Tender Trap


Our Daily Correspondent

From the cover of Das doppelte Lottchen, by Erich Kästner, illustrated by Walter Trier.

From the cover of Das doppelte Lottchen, by Erich Kästner, illustrated by Walter Trier.

In The Parent Trap—and the German book, Das doppelte Lottchen, on which it’s based—two strangers arrive at a girls’ summer camp only to discover they are identical. “The nerve of her! Coming here with your face!” exclaims one roommate in the 1961 film. Of course, in The Parent Trap, they’re actually twin sisters. But as anyone who’s been compared to someone else knows, just the accident of resemblance is enough to cause an instinctive enmity.

I used to work at a store where this one customer would always remark on how much I looked like some friend of hers. She talked about it every time she came in. The friend was named Jen something. She was a potter. She lived in the Hudson Valley. The customer even brought in another woman to attest to this miraculous phenomenon.

“You may think you’re a unique person walking around in the world,” said the customer one day. (I guess I had thought that.) “But you’re not—you’re a copy of Jen.”

Obviously I had no alternative but to hate this Jen person. I imagine she felt the same way. 

On two other occasions I’ve been told I looked strikingly like someone else, and once we were even introduced expressly so that the mutual friend could marvel at the supposed resemblance. It was like some live-action game of Memory. Both women were short, had curly hair and glasses; we didn’t particularly think we looked alike, and we were all, I think, obscurely resentful of the comparison.

There is no percentage in pointing out these supposed resemblances. Even if it’s true—so what? The odds of the two people being sisters separated at birth are very slim. And far from being covered in glory, the recognizer will generally be the focus of indignation.

Then there are the celebrity comparisons. Most of us don’t really look much like any particular celebrity. If people do, I imagine they’re tired of hearing it. Of course, it can be flattering—being told I resembled Bess Myerson was the undeniable high point of my life, even if I knew it was bunk. But by the same token, I once heard a man tell a woman she looked like James Woods—he couldn’t get over it!—and she left the party in tears, so.

I used to like to eat lunch at the bar of a restaurant near my office. Then this new French bartender came on and told me I looked like Marion Cotillard. Okay, no one minds hearing that, even if it was a ludicrous claim. “Marion!” he would exclaim every time I came in. This only became a problem when he started putting it to other customers—“Doesn’t she look exactly like Marion Cotillard?”—and they would have to politely pretend that this much less attractive woman resembled this movie star, and it was extremely awkward. I wished he’d drop it. Instead, our office moved.

What is it that’s offensive, exactly? That a small part of us feels like our uniqueness is being stripped away? Or just that it’s so relentlessly superficial, so inane? That this qualifies as an attempt at connection—it’s frustrating and slightly tragic.

Or, sometimes it’s just unsettling.

“I met your fiancé!” said an acquaintance, whom I ran into on the street last week. “You looked so much alike, I thought he must be your brother!”

“I think it’s just the glasses,” I said, smiling fixedly.

“No, it wasn’t!” he persisted. “You’re identical!”

Really, unless you’re stuck at the same girls’ camp and it’s a movie and Lindsay Lohan is full of promise and joy, there’s no point in bringing it up. Even then, it’s probably not worth it.

“No, just look-alikes,” I said, quoting The Parent Trap.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.