It’s exhausting. I wish there were a more complex way to phrase the sense of drained sadness that I feel about the biting competition that is palpable between women, a word that would perhaps do more nuanced justice to all of the social dynamics at play, but there isn’t. The truth is, being ground down daily by the claustrophobic feeling of intense, permanent, ugly competition with every woman around me leaves me feeling like I just want to lay down and stop acknowledging the world — like it isn’t worth my time or effort. More than almost anything else in my daily life, this competition fatigues my spirit and makes me long, in the face of bitter jealousy or judgment, to crumple up and give another woman a resigned hug of “It’s okay, we don’t have to fight.”
There is no secret about how tough women can be on one another. The viciousness we reserve for judgment about each other’s lifestyles, views, manner of dress, or mere existence is well-catalogued, echoed by every woman who ever proudly stated that she has “more guy friends, because they don’t start drama.” I think most women can safely say that, though they have likely experienced criticism or disdain from people of all gender presentations in their lives, it was usually another woman who let forth the most damaging venom. Speaking personally, while I have fielded nasty comments from a variety of people about my work (comments that often strangely tiptoe into a personal life about which they know nothing), there was a certain note of glee in many of my fellow women who seemed eager, almost giddy, to be taking me down. Women who, from across Twitter, or in my email, would call me things like “gross,” “ugly,” “a cunt,” or simply “#ewww.” Aside from the strict criticism of my writing, or my mere existence, there was a sense of placing me lower on some invisible ladder so as to push themselves farther up by comparison.
And I am far from innocent in this department. I know, if I am being honest with myself, that my harshest judgments and strictest standards are almost always reserved for other women, by reflex that I often cannot realize until I am mid-snark. Over the past year or so, I have made an active decision to be less critical of other women, and to never involve things like their physical appearance or manner of dress into analyses of their work or personality. But the removal of the knee-jerk “good woman/bad woman” is just that: an active un-learning every day of the kind of viciousness we are imbued with, this false idea that we are all competing for some kind of perfection of which we can only have a certain amount — that a woman doing better than us means we are inherently doing worse.
This idea that a woman is meant to represent all women to some degree, that another woman doing something I personally disagree with immediately means that the entire world now looks at me through the prism of her actions, is something that simply colors the world we live in. Few things make me cringe harder than a feminist article that goes in ruthlessly on another woman, seeming to take a hand-wringing kind of satisfaction in denigrating her in as public a forum as possible — all under the guise of “doing this for other women.” It’s the premise that, because she has somehow “betrayed” other women by doing or saying something that you don’t like, it is now your duty to “take her down” or “call her out,” making sure to deride not just her statements or actions, but her existence as a person daring to share the same world as you. Luckily, in the article I linked, many women in the comment section took issue with some of the more “middle-school bathroom” language used to put the subject of the article down, but reading the piece alone, one is left feeling as though Regina George herself might have left it on the cutting room floor of her Burn Book.
The feeling of competition — for jobs, for men, for good apartments, for a relative judgment of “success” by your peers — is one that invades every space we have, sometimes even ones that are meant to be “feminist.” It is clear that, because our opportunities are still somewhat limited in certain arenas, it is ingrained in us to feel as though we are gladiators in some kind of colosseum of young adulthood, fighting for the positions that are open to us. It is hard to break free of what we have been taught and begin to view success and happiness as something that we can expand in achieving it for ourselves. Instead, we are all perpetually fighting for the last slice of an invisible pie, ready to throw one another under the bus at a moment’s notice to move up a single space in the line.
Our physical appearances, and the premium placed on them by society, are surely an enormous part of this fight, too. We are taught since we can begin to comprehend the world around us that a huge part of our success and worth in life is based on how beautiful we are and — perhaps more importantly — how beautiful we are in comparison to other women. Although it is sad to consider, it’s relevant to note that since I have begun writing for public consumption, almost every single negative comment I have received about my looks have been from other women. One young woman even told me that I “needed to use moisturizer,” a comment I found strangely productive for an insult. (Though it was still hard to swallow, given the problems I’ve had with my skin since I was a little girl.) It seemed as though, because was now some kind of “fair game” based on an opinion or piece of work I had done, all of the vicious things that we women harbor against one another are free to come flowing out, no longer restrained under the guise of “being polite” or “supportive.” And I, too, have had to fight back judgments about other women’s appearances. I constantly struggle with the instinct to place a certain amount of their worth on how they present themselves physically. It’s a game that none of us are immune too, that only shows its full sting and absurdity when inflicted upon you.
I have hate-read women’s blogs before, I have felt deeply angry that a woman I didn’t feel was “talented” or “worthy” enough was getting success or recognition. Sure, there are male hacks who I think aren’t deserving of their achievements, but they don’t fundamentally bother me the way a woman doing the same thing might. I feel a wave of guilt after watching a show like The Real Housewives or Gallery Girls because so much of their interest is in finding a woman to hate, in putting their worst qualities under a magnifying glass, and exploiting their already-crippling pressure to feel in competition with each other in order to extract a juicy fight or venomous insult. These women — thin, wealthy, conventionally attractive — are reduced to animals in a cage when put in such direct comparison with one another, told they have to hate one another to be relevant, and plied with alcohol and cameras. There is a very clear taunting of the women on the programs, and yet I often feel that I can’t look away, that I cannot help but fall in line with whoever Andy Cohen clearly wants me to think is a “bitch” this week.
That caged feeling, the feeling that we’re all confined to a small space in which we have to fight for attention, for approval, for love, for recognition — it is that, more than anything, which is so exhausting. It is having to navigate a smaller world within the actual world, an entire universe filled with nothing but the barely-veneered bitterness women are almost required to hold against one another. It is as though the only real survival mechanism is creating a small circle of women with whom you are entirely comfortable, open, and yourself — a circle from within which you can view the rest of the world. Sure, we have our best girlfriends, but how many nights with them have been peppered with gossip or judgments about women who were not a part of that small circle? How many nasty things have we allowed ourselves to say, to think, to wish? And, more importantly, why? Why do we give into a system which we know is so unhealthy?
The only thing I can really think to say on the issue is that I’m sorry. I wish, sometimes, that I could take every other woman in the world and give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek and tell her that she is beautiful, that she has nothing to prove to me. I have held women to standards that were unreasonable or unfair, and I have disliked them for failing to live up to them. But, in all honesty, nearly everything I’ve ever disliked in another woman is, to some degree, something I dislike in myself. And even if there is a fair criticism to make about another woman (and there are plenty, we are not perfect), the nails that dug in just perhaps a centimeter deeper than they would have on a man were petty, and bitter, and motivated only by that cage we are all somewhat stuck in. We all know what that cage looks like, and why we’re in it. If we could only start edging towards the door, where there is enough room for every woman to be her own person without impinging on another woman’s existence, we might never have to feel this exhausted again.