The other day I went out with one of my best friends and I realised that I was fiercely envious of her. Why was it? Because men react to her in a way that I would like them to react to me. In general she is much more open than I am and gets approached by more people in general. I don't mind that people regard me as closed, it has certain advantages. However, I would quite like if men liked me the way they like her. She's small, cute, big blue eyes, long eye-lashes, pretty cute and sweet face and blond hair. I wouldn't say that she's beautiful as such but she's very cute and pretty. We went dancing together and, apart from the fact that men noticed her a lot more than they did me, she was also a better dancer. I'm neither ugly nor a bad dancer, in fact I have a pretty face and am quite a good dancer but there are several things that I can't compete with. First of, my hips are too big. Second, I'm too tall. Third, while I might be pretty in an elegant way, I am most certainly not cute and seem neither available nor particularly approachable. Or so I have been told but it seems to be true, given the reactions I normally get.
Noticing the acute pain that seeing her dance with other men caused me, I realised it was pure envy, tried to suppress it and be happy for her that she gets so many positive reactions which are undoubtedly good for her self-esteem. (which makes it difficult to not let my own self-esteem be affected by said lack of reactions as I need to source it from other places but that's a different matter)
It was important for me to realise that it was envy rather than jealousy. Other than jealousy where I would have wanted to be in the position of the men she was dancing with, where I would have wanted to eliminate the third party and to constitute the object of my friend's attention, I quite simply wanted to be her. Seeing her in a way that I wanted myself to be seen, made me feel insecure and inferior. I longed to be like her. At the same time, I was feeling terrible about myself - how could I have these kind of negative feelings towards a friend, one of my best friends even?
Maybe my envy felt particularly acute as we are quite similar in some ways. We are both blond, both like dancing, have had similar problems at home and with our boyfriends, are from an educated middle class background and have similar career aspirations. In other words, we are part of the same comparison class. And yet, in that moment, it was she who sparkled and shone and who was in the centre of attention and admiration. I was far away in the outer limits of her overpowering shadow. I, the envier, wanted what she, the rival had (the good): attention from males, coupled with (or caused by) good looks and superior dancing skills. It was all the more frustrating that there was nothing I could do to get into the possession of that good.
Of course, envy here could constitute a motivation to exercise more, to take more dance classes, to put on more make-up, to be more positive and open towards people etc. It could constitute a mechanism for identifying areas in my life which I am not only unhappier about compared to other areas in my life but also compared to others, rivals, in my comparison class. As mentioned above, we are in the same comparison class as we are relatively similar; comparison typically stays local. In other words, I would not envy the Queen for her crown jewels or her lifestyle as we do not share a comparison class, we are not in direct 'competition' with each other.
I am not sure whether envy does not also have something to do with a certain lack of self-esteem that is somehow linked to the desired good (this is Rawl's position on envy). For example, if I were to hear my friend sing and to hear others praise her on her vocal qualities, I would be able to be happy for her as I am confident about my own singing skills. On the other hand, if I already have low self-esteem regarding for example my looks and my ability to attract men and see her do just that with astonishing ease, then I want to possess this skill and I envy her for something that I feel insecure about.
Although this would point to envy being linked to low self-esteem, the two views are not mutually exclusive. My confidence in my singing skills is based on past positive experience of being given praise etc. I have positive associations with this 'good'. This, however, is linked on how others see us and often how they see us is based on how we compare to others. I would not have received the praise I have had I not been able to sing at all. Similarly, I might not be as confident about it had I not, even unconsciously, compared my own skills to those of others. I know I compare well, this makes me confident and able to be happy about others receiving similar praise. I am however rational enough, that professional singers are not in the same comparison class and I can also be happy for their good as there is no need to compare my 'good' to theirs - they are not comparable. It therefore seems to me that self-esteem is inextricably linked to our competitors.
To say it with Kant: "the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others". (emphasis added, The Metaphysics of Morals 6:459)
So, when Miranda in Sex and the City says about models that "they are stupid and lazy and they should be shot outside" and that "the advantages given to models and to beautiful women in general are so unfair it makes me want to puke" or when Charlotte in the same series says that she hates her thighs and that she "can't even open a magazine without thinking thighs thighs thighs" then they are expressing a certain low self-esteem which can be explained by their well-being being linked to how it compares to others. It is only Samantha who does not demonstrate this sentiment. Her high self-esteem is based on what men have told her (that she is like a model except that she also works) which enables her to feel good about herself and which explains her lack of envy towards models which the three other characters display.