity is, in my opinion, another gauge of true friendship.

I've certainly done it, and I'm confident others have done it for me.

Thoughts?

56 comments:

Anonymous said...

if there is jealousy of any kind between you and your girlfriends, I don't think it's a real friendship at all. real friendship is totally selfless.

Suzanna Mars said...

I am fortunate to have as a best friend someone with whom I have never had to level myself (and vice versa). Of course this person is exceptional and in the four years of friendship there has never been one instance where we haven't completely supported each other and made each other part of our successes.

On the other hand, to balance this out, there is the Passive-Aggressive Sandbagger. Oh-so-supportive and enthusiastic on the surface, but cannot resist the opportunity to cleverly and insidiously fuck with me. Or fuck me up. And always "...for your own good; I thought people should see your work that I so admire." Of course what she has done is call attention to the faultiest bits, the worst examples, the things that are sure to be provocative and alarming.

And then the whitewash that follows always takes the same course: I didn't know! I thought...oh, dear. What a shame no one appreciates you the way I do.

So, yes, Johanna, and a brilliant post this is.

Brooke said...

I totally disagree with anon 2:07.

west coast devotee said...

this whole essay of a post just to tell me you're jealous of me?

gosh, J, you could've just texted me, "I want to be you" and saved yourself the time.

in all seriousness, I'm still reeling from how awesomely this was written to post a legitimate comment.

Fluttering eyelashes at warm flattery... said...

And here I thought that when you threw your hands up in the air in "why bother?" fashion it was because you'd busted me at the corner of 16th and M in my J.Crew denim pencil skirt. Well, I and the other half of my relationship thank you. And I have no thoughts on the rest of your post because I stopped reading after the part about me. Naturally.

Anonymous said...

I adore you and your blog, but come on...is a friend being jealous of you REALLY a problem? If so, she's not much of a friend.

Are you being a friend to her now by posting to the world your "selfless" thoughts about dialing-down your fabulousness? Doesn't she read your blog? Don't your friends probably know who this post is about? If you haven't taken this problem up with her one-on-one, then you are doing her and yourself a disservice by trying to work it out here.

Unless you really are just taking this opportunity to "shine." This seems more an exercise in vanity than an act of friendship.

I will continue to read and be a fan of this blog, but I seriously question your motives here.

Johanna said...

Anonymous 2:14-

I don't have any motives here other than to start a dialogue on an issue that I think is very relevant among women and their relationships with other women.

how is this an exercise in vanity, exactly, when I'm just openly discussing my own insecurities?

best,
J

Teek said...

I think playing up the parts of you that your friends find most relatable is a type of "venue appropriateness". For instance, I'm not going to wear spike heels and $200 jeans to drink beers in the suburbs with a friend who I know will show up in a Summer Camp 1991 tee and a skirt she made herself out of scraps of corduroy. I'm still being me, just playing up the most accessible side.

But a friend who regularly drags you down is not much of a friend. I don't think I've ever had a close friendship that was anything like a 20/80.

And I don't think it's fair to a person to assume one is constantly making her feel insecure based on one's own good qualities: it's both insulting to her character and vain. I certainly have more stylish, shapely, wealthy, charitable, intelligent, crafty, kind, or happily married friends who I envy their graces, but it does not define them to me, but instead inspires me to do better.

But this is certainly an interesting post. Thought provoking for me anyway.

Anonymous said...

The question is, when your friend is in a hole, do you jump in there with them or throw them a rope or a ladder?

While I respect your viewpoint, I think men, or at least the men I cavort about town with, are highly unlikely to ever dial down any aspect of themselves for a friend's sake, except in rare instances like double dates. Simplifies the relationship when you know everyone is playing their respective best hand.

Anonymous said...

the people who are accusing Johanna of writing this post out of vanity are completely missing the point. if anything, her points demonstrate a real humility. to assume she's saying a single quality like beauty or wealth defines a person and automatically causes an imbalance in a friendship is to oversimplify the subtlety of her message.

as suzanna and teek said, this is a brilliant and thought provoking post.

Ladies of Liberty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous No More said...

I had a sneaking suspicion you were dressing down for brunch in Virginia!

Oh the shame.

Great post either way.

gemma g. said...

I definitely have a couple 80-20's in my life. Friendships are all different and with some people a 50-50 split isn't always possible but that doesnt mean you cut them out of your life.

Great post, J.

M said...

This post is brilliant. Jo hits upon something we've all experienced, from both ends, but don't like to acknowledge. I've had my fair share of jealous moments and moments when I was fully aware I was making someone else uncomfortable. It truly is a fine line and one all good friends navigate. I'm still figuring it out, but I'm usually the one on the jealous side.

The friend jealousy certainly isn't limited to "fabulousness," either. I have friends who make me -- and others -- uncomfortable by their self-professed perfect lives. Be the object of envy a stylish wardrobe or a seemingly perfect relationship, we could all dial it down a bit from time to time. But as for dealing with the jealousy, I just take my mom's advice: You can never truly know what's going on inside someone else.

Laura said...

What's all this talk about "real" and "true" friendships? What does that even mean and who made up these definitions?? A friend is someone who's there for you, goes out of their way for you, and who, perhaps most importantly, does not judge you or your actions.

Being raised in a competition, image, success-obsessed society, anyone who says they have never envied something a friend has or wanted to be more like a friend in a certain way (what I'm assuming Johanna defines as "jealousy") is dillusional and living on some idealistic plane that only exists in their mind. My BFF has ridiculous calves, and I hate her for it. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't do anything to protect and support her. How vain of people (aka other commenters) to judge other's friendships when you know nothing of their substance!

Thanks for the honesty, Johanna!

sarah said...

i think it was because of this dynamic that britney and paris had to end their brief but passionate friendship. too much jealousy on both sides from all angles.

to echo the rest, really good post.

from a guy's perspective said...

I'm going to have to watch Sideways again now...

samantha said...

Anyone who says "real" or "true" friendships do not involve any ounce of jealousy are way off. It is only natural for women to compare themselves to other women, and jealousy is going to occur whether we like it or not. I think its all very healthy - and varying our look or style to accommodate different friends (or friend-involved situations/occasions) just shows how mindful we are of preserving our friendships in spite of their ever-changing dynamics.

freckledk said...

I'm jealous of your date with PT Anderson. Jeal-ous.

I envy your ability to walk in 5 inch heels. I envy one friend's dance skills. I envy another's small hips, and another's housewifery. But I wouldn't swap with any of them for a minute, and I doubt that you would either.

Envy's fine, as long as you are happy for them, even though they have what you lack.

jes said...

I also find that sometimes envy/jealousy in friendships can spur me to want to do something better. I have one friend who always looks so put together, even rushed and right out of the shower, and I have found it urges me to step up my appearance, no matter the occasion. I have another friend who used to make me jealous with her delectable meals that she cooked for her boyfriend. So now I sometimes treat my lucky boyfriend to a (semi)gourmet meal.

As long as the jealousy isn't debilitating, I really tend to find it inspires me to evoke those qualities in myself.

Really loved this post!

severedgrrl said...

This is an element of a common theme in female friendships, at least in my experience. And I think that this post is spot on to the give and take-or give and give that I've experienced time and again.

But I do love the fashion spin!

elle said...

I've always thought of "jealousy" as a very negative, unhealthy emotion. I completely respect your sentiment of not wanting to exacerbate your friends' insecurities - but insecurity cannot be dealt with by one's friends dialing down their looks. That said, I am and will always be jealous of any woman who gets to spend her life with Daniel Day-Lewis.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe how timely this post is. Just last weekend I went out for drinks with my best friend who three months ago popped out the cutest pair of twins. Due to her crazy schedule (she's already back at work!), her former size 6 frame is now in a place she is extremely self-conscious about. She doesn't talk about it a lot but she has raised it a couple of times on the phone about how she remembers her flat stomach and perky ladybits (as you call them) and can't help but be a little depressed. I definitely took these insecurities into account when we met up and wore something that didn't accentuate my smallish waist or not yet breastfed chest.

It was the right thing to do.

Jules said...

Its a natural human trait to compare ourselves to others and I actually think what Johanna is describing is sensitivity. If you know someone well you know their weak spots and, if you are a decent person, you dont exploit them. In the same way as I do not unleash my best dirty jokes on friends who dont have that sense of humour, I dont unleash my designer dresses on friends who dont earn much.

Anonymous said...

just received one of the 100 daily washingtonpost.com update emails and i believe they used a thumbnail picture of you in the yellow dress as a graphic for the "bars and club" section. are my eyes deceiving me?

"B" said...

I love everyone's comments on this post.

I have to agree there is jealousy in most female friendships and probably because women want to be around friends that are inspiring.

The key in my friendships is that everything is out on the table...no matter what it is that I'm jealous of, my friends know because I tell them. Instead of saying it as a negative thing, I change the words to: I love "insert jealousy here" about you.

Because isn't that what jealousy is ... an admiration?

capitulatenow said...

Well, this made me think.

About non-appearance-related successes:
I don't think anybody should need subtle hints from their girlfriends to gain self awareness about their good fortune. Being careful to downplay your degrees, money, career, relationships and etc. is not part of being a good friend; it's part of being a decent, down-to-earth person who is interested in other people and is not a total nightmare to talk to at a party. I don't know. I'm all for being honest with your friends and joking about your insecurities, and if something exciting happens to you you should, of course, be allowed to gush to your friends. But I don't want my friend to shut up about her awesome job because hearing about it wounds me. I want her to shut up about it because that shit is boring.

About appearance-related successes:
Don't most people tend to hang out with people who are roughly the same, looks-wise? Maybe it's just me, but I can't think of any girlfriends I've ever had who were so much uglier than me that I felt self-conscious enough to have it affect my wardrobe/hair/makeup choices. And if I ever discovered that one of my better-looking friends (and I would consider most of my girlfriends, past and present, to be in this category) "dialed down" her looks just to make me feel better about some perceived insecurity, ew.

Maybe it's just a word choice. I don't agree with "dialing down," but I do agree with "not flaunting." And again, I think this has less to do with being a good pal and more to do with not being an ass.

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression J was talking about real, not perceived insecurities. In that case, I think dialing-down/not-flaunting (same thing in my book) is being both a respectful friend and not being an ass.

either way, insightful post!!

Anonymous said...

I think that this problem is more acute in as capitulatenow calls them, "non-appearance related successes". I feel totally comfortable being with my friend who is dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie while I am wearing skinny jeans and heels.
However I have had friends who have turned down the dial when it comes to their financial successes (or should I say luck, being in college most people's money comes from their parents, not their jobs). They know that I have to take out loans to go to the same college where their parents pay for all their expenses, and they have never flaunted or boasted about that fact. It is something that I truley appreciate and I think is the mark of a great friend.

jackie said...

once again, i'm convinced all your overthinking is more trouble than it's worth. wear what you want and let your friends deal with it. just because they've got fat ankles and you don't doesn't mean you shouldn't wear a mini dress. in fact, WEAR that mini dress as often as possible around her! force her to get over it, don't enable her.

let's see more clothes, less chat in the future okay?

Anonymous said...

Not sure what this has to do with fashion, but I agree with you 100%.

capitulatenow said...

Anon 4:21
Yeah, but even if the insecurities about my physical appearance were real (and I have loads of them, of course), I still stand by my "ew." And I don't think dialing down and not flaunting are the same thing.

For instance!
Let's say I am an average-looking size 8-10 (b/c I am) and I have a friend who is slender and pretty and wears flattering, cool clothes and always looks awesome in her own way. Let's say I confess to her, friend! I hate you for being so cute! Ha ha ha! Dialing down would mean she would suddenly start wearing ill-fitting jeans and T-shirts around me, when she never did this before. Flaunting would mean she would show up to my birthday party in an outrageously short, low-cut dress, which would also be out of character for her. In both cases, my reaction would be, wtf? Stop that.

I guess the most important thing is to know what your friends want. Clearly, there are a lot of you who appreciate it when your friends change their looks a little bit, in accordance with your sensitivities. But that would make my blood boil, and I would hope the people in my life realize that.

olivia said...

as for what this post has to do with fashion, anon 4:39, read the last four paras.

J this is a great piece.

anon 4:21 said...

capitulate, the idea was to dial down subtly NOT overtly. it's easy to make your point when you use exaggerations.

Anonymous said...

I just thought of a perfect example to illustrate this post: The summer after I graduated from college, poor and in a fairly low-paying reporting job, I went on a little beach weekened with my then-boyfriend, now husband, his best friend and best friend's girl. We stayed at best friend's parents' condo, so it was a low-cost trip. It was well know that I had financed my own education and had little to my name, but the rest of my fellow travelers were fairly well off. Best friend's girl, a friend of mine, was pretty loaded and flaunted it, but that didn't usually bother me. UNTIL, that is, we took a little walk to the ATM on the boardwalk. After I withdrew my paltry $20, she felt the need to shriek about how rich she was after she took out her $200.

I knew it was irrational, but I was so upset. We're no longer friends.

sara said...

Jo, where is your new feature with the new camera and the street pics?? I'm waiting so very impatiently ;-)

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:01, you clearly missed the entire point of what capitulate wrote.
Why don't you try reading a little more carefully.
And for the record, I agree with capitulate that there is a big difference between "non appearance related" and "appearance related" successes.
I agreed with Johanna up until the point she wrote "your better figure, your more obvious beauty."
That's taking it a little too far.

anon 4:21 said...

how did I miss capitulate's point? she said to "dial down" would be to go from wearing "flattering, cool clothes and always looking awesome" to wearing "ill-fitting jeans and T-shirts."

I highly doubt dropping from a 10 to a 4 is what Johanna is advocating.

capitulatenow said...

Anon 4:21
Hah, okay. Please bear with me while I try to bring my rhetorical skillz up to your standards.

I guess my problem is that I can't think of an example of a "subtle" dialing down. I am having a hard time visualizing this. What could be enough to allay your friend's insecurities, but not so much that she'd notice and feel weird?

Friend A is insecure about her boobs, and Friend B has a great rack and usually dresses in a way that flatters said rack. Friend A says, gee, I wish I had your boobs! I really hate mine! What could Friend B do if she wanted to change her look and be discreet about it? Again, if I were Friend A, I would want her to do nothing except listen and joke around. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

And to take the boob comment above one step further...
Remember the post Johanna wrote about her friend K's boobs and how perfect they were?
No matter how jealous of K's boobs Johanna is, would she advocate K "dialing them down" when they were together? I highly doubt it. Why would you want your friend to dial down her best asset?

Johanna said...

Yowsa! Looksies at all these replies!

I'm glad most of you found this post thought provoking as that was my primary goal. It's been in my head for weeks now, and it feels great to finally have it online. As for me taking things "too far," well, that's kinda my value-added on the DC fashion blog scene, isn't it? I don't take interesting pictures on the street (sara - until I'm able to take a *decent* picture, that feature is going to have to wait), I can't show you how to make your cool coat cooler, but I can certainly share a strong opinion!

And I thank you all for sharing yours as well.

Maybe I'm hyper-aware, but I know pretty quickly when I'm in the company of someone more intelligent or someone who has a better figure (using *my* standard for what a good figure is, of course) or yes, someone whose beauty is more obvious than my own.

Did I just call myself beautiful? Oops, that came out wrong, but come on, you know what I mean.

I thank 'Capitulate Now' for her thoughtful comments, disagree with some of her points though I may.

Lastly, this comment that just came in about the ode I wrote to my friend K's lovely, lovely breasts. Here's the thing, as lovely as they are, K knows there isn't a genuine insecurity in me toward her. Or her great rack. I look at them and sigh but I don't look at them, look at mine and want to stay home as a result. This post wasn't about playful jealousies or hardy-har-har insecurities, I'm talking about women who have REAL issues with inadequacy.

I have 'em, believe me, but they are not in the chestal region ;-)

best,
J

o.f. nyc said...

I hope that I'm not repeating someone else's comment as I didn't read all of them.

We should all concentrate on the elements that makes us unique. Not on what we lack. Be inspired by your friends. Hang out with only those who make you feel confident, comfortable and positive with who you are. Life is too short.

I don't think its the wealth, the brain or the beauty of your friends that is making you (whomever) envious or uncomfortable. It is their attitude about how they present themselves to you. And it is usually their insecurity that comes across as arrogant and selfish.

Bottom line is: you need to work on your self confidence. You can strive to be a better, richer, hipper, and a more intelligent person. However, unless you feel good about yourself now, non of it is going to matter. You are already way ahead of the curve whether you know it or not.

m street admirer said...

J, I would hardly call yours a mere fashion blog. That's a compliment, btw.

Anonymous said...

I think you are an awful human being. It is no wonder your friendships are so fake.

Johanna said...

My head is spinning from these last two comments. Good day? Bad day? Good day? Bad day?

Hmmm...is my little Colonel Trifflewhiff von Munchkinboot waiting for me at home? What's that, he is?

Well then, it's a good day, now isn't it?

have a good evening,
J

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I never feel this way about my very best friends anymore. No envy or jealousy (and no pity or disapproval, either). Maybe we got that stuff out of our systems years ago when we were much younger and bickered over silly dramas. It's been literally years since I've felt myself comparing myself to one of them in that way. Or maybe only the 50-50 relationships have lasted through the years as good, close friendships, while other relationships have become more distant friendships and acquaintances.

capitulatenow said...

Johanna:
And I thank you for your nice meaty post and for letting me get all up in your comments!

keri lee said...

my ex-girlfriend was on the confident side (great career, very pretty, great body, AMAZING boyfriend, etc.), and even she had her jealous moments with her closest friends. when I would ask her about it, she would always blow it off as "nothing" but after 10 or 15 times, I had to wonder if it really was nothing.

I guess I'm trying to say that Johanna's friendships shouldn't be crucified here if they aren't what you all think is a harmonious 50-50 relationship.

keri lee said...

eeek I probably should have said former girlfriend, not ex-girlfriend. not that there's anything wrong with that!

Dave said...

As a guy I have no concept of this. I'm not jealous of my friends. Sometimes I envy someone's career success whose had a bigger break in this business than me or their personal life and how great their wife and kids are. But those moments are fleeting.

Although I'm fairly jealous that J has 48 comments discussing her writing. There isn't a website with 48 comments on my writing. Hmmphh! ;-)

Maybe we should focus more on K's lovely, lovely breasts instead.

lila m. said...

I may not agree with all of it (most but not all) but this is one of my favorite posts. So well crafted and evenly argued. Girl, you're missing your calling!

Anonymous said...

Great post by J, as usual. Inane posts by the commenters, as usual.

Jo said...

I read this post and was a little confused. I mean, while I understand jealousy (who doesn't?), this issue doesn't really come up in my friendships. I adore each and every one of my friends, but while I admire their qualities (small waist, great job, phd, whatever) I don't envy them because more often than not most people -don't- have it all! A friend with a great job might have a really shitty relationship, or the tiny-waisted girl hates the fact that she barely fills an A cup. No one is perfect and maybe we, as women, should stop assuming that just because a woman has great clothes and fits into a 4 doesn't mean she has the perfect life. Maybe I just don't think an 80-20 friendship is healthy, or maybe I think you should think a little more highly of yourself.

intern in the city said...

true through and through. that's what happens when you put successful, ambitious, gorgeous women in one circle of friends. but I get that this post wasn't really about you and more the issue itself. people should stop assuming everything you write is about you and your life and your friends!!

Anonymous said...

Of course a friendship can work at 80/20- for now. Eventually, you’ll migrate to a more meaningful friendship or the situation will come to head over something completely silly (e.g. “she never orders netflixs with actors I like”) and unrelated to the underlying issue. Furthermore, I can’t imagine ratcheting down any of my positive features for a friend. I would NEVER want a friend to do that for me and anyone who would want me to that is not my friend. As for realizing that no one is perfect, I find myself getting into trouble when I say things such as, "Well, she has a tiny waist, BUT she's an A-cup." If your relationship gets to the point where you have to focus on a person's flaws just to be able to remain friends, then I would reevaluate the relationship. It's "ok" to be jealous and it's "ok" to want more for your self but the way you react to situation is what is most important. I know that every moment I waste focusing on what someone else has, is a moment I'm not capitalizing on what I already have or a moment I’m not going after what I want. -sorry that was long

Righteous (re)Style said...

Oh, this is such a complicated issue! I have a hard time toning down who I am, in general - with no disrespect to my girlfriends - that is just the way I am. But, that is a deeper issue, I think, than not wearing a revealing outfit with your friend who is suffering through post-baby weight. I think even a totally self-centered person can come up with the right action to that dilemma. But, overall, I have always had closer male friends than female friends (up until a few years ago when many of them married and their "family responsibilities" - read: wives - have created some inevitable distance.) Guys just don't really care about that stuff - like some of the male commentors said, it either doesn't come up or its fleeting. It's so much less complicated to be friends with boys. Sometimes I wish my girlfriends were a bit like my guy friends: a little more laid back about stuff, a little less insecure. (This is not to say that all guys are one way, or all girls are another way - this comment is just based on my personal experience).