A few weeks ago I was at my exercise class. It was early, very early. It was before class and I was standing with a group of women who had gathered at the door. The past month the days and nights had morphed into one giant whirlwind of energy. So, by that Monday morning I was exhausted. I was thinking to myself, ‘How will I get through this week?’ I threw my hands in the air and said, “Oh, my Monday morning, I wish it were Sunday.” One of the women responded to my comment about Monday and said, “I’m so glad to hear you say that, because you’re always so perfect,” her tone flat and tinged with derision.
Taken off guard, I replied, “Who, me? I’m far from perfect!”
To which she replied, “You always look like you have it all together.” She proclaimed, somewhat triumphantly.
A man reading the above conversation would probably read this as a compliment, but women have a more nuanced and sadly experienced perspective. This wasn’t a compliment, this was a thinly veiled attack, smacking of snark. It was classic ‘mean girls’. In fact, I recall this scene from the movie:
Girl 1: “But you’re, like, really pretty…”
Girl 2: “Thank you.”
Girl 1: “So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?”
Navigating the world of female-on-female aggression takes time to perfect and lucky for most us, we have been practicing since middle school (sarcasm, heavy sarcasm). This isn’t a phenomenon that exists just in our minds or happens to only a few of us, it’s so prevalent that hundreds of studies have been done not just on the competition, but on the varied methods that women use to compete.
According to Joyce Benenson(link is external), of Emmanuel College in Boston, competition among women plays out in three ways.
1. Verbal & veiled aggression
Women tend not to engage in physical confrontation, as well, obviously, we don’t want to be physically harmed. Hence, verbal gymnastics and veiled threats.
2. Banding together
Attractive/successful women need less protection from a group and are usually more independent. Studies found that they tend to invest less in other women. When women feel threatened by a ‘high status’ female they band together and deal with the threat by demanding equality, uniformity and sharing equally among the women in their group, be it among sisters, a social group, or in a work or academic setting.
Shunning is the consequence of failure to adhere to the group rules as set out for her. She risks ostracization, because she is not meeting the judging group’s requirements of proper femininity or fill in the blank . Never mind that she never agreed to sign up for the social contract forced on her! Arbitrary rules are too often set for us without our permission. Having women figuratively and literally turn their backs on you is a situation of extreme emotional pain, as anyone who has had this happen can attest.
This probably isn’t news to any woman reading this, but where does all this hostility come from??
Certainly there are biological forces at work. One study found that women who came into contact with an ovulating female experienced a spike in their testosterone levels. So biology definitely plays its role. Other factors cited are: competition for mates, learned behavior and even simply the negative fall-out of comparison.
One study found that women were more likely to feel worse when they compared themselves with peers in their own social circles. One researcher wore makeup and body hugging clothing and found that students were less satisfied with their own bodies than when she wore baggy clothes and no makeup. If you need more evidence, they felt even worse about their body image when there was an attractive man in the room.
There are doubtless a hundred causatives that can be cited for all this aggression. While it is helpful to know where the hostility arises, it doesn’t excuse the behavior.
If our consciousness is aligned with our life’s purpose, then there is no desire to attack anyone. It really comes down to liking who we are. When we are in accord with our beliefs, values and worth then we aren’t worried about other people. How can we speak and act and think in perfect accord with our true core self, if on some level we don’t like who we are?
We are accustomed to looking outward for fulfillment. Kabbalists teach that every situation in life has an internal and an external aspect and they are rarely, if ever, the same. The external aspect is life- everything you see, everything you can touch — our physical world. Then there is the internal aspect, which is the connection that we all have to the Light of the Creator. In that connection is where we find our true selves, our best nature, where we can push aside any outside worries or challenges and reconnect to our purpose and our certainty.
Disconnection from our inner aspect, the loss of connection to the Light of the Creator, is the reason we feel a lack of self-acceptance, among other things. Everyone has struggled with self-acceptance at some point in their lives. When we waste time and energy obsessing on all of our perceived flaws or areas where we feel are lacking, or when we spend time with people who view us in a negative light and point out our flaws, we are giving those falsehoods power and they continue to grow, further chipping away at our self-image.
But here’s the secret: no one is perfect. Not one person. You are enough, just as you are.
When we come to truly believe that we are enough, there is absolutely no scenario where we need to attack others. Self-acceptance is the baseline, the foundation that happy lives are built upon.
And if you find yourself being attacked, ganged up on or ostracized I’ll tell you what I tell my daughter:
It’s Them, Not You
Nearly every time someone hurts you, lashes out, or says something that makes you feel insecure, it’s a manifestation of their own pain. It has very little to do with you, other than you happened to be in their proximity. Everyone is fighting their own battle and conflicts will arise. People will be spiteful or nasty and yes, it will hurt. Just remember, it’s really not about you, it’s about them. While you can learn something from the experience, you do not need to accept their judgments.
Thought Into Action
If you are purposefully excluding someone, obviously you should stop that. But more than just being nice, how can you support the women in your life? Everyone thrives on encouragement and support. Find ways to uplift the women in your life.
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Thank you for addressing this, Monica! I live in a small town where mean girl behavior is the norm. For instance, some girls from my high school planned a class reunion and only invited a handful of “popular” students to attend out of the graduating class. Only the people they liked. I wasn’t offended by what they did but it did make me think about how primitive it was. It almost reminds me of something anthropologists would make a National Geographic documentary about. Lol.