I will not waste your or my time belaboring a recent column from New York Magazine’s highly challenged advice columnist, Ask Polly.
A woman who calls herself Trouble in Paradise went on vacation with three other women. TIP is in her late 30s. The other women are ten years older. So far, so good.
TIP was rooming with a woman she calls T. The two of them did not get along, at all. I will spare you the details, but I will draw your attention to the following two paragraphs:
T is about a decade older than I am, very into New Age spirituality, and clearly struggling with a messed-up childhood. At first I thought that T and I might be able to relate, given some common elements in our past and the fact that we’re both openly bisexual. But I knew her to be the kind of person who will pick on someone for liking something. Unpleasant and immature, sure, but not a deal-breaker.
We got to the first hotel, and T started spending a lot of time naked. Any time the door was shut, she’s naked. I wasn’t bothered, but T was clearly bothered that I was not participating in “naked-time.” I have a normal amount of discomfort with my body, as a woman who grew up in a western culture. I don’t spend time naked on my own, and I don’t seek out opportunities to hang out with other people while naked.
It goes on from there.
If you are not Polly and are not hopelessly blind to the obvious, you might ask yourself why T was prancing around naked in front of TIP. Since both women are openly bisexual, you might expect that T had something of a crush on TIP. You might expect that her full frontal nudity was an effort to seduce the hapless TIP. If so, the message did not register with TIP. The paragraphs quoted make that abundantly clear.
Might it be that T was utterly offended that the vision of her nakedness did not elicit even the least glimmering of lust from TIP? Did T feel rejected? Might that have set her off? It has happened before.
Anyway, TIP is perplexed that her relationship with T was so fraught with conflict. She asks herself what she might have done differently:
I wonder, should I have participated in naked-time in order to bond with T? I wonder what on earth could I have done differently to make T feel other than whatever she felt, so that things didn’t get as bad as they did? Or have I really been living too long on my own (seven years) and I’ve utterly missed some social nicety that might have made T feel something other than what she felt, that could have saved the trip for everyone? Please help.
As I said, TIP is clueless. But she does seem to recognize that the naked-time was the problem. She doesn't understand why it was a problem, and that makes her clueless. She is not as clueless as Polly, and does recognize that perhaps she contributed to the debacle.
Not wanting to disappoint those of us who have always found Polly to be especially obtuse, Polly ignores the erotic aspect of female nakedness… entirely. Neither she nor TIP understand that this is a slightly lame version of seduction. Why the blinders, girls?
Polly wants TIP to get in touch with her feelings, especially her repressed anger at T.
Unhappily, Polly thinks that knows what TIP is feeling better than TIP does. It’s called mind-reading. Here is a sample:
Really? She didn’t offend you or make you angry? Yes, she did. You can’t stand her. It’s not just that she acts like a selfish, self-centered baby. You pretty much dislike everything about her. You hate her naked-time thing and her overly critical thing and her flirty thing. It’s not your style. She annoys the fuck out of you. That’s fine! OWN IT, at least in a letter to a stranger. You don’t like her!
Naturally, Polly descends into psychobabble:
You have to learn to feel your feelings. You’re a sensitive person, actually, who can’t access the best parts of herself anymore. People who can’t feel their feelings use people like T to be big and messy and explosive for them.
And, of course:
You need to see a therapist. Because right now you’re telling yourself a really intense story about what this bizarre threesome reflects about your worthiness as a human being. Being witty and well traveled isn’t everything. What about having a friend you can trust, who would never dream of shoving you in a room with her temperamental, boundary less sidekick?
Anyway, Polly has a superior capacity for empathy. She feels TIP’s pain. She assumes that TIP is angry for being dissed, but she fails to recognize that T might also have felt that she was being dissed and rejected. Apparently, empathy has its limits.
The exchange shows us the danger of having nothing else to offer than empathy. You miss the larger picture. And you fail to address the complexities of the situation. For example, when TIP refused to share a king sized bed with T, what message did that send and how did T receive it?
We are dealing with a somewhat lame effort at seduction. And we are watching a woman, T, feel utterly rejected by another woman who supposedly finds women attractive. As it happens, TIP understands that she has missed something about the situation. Regrettably, she has chosen to write to Ask Polly, who does not even see that.