Why Women Compete With Each Other
By Emily V. Gordon
Oct. 31, 2015
Los Angeles — I HAD a tightly knit group of female friends in elementary school — we called ourselves the Sensational Six. As the dominant girl force in our little universe, we felt important and exclusive; a unit in matching handmade sweatshirts. Time went by and all of my classmates and I watched as puberty reached down to form us, shapeless little lumps of children, into young men and women, into haves and have-nots.
I had an early growth spurt and was a full head taller than the boys in my class, dwarfing the girls. This made me a have-not, and I made it my life’s effort to shrink down and be like my friends, tiny and adorable. One day on the bus as I chatted with a fellow Sixer, I watched her examining our legs, propped up on the seat in front of us. “Look,” she said, innocently enough, “your legs are, like, twice as big as mine.” And she was right.
Women compete, compare, undermine and undercut one another — at least that is the prevailing notion of how we interact. It’s considered exceptional, or at least noteworthy, that famous women like Amy Schumer and Beyoncé and Taylor Swift acknowledge that other women are talented, and frequently work with those other women without, in most cases, being catty about it. This makes them feminist heroes. Feeling on guard around other ladies is normal for a lot of women, and it’s exhausting. I exhausted myself for years trying to understand how other girls could have gone from my closest allies to my scariest foes. I write an advice column and get a fair number of questions from women asking how to handle not trusting other women, so I know I’m not alone.
A good amount of research has been done on female competitiveness, both in condescending and eye-opening ways. A literature review by Tracy Vaillancourt in 2013 found that women by and large express indirect aggression toward other women, and that aggression is a combination of “self-promotion,” making themselves look more attractive, and “derogation of rivals,” being catty about other women.
There are two main theories of why women are competitive in indirectly aggressive ways. Evolutionary psychology, which uses natural selection to explain our modern behaviors, says that women need to protect themselves (read: their wombs) from physical harm, so indirect aggression keeps us safe while lowering the stock of other women. Feminist psychology chalks up this indirect aggression to internalizing the patriarchy. As Noam Shpancer writes in Psychology Today, “As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.” In short: When our value is tied to the people who can impregnate us, we turn on each other.
I watched this happen among our Sensational Six — watched as our pastimes shifted from having goofy singalongs, to trying on clothes, to pointing out one another’s flaws, to primping before a mirror, and the final stop, making boys laugh. We were still friends, but we were suddenly aware of a new dimension. I went to a different middle school than my friends did and that new dimension persisted, except that now I was taking it in with fresh eyes. And because of my size and my status as a new kid, I stayed an outsider.
Here’s where I took a page from nature and decided that my indirect aggression, rather than self-promotion or discounting my rivals, would take the form of what’s called warning coloration. I took myself out of the battle. If I was unappealing, then I would advertise — like those butterflies with the warning spots — that I was not to be considered a worthy opponent. I would be ugly on my own terms. I wore artfully ripped clothes and enormous combat boots and old men’s pants.
In high school, I decided that all of my female friends were stupid and traded them for guy friends. I loved horror movies and heavy metal, and used these interests to become a “guys’ girl.” I thought that by segregating myself, I would save myself from the awareness that I wasn’t ever going to be pretty/perfect/cool enough, and occasionally I would get to make out with a male pal because hormones were running rampant. When another guys’ girl joined our group, she and I became fast friends by lamenting how stupid girls were, and when we met new boys, we threw each other under the bus to flirt with them. I felt sick when she did this to me, felt a sick thrill of power when I did it to her.
Instead of openly hating women, I used hate’s sneaky little sister and told myself that I pitied women who worked hard to be conventionally attractive, who had jobs that utilized their feminine wiles, who were “too girlie.” “Poor her,” I’d cluck at parties, “wanting attention so badly. I wonder who hurt her. Let’s discuss this art rock band I saw last week.” Self-promotion: check. Degradation of rivals: check.
In my 20s, there were two girls in my social group in New York — brash, gorgeous creatures — that owned every single room they entered. I hated them on sight, even as I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I thought they were magical, but with a dark magic that could steal my husband. Once I found myself in a bar bathroom alone with them and, feeling cornered by their spectacular perfection, mumbled something. One responded by complimenting my coat; the other started talking about the guy she was there with and how he was acting funny. I saw them for who they were: magnanimous, charming creatures, but also kind and obsessive and weird. My negative view of them had nothing to do with them at all. It was just a warped mirror.
Research tells us that women are compelled to level the playing field by any means necessary to make sure we have access to the best genetic material, but since these are not real concerns in our modern lives, our competitiveness becomes something a bit more private and understandable.
That’s the third theory of female competitiveness that I’d like to propose: We aren’t competing with other women, ultimately, but with ourselves — with how we think of ourselves. For many of us, we look at other women and see, instead, a version of ourselves that is better, prettier, smarter, something more. We don’t see the other woman at all.
It’s a fun-house mirror that reflects an inaccurate version of who we are, but we turn on her anyway, because it’s easier. But we don’t need to lower the stock of other women, either for the future of the species or for our own psyches. When we each focus on being the dominant force in our own universe, rather than invading other universes, we all win.
Emily V. Gordon is the author of “Super You: Release Your Inner Superhero” and an executive producer of “The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail.”
A version of this article appears in The New York Times on the opinion page on November 1, 2015.