Newspaper article International New York Times

The Dowdy Patient

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Dowdy Patient

Article excerpt

There are costs to ignoring, or defying, the social realities of the world we live in. I suspected that Greta was paying those costs.

"So who is that dowdy person that always comes at lunchtime?" my officemate asked.

I knew immediately whom he was referring to: Greta, a woman in her 30s who faithfully took her seat in the waiting room at midday every Wednesday and sat stiffly until I opened my office door. 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.

A boyfriend, then marriage, and soon after that, kids -- that was pretty much all that Greta felt was missing from her otherwise enviable existence, which included Ivy League degrees, a Wall Street career, a downtown loft. There was a lot of back story: She had overcome a difficult upbringing in a small Midwestern town; her mother had died young; her father was strict and domineering. And so on. All of which made her accomplishments that much more impressive.

For more than a year, Greta and I met once and sometimes twice per week for psychotherapy and medication treatment. She suffered from panic attacks, which we found responded to low doses of Klonopin and Lexapro. In therapy, we addressed the frustrations of her office politics, her conflicts with her brothers, her mixture of sadness and relief when her father died. And she got better: She became calmer and more assertive, and formed stronger friendships. Her career thrived.

The only area of her life that didn't improve was romance. Not that she didn't go on dates, but they typically were one-off events. There never seemed to be a spark, much less a flame.

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? "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.

For a number of months -- in retrospect, far too long -- I accepted that explanation. Over time, though, I began to wonder. I couldn't really imagine that Greta underwent a major transformation on weekends. Plus, her dowdy persona Monday through Friday couldn't help but decrease the odds of a fortuitous encounter with a future romantic partner during the week.

I'll be the first to say that looks shouldn't matter, that we shouldn't judge people based on superficial criteria. …

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