The Anne of Cleves Effect

How the unhappy fate of a Tudor queen scared me away from Tinder

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’m single, which means a lot of people give me a lot of advice. This ranges from the useless (“Someone will come along! It’s just not your time yet!”), to the obnoxious (“They’re just intimidated! It’s okay!”) to the downright perverse (“It’ll happen when you stop caring! I promise!”).

One of my least favorite bits of advice, though, usually comes in a question: “You just have to put yourself out there! Are you on Tinder or anything?”

At this point, I’m presented with two options. I can respond with a meek “no,” and then listen as they blame my singleness on my lack of effort and launch into glorious stories of true love won by right-swipe and winky-face emojis. Or I can wave my arms like a madwoman, jump out of my seat, and shout, “I can’t do Tinder! It’s horrible! It’s like Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves!!! And don’t you know what happened to Anne of Cleves!??!”

Most of the time I choose option one; wild gesticulation and shouting about Tudor history is frowned upon in most contexts. But today, I’m choosing option two. I’m telling you exactly why I don’t use Tinder — and yes, it really, truly is because of what I call “the Anne of Cleves effect.”

Anne of Cleves was married to Henry VIII — but she’s not the Anne you’re thinking of. The Anne you’re thinking of was Anne Boleyn, and she’s the one People and Oprah tell us we are. She’s the self-possessed one, the empowered one, the Strong Female Lead. She’s the one who knew Henry was a tool because he [literally] screwed over her sister, and yet managed to play him like a new-stringed lute. She’s the one who, even though she by all accounts wasn’t even that hot, managed to make him so mad about her that he divorced his wife, killed his friends, and made his own church to get her. She’s the “if you just believe you’re sexy, everyone else will” girl.

And it’s not her fault.

It’s Anne Number Two, the fourth wife’s fault. After Wife Number Three died in childbirth, Henry was on the hunt for wife [victim] number four. Anne made a lot of sense: she was German, which meant she was Lutheran, which meant she wasn’t Catholic, which meant she wasn’t a problem for the man who had left the Catholic Church for Anne Number One. In the wake of the break with Rome, Henry needed to amass as many allies as he could. A German, Lutheran princess seemed ideal.

So they send this portrait of her over to Henry, who isn’t going to marry some fugly chick, alliance or no alliance. But the picture isn’t fugly, so Henry is on board. Anne is shipped over to England, and they meet IRL in Rochester castle, a few dozen miles out from central London.

And boy, is she fugly.

She’s stout; she’s awkward; she’s pious — and the heavy, dour German fashions of the time do nothing to mitigate any of this. Henry marries her anyway (he was stout and pious, too, after all), but after a few months just can’t bring himself to do it anymore. He divorces her and sets her up with money and a bunch of country palaces, calling her his “most beloved sister.” Even shared Protestant piety couldn’t make her bangable.

I’m terrified of the Anne of Cleves effect. I’m terrified of someone seeing pictures of me, thinking I’m hot and that we could have great theological discussions and cute Protestant babies, and then meeting me IRL, and being like, “Oh.” And then trying to make it work because he realizes it’s ridiculously sexist to friendzone a girl you’re theologically and politically compatible with because she’s fugly — but then friendzoning me anyway.

“So just be Anne Boleyn!” you exclaim. “You are hot — you just have to make them believe it.”

Ah, gentle reader, perhaps this is true. Perhaps I, simply by believing in myself, can make them overlook the acne, the square forehead, and the frizzy hair — none of which are egregious as Anne’s alleged flat-chestedness, neck mole, and extra finger. Perhaps it’s all a matter of walking into the club like my milkshake is indeed better than those of the biddies surrounding me. Perhaps the power of positive thinking is, in fact, powerful.

But then I think about Anne Boleyn a little harder. I think about how quickly Henry’s eye roved from her to her polar opposite: tiny, pale, demure Jane Seymour, Wife Number Three. I think about how his career as monarch (and consequent need to produce a male heir) took precedence over any real love they may have shared. I think about how he prosecuted her in the one of the most trumped up trials in the history of the world, accusing her of adultery, treason, incest — anything to get rid of her. I think about her final words, her inability to criticize him even as she stood on the scaffold, awaiting death by his order. I think about how, in spite of the history-changing force of her positive thinking, he woke up next to her one day and realized that she actually wasn’t all that hot.

Anne of Cleves lost her heart to Henry, but she did not lose her head. Anne Boleyn lost both.

And me?

I fight the Anne of Cleves effect as best I can. I keep painfully awkward pictures from high school up on Facebook when I could just as well untag them. I avoid the makeup tax as much as possible. I do my best to keep my hands by my side and not on my waist when someone whips out a camera. A swipe-right, double-tap world turns men into Henrys: ruthless, relentless connoisseurs of female beauty. It threatens to turn women like me into Anne of Cleveses: helpless, hopeless deception artists.

On my best days, though, I do more than this. On my best days, I strive to be like the daughter and not like the wives. When I can push past the comparison and self-pity, a whole world opens up — a world of armadas and globes and reformations and explorations. Elizabeth I grew up in a world far more hostile to women than ours. Yet she managed to shape a fragmented, fractious nation into a global superpower. Let us choose to follow the example of Good Queen Bess. The price — solitude — is high, but the prize — freedom — is utterly worth the cost.

Nancy Ritter is a D.C.-based freelance writer and editor. She loves the Virgin Mary, opera and coffee — in that precise order. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ritterwriter1.