I recently had a conversation about why women compete with each other with girlfriend that kept playing over in my head for a few days after. The conversation centered around how some women aggressively compete, undermine and degrade one another. While we were talking, I kept thinking about why. The why was so important to me and though I felt like I already had a good idea why, I wanted to take time to really think about why some women seem to find pleasure in doing this to other women.
Research tells us that there are a few reasons that women are catty and competitive. Obviously there is some evolutionary psychology at play. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin reduced intra-sexual competition down to basically mate seeking men; but we now know the same applies to women. In other words, natural selection. Studies have come a long way since then as has technology and our society. We don’t have to get married at 14 so we can have 50-11 kids before our wagon wheels break off and we die of malaria on our trek across the Oregon trail. Despite that, evolution dies hard and according to Jon Maner, a Florida State University psychologist, women can smell their perceived competition when their ovulating. “Based on our testosterone findings, one could speculate that women exposed to the scent of ovulation might become more antagonistic or competitive.”
Researcher also think that lots of our nasty behavior is because of patriarchy. I have no argument here. Think about it. If we find our value in men, then the only competition is other women who could replace us. “Cutthroat female competition is due mainly to the fact that women, born and raised in male-dominated society, internalize the male perspective (the “male gaze”) and adopt it as their own.” Noam Shpancer writes in a Pschycology Today article on female competitiveness. “The male view of women as primarily sexual objects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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.”
From our body size to sexual preferences, many women fall prey to trying to create a version of themselves that a man is going to aggressively desire. This pressure creates cracks in our self esteem and psyche. If another woman that is taller, fitter, thicker or smarter shows up in our lives that could possibly be competition for the male gaze, then some of us feel some kind of way about ourselves. In some cases, we feel some kind of way even if she’s not competition. This is when the kitty claws come out–the mean mug, eye rolls and judgement–even if you’ve never shared two words with the smart, body slayer who makes you green with envy. The reality is that our negative response to other women is a projection of how we feel about ourselves. “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,” writes Emily V. Gordon for the New York Times. We are not seeing the other woman for who she is; and who she is just may be bad ass. Instead we see who we are not or who we think we are not. It’s easier to tear down another woman than to address what’s really going on inside ourselves. Iyanla Vanzant poignantly describes comparison as an act of violence against oneself.
This collateral damage aggression can take a toll on women who feel pressure to live up to impossible standards. Though black and Latina women generally have less issues with body image challenges, many of us still struggle with idealized version of ourselves based on our peers and media images and messages. But there are still many levels to this shit, as they say. Women dress for each other and we even put on makeup for each other–the flex games are real. Let’s be honest, many men like a good red lip and a pair of heels but many also love and often prefer us bare faced and couldn’t tell the difference between a pair of jeans from Rainbow and a pair from All Saints. Many of us strut our stuff to show off for women as much as if not more for men. Peacocks have nothing on us.
Intra-sexual competition becomes even more aggressive when women begin to compare their sexual histories to one another. Researchers at Cornell University surveyed male and female students about their sexual behaviors after which, participants read a short description of a hypothetical friend who had either two or twenty sexual partners. Female participants ranked the woman with 20 sexual partners more negatively regardless of their own sexual history. Men did not rank other men as harshly. According to the researchers, this is because women don’t want to be considered “sluts” or become social pariahs by association and ultimately want to keep women like this away from their partners.
As women, we often slut shame and are just as violent towards women as some men. Some women also “other” other women and reduce them to sexual objects to be discarded by referring to them as females, bitches and whores, in essence imitating sexism driven by patriarchy. Because of social, familial and cultural pressures, the Madonna-Whore complex is still very much a reality and leaves many women feeling that unless a man finds her number acceptable, she’s somehow worthless as are other women with “high” numbers.
Between being hard-wired for competition and nurture-induced judgement, it’s easy to see why a woman could find herself competing with another woman. But you don’t have to compare yourself to others. The reality is that women don’t have to de-value other women to find value within themselves. We don’t have to “keep our sex number low” to be worthy of respect and love. Instead, women should seek to defog the mirror in which they see themselves and other women. Once you are able to see the value in your life, it’s hard to look at someone else and see them and invaluable. It’s okay if a woman is prettier, smarter, taller, fitter or whatever else than you; imagined or not. When we focus on our own light, our own uniqueness and fulfilling our own paths in life, it will become easier to see that our value is not tied to a man’s approval and that “other” woman owns their autonomy and their sexual choices have nothing to do with you. “We don’t need to lower the stock of other women, either for the future of the species or for our own psyches,” Gordon argues. “When we each focus on being the dominant force in our own universe, rather than invading other universes, we all win.” I think Emily is right. When we are fully able to see that we each are unique beings, then we can understand why we don’t have to prove how worthy we are by putting other women down. If you want to better yourself, it does not take tearing another woman down to do so. You are your own competition, so start there. We are worthy just as we are, and it’s time we all started to believe that.