Darling, Do You Envy Our Son as Much as I Envy Our Daughter?

Attractiveness carries greater weight for the self-image of women

Posted Apr 03, 2009

"Where there is no comparison, no envy; and therefore kings are not envied but by kings." (Francis Bacon)

"As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied." (Oscar Wilde)

Envy typically exists between people who are close to each other. However, in very close relationships, when people feel as if they are a part of each other, envy may not exist. Here I will examine whether a mother's envy toward her daughter is greater than a father's envy toward his son.

A central concern of emotions is a comparative personal concern. The emotional environment contains not only what is, and what will be, experienced but also all that could be, or that one desires to be, experienced. In emotions, we compare all these situations from a personal perspective. In light of this concern, those who are close to us are the most emotionally significant for us.

Many people have observed that envy is directed at those who are similar or equal to us. The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that "the potter is furious with the potter and the craftsman with the craftsman, and the beggar is envious of the beggar." Aristotle argued that we envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation. In envy our attention is focused on those perceived to be immediately above us, since these people occupy the first rungs we will have to climb on fortune's ladder. These are the people we are most likely to be compared with or whose accomplishments are most likely to demean us. Jon Elster describes this as "neighborhood envy": each person within a hierarchy primarily envies the person immediately above herself.

In cases of extreme inequality, especially cases of unattainability, far less envy is aroused than in cases of minimal inequality, which inevitably provokes the envious one to think, "I could easily be in her place." Where no closeness exists, comparison is less likely to arise and we are less prone to feel inferior. Those who are close to us, but still above us, emphasize our own inferiority more than do those who are distant from us. Moreover, the issue of desert is more central in greater closeness: the comparison is easier, our inferiority is not taken for granted, and its presence is more likely to be perceived as unfair.

Emotional comparison, however, requires not merely closeness, but some distance as well.
Thus, social comparison underlying envy requires not only closeness, which enables us to place the two parties in the same comparative framework, but also a certain distance enabling us to see them as distinct.

This may be the reason that envy is not typical of very close relationships. A Hebrew proverb states that a person is never envious of his son or a pupil. (Some of us doubt if this is even remotely true concerning one's pupil.) Achievements of those very close to us evoke pride rather than envy when these achievements are perceived to be connected to us in such a manner that we can share the credit they bestow. Moreover, very close relationships are complex and rich; hence, it is not likely that envy, which focuses upon a partial aspect, is common in these relationships.

A father usually considers his son's success as part of his own success and not as something separate that threatens his own self-esteem. When those close to us have succeeded in something essential for our own self-esteem, however, or when our ties with these people are not evident, envy may replace pride. Thus envy can play a part in some close relationships such as those between parents and children, siblings, or husband and wife. A father may wish to be at his son's age, to have his son's sexual or economic opportunities, and so on. He may also perceive his own situation to be inferior to that of his son. But a father's attitude toward his son rarely becomes that of intense or malicious envy. For example, a father will usually not aspire to damage his son's position in order to nullify the inequality between them. If such intense envy does occur we can assume that the father-son relationship is not very close.

It is interesting to consider whether the mother-daughter relationship is similar to the father-son relationship with regard to envy. Is a mother's envy of her daughter greater or less than a father's envy of his son? In tales such as Snow White, it is the mother, albeit a stepmother, who displays parental envy. It may be the case that some features constituting the mother's self-image or mother-daughter intimacy are different from those typical of the father-son relationship and hence envy may be different in the two cases.

Let us consider this issue by presenting the following claims.
1. Physical attractiveness carries greater weight for the self-image of women than it does for men (one reason given for this is that men tend to respond primarily to women's physical appearance, so that women's attractiveness is significant for finding a mate).
2. The mother's physical attractiveness tends to diminish with age, while the daughter's attractiveness is likely to burgeon.
3. Men's self-image relies more on status and success than to physical attractiveness.
4. As physical attractiveness diminishes with age, while status and success often grow with age, it is more likely that mothers will feel greater envy toward their daughters than fathers will feel toward their sons. Indeed, women experience more intense "body envy" toward other women than men feel toward other men.

The assumed greater degree of envy in the relationship between mothers and daughters in no way means that this relationship is less close than that between fathers and sons. It merely indicates the difference regarding what is more relevant to each gender's self-image, as it is this that is responsible for different degrees of envy.

It is interesting to note that envy is more likely to emerge in the attitudes of children toward their parents than vice versa. Since envy is not typical of very close relations, we may conclude that parents feel closer to their children than the reverse. The "Oedipus complex," in which a son considers his father as his rival for the mother's favor, is an example of jealousy in which the son perceives great closeness to his mother, but some distance from his father.

The generation of emotions is indeed complex, and perceived closeness and relevance to one's self-image play a considerable role in this generation.

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions