I Was ‘Sylvia Plath-ish': But What Does That Really Mean Anyway?

There were hints that I might be Sylvia Plath reincarnated as early as high school, but confirmation didn’t arrive until the summer of 1996, shortly before my 21st birthday. As a 16-year-old, I’d won Seventeen magazine’s annual fiction contest, as Plath had done in 1950, and the Plath comparisons began almost immediately; most frequently, they came from my father. Like Plath, I wrote copiously and often autobiographically, I submitted my work for publication even as a teenager, and, frankly, I was kind of weird. The Christmas I was 17, the fact that the only present I asked for was a copy of The Bell Jar did little to decrease suspicions.

In the summer of 1953, through Mademoiselle’s “College Board Contest,” Plath had secured a position as a guest editor, and The Bell Jar is considered a barely veiled account of that experience. As Esther Greenwood, the novel’s protagonist, explains, “They gave us jobs in New York for a month, expenses paid, and piles and piles of free bonuses, like ballet tickets and passes to fashion shows and hair stylings at a famous expensive salon and chances to meet successful people in the field of our desire and advice about what to do with our particular complexions.”

By 1996, when I was one of Glamour’s “Top Ten College Women,” the other winners and I found ourselves in New York not for a month but for three days. Otherwise, however, virtually nothing had changed: We visited the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Stock Exchange, met female “role models” including Madeleine Albright and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp-and got hair highlights. Among our “free bonuses” were T-shirts that read ” Glamour … All that matters.” With neither irony nor obliviousness, I wore this T-shirt for several years afterward.

And yet, during the trip, what I mostly felt was a sense of embarrassment. I was embarrassed that I’d entered the contest in the first place, a choice that I feared reeked of both immodesty and sheer dorkiness. Having previously visited New York on many occasions, I was embarrassed by the “take a bite out of the Big Apple” tone of our schedule, as if we were all Nebraska farm kids from the 1950’s. And, wearing Doc Martens and no makeup, I was embarrassed to find myself smack in the bosom of a beauty magazine; God forbid it seem like I was aspiring to something and falling short, as opposed to not aspiring at all. The night we went to see Savion Glover in Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, we were whisked backstage afterward to chat with some of the back-up dancers (and by “chat,” of course, I mean that I stood on the periphery scowling while the bolder young women made inquisitive conversation). Upon learning that our coterie came from Glamour, one dancer asked if we were models. “For Christ’s sake,” I wanted to exclaim, “look at us!”

This is not to say that the other girls weren’t attractive. They definitely were pretty, but they weren’t model-pretty. And to find yourself at a magazine called Glamour, being praised for your intelligence-it was all just a little weird. Glamour was then and is now one of the more feminist women’s magazines, which is less of an oxymoron than many people seem to realize; but still, at the end of the day, it’s called Glamour.

Plath’s Esther Greenwood explains, “I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react.” This was how I felt at the various events at which we were called upon to introduce ourselves. We all had particular interests-politics! science! writing!-and the girl next to me would say, beauty-pageant-style, “I am Esmerelda Ann Smith. I hail from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and I hope to found a charter school for blind children.” Then it would be my turn, and I’d grunt, “I’m Curtis.” Yet despite my best efforts, I had difficulty maintaining scorn for my fellow Glamour girls, who were conducting economic research in Latin America, founding chamber-music groups, earning black belts in martial arts I’d never even heard of and (really) developing methods to grow food on manned space flights to Mars. They weren’t faux-smart or faux-articulate; they were actually smart and actually articulate, and they had way better manners than I did.

On our last night, as we were posing for pictures outside Lincoln Center, the photographer asked us to kick out our legs cancan style. The resulting picture-which for years made my siblings scream with laughter-shows all the other girls in a line, lifting their knees and beaming, and me on the end, in a dowdy black dress and huge plastic glasses, frowning and not kicking my legs at all. Naturally, this picture ran in the magazine. What didn’t run was the one taken a minute later, when the other girls suddenly decided there needed to be a photo in which I was in the middle and swarmed around me, basically hugging me from all sides while still grinning for the camera. I was, they seemed to have decided, gruff and odd but essentially lovable. That night, a bunch of us stayed up late talking in one of the hotel rooms, and as we exchanged information about our lives away from this weird three-day interlude, a surprising but not entirely unfamiliar feeling came over me. I was having … fun. I think of this night as my last slumber party.

The contradiction of women’s magazines, and of much of women’s culture, is, in my opinion, similar to the contradiction of Sylvia Plath, and specifically of the popular image of her: the uncomfortable mix of intelligent and vapid, substantive and superficial. And what seems a shame (if not a very surprising one) is how, in the public imagination, both women’s magazines and Sylvia Plath herself get defined by their most obvious, least positive aspects: All women’s magazines do is tell you how to slim your thighs and snag a man, and all Sylvia Plath was, in the end, was a lady poet who killed herself while still young and good-looking. That these ideas are false makes them no less easy or irresistible.

And so when people compare you to Sylvia Plath, they never really mean it as a compliment. At best, they’re affectionately teasing, at worst they’re mocking, but what they mean either way is that you (and your writing) are girlishly neurotic, as if girlish neuroses are somehow less significant than, say, manly neuroses. Given what people mean when they invoke Sylvia Plath, I’d have to say I don’t feel particularly Sylvia Plath–ish these days-I like to think my life now contains more womanly neuroses than girlish ones-and yet I was compared to her as recently as a few weeks ago.

In an act of either narcissism or masochism, I found myself reading a blog which critiqued my work thusly: “To be fair to her, she’s actually quite a good writer when she’s doing fiction, albiet [ sic] she’s an honors graduate of the Sylvia Plath Wannabe school of angsty short story writing, with a major in navel-gazing and minors in passivity studies and the too-much-information arts.” Really, I thought, is that the best you can do?

I just reread The Bell Jar for the first time since high school, and though I’d loved it back then, I feared it wouldn’t hold up under my more jaded 29-year-old analysis. But I loved it all over again. It’s well-written, hilarious, heartbreaking and stuffed with terrific details. Though Plath’s Ariel poems, reissued in a “restored edition” in November, are considered her greatest legacy, for me it is this novel that serves as a reminder of who she was before she was a symbol: a writer, and a very talented one. I’ll never know, of course, but as I read, the thought occurred to me many times: Maybe, just maybe, Sylvia Plath didn’t feel that Sylvia Plath–ish most of the time, either.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, is out this month from Random House.