Take The Cake: Reframing Jealousy

image credit Virgie Tovar

On Monday morning I was on the beach at 7:15am watching a chubby moon disappear into the pink-purple horizon above the ocean while the sun rose over the dunes behind me. I was doing a highly edited (some might say “failed”) version of a full moon lunar eclipse ritual designed by Haus of Hoodoo founder, Jessyka Winston, that was in my Many Moons Planner. It suggested I spend the morning in silence and exfoliate myself with a combination of herbs I didn’t have and couldn’t get because the froufrou-witchy-herb store down the street doesn’t open til 8. So I decided the coffee scrub I’d made a few weeks ago would suffice. After walking back home, I stood in the shower scrubbing myself clean and concentrating with each slough on what I wanted to let go of. 

One of the things that came up was jealousy — comparing myself to others and the fear that I don’t measure up.

For a very long time while I was deep in diet mode, the comparison arose most consistently around smaller-bodied women and the sense that they knew a secret I couldn’t seem to access.

Once I got deep into the healing work around my internalized fatphobia, the locus shifted away from bodies and to particular culturally-sanctioned markers of success - especially professional ones, but sometimes romantic ones. Still, the target was always other women. The feeling would seize me, and sometimes take hold for hours.

Jealousy is such an interesting thing to me. As immediate and intense as it feels when it hits, it has always struck me as a secondary emotion — a smokescreen for something else. I wanted to dig deeper into that hypothesis, but didn’t exactly know how.

Two days after the shower ritual I found myself at a tiny, dusty coffee shop on Polk Street in San Francisco. Just outside the entrance sat an older cross-legged man blasting “Who’s Gonna Drive You Home?” while casually reading the newspaper and nursing a small cup of tea, tiny dog at his feet. One single ceiling fan attempted to cool this wood-paneled hobbit hole during midday when the sun shines through the window with a vicious radiance that’ll leave the skin on your face as taut as a fresh dumpling. I love everything about this place — a time capsule of the city before — even the dark roast that always gives me heartburn. “Royal Grounds” is not exactly regal, but it does possess one creaky old chair that looks like a thrown. I sat in it while trying to concentrate on the words of my favorite psychotherapist-cum-Buddhist love/trauma expert, David Richo. I return to his book When Love Meets Fear whenever I feel like I need the reassuring words of an enlightened white man who could be my dad (if he were Mexican and/or Iranian). I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but I landed on a passage that talked about jealousy:

“Jealousy is the ego’s word for grief: sadness, anger and fear.”

Grief?!

He continued, describing what is actually happening when jealousy shows up in the individual’s life: “I am overwhelmed with grief which I do not want to express fully and resolve. I want to dump it on the other person.”

I decided to look at my life through this lens. Let’s return to that moment when I used to compare my body to others. All those years I thought the root of my feeling was desire — “I want to be like her.” Maybe in actuality I was feeling anger at the unfairness of fatphobia and sadness that I had lost the beautiful relationship I used to have with my body before I was taught fatphobia. While I was dieting there was no way that I could grieve because dieting keeps the wound of our own self-hating mythology alive and denies that it is a wound at all.

Likewise, now when I look at the professional achievements of others and feel jealousy instead of joy, I can claim my power and recognize that maybe what I actually feel is anger at the economic unfairness or romantic discrimination I’ve experienced as a fat woman of color. Maybe I feel sad because seeing others’ relationships make me feel lonely or less valued culturally as a single woman.

Maybe the fact that these feelings land on other women points, in part, a feeling of sadness that I live in a culture that taught me that women are inferior, that I am inferior. Maybe I need to grieve the deep wound that sexism has left on my life.

Grief is something I can wrap my head around, and do in a loving and non-violent way.

In pursuing grief in other areas (like my family trauma) I’ve discovered it is powerful. Grief allows us to alchemize our trauma and become master healers who can help ourselves and others too. More than being “better” at something than another person, I actually want closeness, vulnerability and community based on the recognition that I am equal to the people around me. When I name that desire I am saying “I know everyone around me is amazing, talented, kind and when I recognize I am equal to them I must also recognize that I, too, am amazing, talented and kind.”

My friend Ann Friedman — alongside her bestie Aminatou Sow — coined the term “shine theory,” the idea that “if you don’t shine, I don’t shine.” When we apply shine theory to our relationships with other women and feminine people, this is a radical departure from our gendered socialization into competition (which is really self-hatred we are encouraged to project onto other women).

I thought back to the ritual I did. I wished with everything in me to no longer be distracted or threatened by others’ achievements. I knew that wishing wasn’t enough, though. I’d have to do some hard work interrogating what jealousy is, figuring out what it means to me, divesting from it, and having a plan of action for when the feeling comes up. Still working on that! For now, I remind myself of what is possible and what I really want: I want to seek out meaningful collaboration with people who are doing amazing work, to truly accept that all success is amplified through collective efforts, and to commit deeply to helping the people around me thrive.

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