Why Women Compete With Each Other
I was 18, waiting on the grass in front of the beach, for the bikini contest to start. I peered up at the makeshift stage and saw my friend, a contestant. I was there for support. It was the least I could do after she’d begged me to enter it with her, and I’d refused.
As the contestants strutted, the crowd passed commentary on the young women.
‘Phwoar! Look at the tits on that one!’
‘God! I can’t believe she got up there! She’s delusional.’
‘She’s cute, but her body’s out of proportion. I’d still do her, though.’
A guy I went to school with sidled up next to me, in the crowd. He was also my ex-boyfriend’s brother. We said hello, and he told me I should’ve gotten up there and had a go. I told him it wasn’t my thing.
‘But you’ve lost a lot of weight,’ he pointed out. ‘Why not?’
I shrugged. He went on to inform me that my ass and thighs used to be much bigger, and my new fitness regimen was paying off.
‘Um…thanks?’ I gawked at him, my mouth agape. This guy felt it important to let me know he wanted to see me in my bikini, up on that stage. I wasn’t shy about wearing one; I wore one all the time when I went for a swim. But this was different. This was, ‘why won’t you stand up in your bikini, next to other women in their bikinis, so I can scrutinize your body, in comparison to the other women’s bodies? And since you won’t, I’m going to offer my insights about your body, anyway.’
Gee, thanks. Nobody asked you, mate. If you’ve ever wondered why women compete with each other when there’s no need, look all around you. You’ll see.
How do women compete with each other?
I’m not talking about a game of tennis or beating each other in math, here. That sort of competition is healthy. I’m talking about the insidious undercurrent of feminine competitiveness.
Women have learned to gossip, judge, and make spiteful remarks towards one another. This is how we compete. We find ways to deem other women wrong while proving to the world how right we, ourselves are.
And there are so many ways women can be ‘wrong’:
- our appearance can be wrong in the eyes of others.
- we can be too slutty, or too frigid.
- in relationships, we can be too clingy, too much of a pushover, or too bossy.
- as mothers, we can be a ‘helicopter’ parent, too strict, too lax, too caring, too uncaring. If we’re stay at home mothers, we’re dull and stupid. What do you do all day, anyway? If we’re working mothers, we’re abandoning our kids and didn’t love them enough to make sacrifices. If we have a c-section, we’re ‘too posh to push.’ Vaginal birth? We’re like a ‘hot dog in a hallway.’ If we breastfeed for too long, we’re doing it for our own selfish reasons. If we never breastfeed, we’re vain and again, uncaring. Oh, you want to be child-free? Immature and selfish!
- you can live in a house with a family of five people, but if it’s not immaculate, it’s your fault, and no one else’s.
- our cooking abilities.
- our ability to ‘take care of a man.’ Which, of course, goes right back to cooking and cleaning. How much do you do for a grown man that he could do for himself? Well, competitive women everywhere are ready to weigh in on whether it’s enough.
- ‘I’m not like other girls!’
- Our interests. Of course, our interests are always wrong to somebody out there. And basic. And boring. And pathetic. And stupid.
- How do your children act and behave? How are they performing at school? If they’re not perfect, guess what? That’s your fault, too.
- Single mothers. Someone always has an opinion on what she should do. She should’ve kept her legs shut. She should spend more time with her kids, instead of working so much. She should quit being lazy and get a job, right?
- Feminists. Well, they hate men, which is the biggest crime of all! And they’re ugly and butch, right?
Do you notice something all these things have in common? They’re all ideas about stereotyped gender roles for women. These women don’t compete over who’s the best scientist or computer programmer. This is about gaining societal, and sadly, male approval for performing femininity ‘correctly.’
These are all roles and norms that have been programmed into us by society since the day we were born. My god, look at the beauty pageants. They begin from birth. When we live up to a so-called feminine stereotype, people, often men, give us a little pat on the head, a tick of approval. Women internalize this and inflict these societal expectations on the women around them. How do we do this? By living in a constant state of proving we are the ideal woman. By pointing out how ‘wrong’ those women are who aren’t doing things the way we would.
What does this do to women?
When we compete with each other this way, we’re reinforcing female stereotypes we never asked for. We’re keeping each other trapped in a tiny prison of society’s making. We’re perpetuating a narrow view of what womanhood is, and not treating each other as the individuals we are. Why do we need men to devalue us, when we do such an efficient job of it, ourselves?
We make each other, and ourselves, so small when we do this. We aren’t taken seriously, and our very real issues are dismissed. Look at that list again. Doesn’t it look exhausting? Well, isn’t it exhausting? But it sure does keep us distracted, right? Imagine what we as a collective could achieve without this kind of pressure? The pressure we put on each other. We might even find the time to figure out who we are as people, and what we want from life. And who benefits from this competition? The patriarchy.
When we treat each other this way, we miss vital opportunities to support each other. We don’t get to thrive, the way we deserve to.
Here’s the wake-up call: it’s a game you can’t win
Too slutty or too frigid? Stay at home mother or working mother? If all are deemed bad, what do you do? Hate yourself for your own existence? The game is rigged to keep us in a perpetual nervous state. When we compete with other women, we are nothing but hamsters on a wheel. When you see this behavior for what it is, one thing becomes clear: we’re not supposed to win.
There’s only one way to beat this: stop playing the game. Instead of pecking at each other like hens until there’s nothing left of us, what can we do?
We can learn to identify this behavior and nip it in the bud. Let’s stop ourselves from remarking on how a woman isn’t performing femininity properly. Let’s hold each other accountable. My next idea may be unpopular, but let’s hold men accountable. Why place so much value on their approval in the first place?
When a man tells you you’re ‘not like other girls,’ or they’re surprised you’re so smart, because most women they know aren’t, reject that behavior. If he tells you how he prefers your makeup-free, natural look, ‘unlike those other women painted like clowns,’ don’t tolerate it. More importantly, don’t internalize it.
Nurture your female friendships and relationships. Avoid focusing so much on women’s appearances, including being harsh on yourself. Give each other a safe space to discuss problems and listen with kindness. I know women can make different choices to one another, and still show respect and support. That’s how we stop playing the game and feeding the stereotypes.
Once you see the pattern, you can’t un-see it. At first, it will make you mad. But in time, you’ll know exactly what you need to do.