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First published at February 2004

Beauty and its relationship to envy: thoughts from the work of Melanie Klein

by Linda Robbins

The Persistence of Memory, 1931
The Persistence of Memory
Dali, Salvador
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In modern consumer cultures it is remarkable how much time, energy and money are invested, particularly by women, in the pursuit of beauty. Billions of dollars are spent world-wide on the beauty industry. According to Julie Kofman, beauty director for Seventeen, American teenagers alone spent a staggering $9.7 billion on beauty products in 2000. The growing acceptance of cosmetic surgery and beauty products for men are also indicative of the preoccupation with appearance and looking good in modern cultures. There are many different psychological, social, and economic aspects to this preoccupation with beauty and there is no single cause. Some women such as Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth attribute much of the preoccupation to males and the way in which the male domination of women is socially institutionalised. Other writers such as Nancy Etcoff in her The Science of Beauty look at the problem from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, the instinctual desire to pass on our genes and the association of beauty with health and fertility. Others such as Anthony Napoleon in Awakening Beauty write about how there are vested economic interests in making us all feel insecure about how we look so that we will purchase more products. The writings of the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, illuminate another aspect of beauty based upon feelings and experiences in infancy and from this perspective it seems that envious feelings evoked in infancy lie at the very root of what may sometimes be an obsessive preoccupation with beauty in adulthood.

Who was Melanie Klein?


Mrs. Klein nee Reizes, was born in Vienna in 1882, the youngest of four children. At the age of 14 she decided to study medicine. However at the age of 32 she became fascinated by psychoanalysis after having read Freud's work about dreams. Psychoanalysis then became her main interest and her writings cover a period from 1919 until her death in 1960. Her work was to revolutionise psychoanalytic thinking. This was particularly so because the focus turned to work with very young children and the gradual development in understanding of the impact of the very earliest emotional experience of the infant on child development and later life. She maintained the principles of classical psychoanalysis, but considered the child's use of play to be the natural, symbolic way in which children expressed their inner worlds ----comparable to the way in which adults use free association. It could be said that Freud discovered the dynamic child within the adult and that Mrs. Klein discovered the infant in both the child and the adult. Mrs. Klein was clear that from the start of life the infant is not passive but in fact full of desires and phantasies of both a positive and negative nature, which contribute to even the very earliest relationship-that of mother and child. She thought that infant's and child's envy of the mother was a very potent and destructive factor in this relationship.

What is Envy?

Invention of Monsters
Invention of Monsters
Dali, Salvador
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According to Melanie Klein, envy is an angry feeling that may be aroused when it is felt that someone else enjoys or possesses something desirable. It may well be triggered by feelings of admiration. Envy is related to one person only and the impulse arising from it is a wish to take away or to spoil. This destructive impulse is present from the beginning of life, has a constitutional basis, and affects the infant's relationship with the mother. This is what Mrs. Klein came to realise through her observations where she saw the repetition of these very early reactions ( dating from infancy) in later attitudes and behaviours.

Jealousy is sometimes confused with envy. It is based on envy but may be seen as a later development as it involves at least two other people and the fear seems to be that of losing,( or being in danger of losing) love that may be taken away by a rival.

Greed is also closely related to envy. It is a craving that exceeds the need and in fact what is available to be given. Greed is a wish to take everything for oneself whereas envy looks outwards and seeks to harm outside of the self.

How are Envy and Beauty linked?

In clarifying this it is necessary to follow Mrs. Klein's thinking about the baby's relationship to the mother and indeed to even consider the infant's experience inside the womb. She thinks that it is likely that, despite feelings of security while in the womb, the baby may also have some unpleasant experiences. She thought that particularly the birth process stirred up the first experience of anxiety. She sees this as foreshadowing the double (ambivalent) relationship to the mother, who becomes both good and bad from the point of view of the infant's experience. The mother is seen as being the supplier of love, comfort, and generally gratifying the baby's needs, but she is also the great frustrator who keeps the infant waiting. At times the infant may feel that she has been deprived in order that the mother can keep the good things for herself. Therefore early emotional life is bound up with the experience of losing and regaining the beloved mother and all that she provides. Mrs. Klein thinks of this in terms of the baby experiencing the mother's breast (from which he gains sustenance) as the prototype of maternal goodness and creativity. She feels that even at the earliest stage the infant's need to evidence the love of the mother towards herself is the result of anxiety linked to the fear of loss.

As envy has a constitutional element, individuals vary in the impact it makes on their capacity to enjoy and make use of what is offered. For instance if a baby is very greedy she may, in unconscious phantasy, aim to 'scoop out' and 'suck dry' and even 'devour' the breast. In other words, she destroys by claiming every last thing so there is nothing left. Unconscious envy not only does this but also aims to fill the mother up with badness in order to spoil and to destroy. In this case the mother would not only be exhausted but feel full up of unpleasant thoughts and feelings which would destroy her patience, generousity and creativity.

If the infant has an excessive amount of envy the intensity and amount of these feelings will make it much more difficult to hold on to positive aspects of the relationship. If things go well and there is not such an excessive amount of envy, the mental and physical closeness of the earliest relationship goes a long way to restoring the prenatal unity with the mother and the sense of security that goes with it, which was lost at birth.

In Voluptate Mors
In Voluptate Mors
Halsman, Philippe
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One of the consequences of an excessive amount of envy is that of feelings of guilt. So if the infant has in phantasy 'attacked' the source of goodness (the mother) , she will be experienced as having been spoiled by this, and the infant's guilt will lead to feelings of persecution. The person who arouses these guilt feelings is felt to be the persecutor. This feeling of having caused damage by one's own aggressive tendencies leads to great mental pain and guilt .

There is a direct link between the envious feelings towards the mother as the source of goodness and the development of jealousy. The little child's jealousy is based on feelings of rivalry with the father who is felt to have taken away the mother and the child has to deal with the grief encountered by the realisation that the mother can no longer be kept for him alone. There will be angry attacking feelings towards the parental couple, unborn children, and the capacity to give birth and raise further children. Mrs. Klein says that little girls also have an awareness of the desire for motherhood.

By following the argument so far it becomes clear that because of the envious and jealous feelings the child has felt towards the mother, the resulting guilt and feelings of persecution are felt to derive from the source of these feelings i.e. the mother. Mrs. Klein says that the girl anticipates retribution in the form of the destruction of her own capacity for motherhood, or the destruction of her reproductive organs, or even her own children. She feels that there is also a concern that her own personal beauty will be destroyed by the mother.

The need for women to take great care over their personal beauty, is therefore understood to have the unconscious motive of restoring what has been damaged, and can be understood as resulting from guilt and anxiety which has its roots in envy.


Klein M. 1928 Early stages of the Oedipus complex. In Love ,Guilt and Reparation and other works 1921-1945 Published Virago Press1988

Klein M. 1929 Infantile Anxiety-situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse. In Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works 1921-1945 Published Virago Press1988

Klein M . 1930 The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego. In Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works1921-1945 Published Virago Press1988

Klein M. 1952 On observing the behaviour of young infants. In Envy and Gratitude and other works 1946-1963.Published Virago Press 1988

Klein M. 1955 On Identification. In Envy and Gratitude and other works 1946-1963 Published Virago Press 1988

Klein M. 1957 Envy and Gratitude. In Envy and Gratitude and other works 1946-1963 Published Virago Press 1988

Klein M. 1959 Our adult world and its roots in infancy. In Envy and Gratitude and other works 1946-1963 Published Virago Press 1988

Linda Robbins is a psychotherapist. recommends the following books from


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