David J. Hellerstein is a self-described “straight male” and professor of clinical psych at Columbia University. In a recent opinion piece for the therapy-centric “Couch” series at the New York Times, he laments failing his patient, Greta, whose dowdiness prevented her from finding real love. Or that’s his theory, anyway—commenters immediately started calling mad bullshit.
The piece summarizes a decade of therapy with Greta, whose dowdiness was so off the charts that a male officemate of Hellerstein’s was driven to ask what was up with Dowdy McFrumperton in the Wednesday therapy slot. Hellerstein mused:
I knew immediately whom he was referring to: Greta. … With her homely dresses and unstylish hairdo, Greta looked like someone you’d see in a 1950s Good Housekeeping magazine.
“She’s great,” I said. “A really interesting person.”
This was true, but my officemate was right: Greta was not exactly alluring. It wasn’t her looks, which were fine (I’m certainly no Adonis myself); it was her unfashionable dress and grooming. Which was a shame, not because I cared how she looked, but because Greta herself so deeply yearned for a romantic relationship.
Other things in Hellerstein’s piece that really are straight out of a 1950s Good Housekeeping magazine: a narrow notion of acceptable femininity, retrograde assumptions about the role Greta’s looks play in her relationships, an inability to ignore his own particularly biased, hetero-obvious preferences for how women should present themselves to see her as a complex person who simply might not be into getting all dolled up.
But to sum up the piece: Greta McDowdyPants came to see Hellerstein specifically due to the lack of love in her life, and also to get treatment for panic attacks. With her Ivy League degrees and downtown loft and Wall Street career, Hellerstein writes that all that was missing from her life, according to Greta herself, was love—a boyfriend, marriage, kids.
She’d had a strict upbringing in the Midwest, and Hellerstein worked with her through the death of her domineering father. He ushered her into calmer periods of life, a better career, more deepened friendships. And Greta went on dates, but there was, Hellerstein says, no spark, no flame. Options running out, Hellerstein suggested she get a makeover:
One day, after a bit of hemming and hawing — I knew it would be a sensitive topic — I raised the obvious: Had she considered getting a makeover? One of her friends, as Greta herself had told me, had recently seen an “image consultant” who recommended a whole new wardrobe, new hairstyle, different makeup. Could that, I asked, possibly be helpful?
“After all,” I added, “men tend to judge … ”
Greta bristled, and I stopped midsentence.
“You know,” she said, “I look much better when I go on a date. I put on makeup, I dress up. My friends say I look great!”
That shut me up.
It’s rich that he thinks of her needing a makeover as “raising the obvious” —obvious to whom? He’s the only person in the room who thought her looks were the stumbling block, simply because they were for him (and his officemate). And though obviously therapy is not necessarily a place for accepting easy answers and never pushing, why wouldn’t he first explore the intricacies adjacent to the issue, to get a better feel for how she feels about her looks and her comfort level with her sexuality or responsiveness (or lack of) from the men she dates or wants to date? These are perfectly valid things to talk over, and would likely result in better advice than “get a haircut.”
But Hellerstein couldn’t let it go, mainly because he didn’t believe that she “underwent a major transformation” on weekends. All that dowdiness—and man, can I just say I wish I could get a load of this lady—was apparently so oppressive that he just knew it was mucking up all her weekday exposure to men, who were surely backing away slowly from the frump. Know this, ladies: Weekday frump can cancel out weekend gorgeousness. Consider that a hot tip.
To his credit, Hellerstein admits the problem was out of his league, a sensitive issue, and one that “reeks of grossness,” so there’s at least some kind of awareness here about him being a straight dude giving this advice. I can appreciate that. And yet, he frames his failure of Greta as one related to a lack of training for how to deal with the patient who “refuses to be attractive” rather than strictly his own inability to work around his own biases.
Specifically, the way he presents her as being so willful and deliberate in her rejection of femininity makes it seem like a hostile act, when in fact the hostility is all Hellerstein’s. But he can’t see it. To be fair, we never get any greater elaboration on Greta’s “unfashionable grooming” referenced initially—as in, is she not showering at all or even cleaning food off her face (possible symptoms of depression) or does she just have no makeup and maybe some armpit hair, i.e., she’s not “done up” to his specs? Regardless, the piece, while sensitive to some degree inasmuch as it’s ultimately an admission of failure, is still a marvel of textbook expectations for women, ultimately suggesting that the personal and social cost of spinsterhood is too high for a smart, successful woman like Greta to not simply get the right pumps and lipstick to lasso a man correctly—as if that were an idea that hadn’t surely been suggested to her implicitly, over and over, a thousand times before.
Certainly all women don’t aspire to one monolithic notion of what femininity looks like, and that’s a good thing—an entirely different thing than refusing to be attractive. It’s called working out your comfort level in terms of self-presentation, and to every person his or her or their own. And let’s say for the sake of argument, a woman did go out of her way to be unattractive, anyway—to make a point, to rule out anyone overly concerned with looks, to be ornery for kicks. As one commenter, Worried Momma, noted astutely: “There’s a lid for every pot.”
Cut to the finish line: He brought up the makeover again. Greta thought it was skeevy and ended up moving away, ending the treatment. But Hellerstein, a straight man to the very end, never gives up hope that Greta might just take a chance and get pretty. She made an appointment after a period of time had passed to renew her meds with him and…
I felt a bit of anticipation, perhaps hoping that she had been transformed with the help of a new therapist or the mellowing effects of California culture.
Psych! The frump prevailed!
Alas, when she came for her appointment, it was clear that little had changed. Greta looked the same: the same Good Housekeeping hair, the same frumpy skirt and too-sensible shoes.
Wah-wah. I wish I could paste every single comment here for your reading pleasure, but do yourself a favor and read them. Smart, thoughtful responses go back and forth on what possible reason there could be for Greta’s troubles on the romance front, and to what extent Hellerstein is a shitty therapist who couldn’t see the real issues for his own gender programming.
Sure, we are all being armchair therapists here, myself included, but many commenters rightly note that not following a generic, scripted notion for the culture at large’s definition of beauty is not pathology per se. Why not delve more deeply into the relationships and men she chooses, her desires, her feelings about courtship? Was it possible she’d never learned feminine behavior and would actually want to? Or was it not just as possible she liked herself exactly as she was and simply wanted to find someone else who did, too? We never find out. Dowdy was all he wrote.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby