…everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room, Ani Difranco
I ended last week’s post with a particularly poignant memory from middle school. You can read about the specifics here, if you’d like.
Over the years the incident has stuck with me but not because of who said it or even how it was said. It stayed with me because it was the first time I experienced female acrimony from a close friend and as a result, it contributed to my gradual swearing off of a majority of my female relationships at school. I had a few really close friends through middle and high school. But, other than those few women, I either held most others at arm’s length or isolated myself altogether, with the exception of immediate family. It wasn’t until I was in college that I slowly came into my own and then had female friends but was ridiculously (intellectually and arrogantly) selective.
The word ridiculous really encapsulates what I was in early college. My self-esteem was low, and my acrimony for other women high. It did not matter that on various occasions I had been told I looked like Faye Dunaway or Kate Winslet; I felt more like Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shallow Hal.” And, I still heard that 10 year old boy in 4th grade Math telling me I’d be ‘so beautiful if I only lost a little weight.’ In fact, I was so insecure that I forbade my then boyfriend, later husband, now ex-husband from all sorts of activities. One that stands out in my mind though was this one time when my suite-mate had gotten a new tattoo right above her butt, aka a tramp stamp.
I was really perturbed about him seeing this tattoo because of where it was on her body. So, the day after she got it, she’s trying to show us the tat; I am freaking out, telling my bf to leave, get out of the dorm room; please don’t look at a booty that might be tighter and firmer than mine. Those first two years of college were, well ridiculous and in some ways harder than high school. I was at my all-time largest at a size 22, and I constantly compared myself to other women, never really feeling like I measured up. When I think back, I have to wonder if it wasn’t incidents like that one with my suite-mate that contributed to my husband’s eventual leaving six years later. And, I occasionally think about finding my old friend on social media to apologize for what an insecure ass I was as a freshman in college.
But, junior year or thereabouts, my best friend from high school transferred to my university. I was ecstatic! She and I became work out buds, and we both shed massive pounds. That experience: losing weight together, 5 am phone calls to meet at the gym, going to Weight Watchers together. Those were the first experiences I had where I was able to support another woman, and she was able to support me in such a positive way. And then finally, post M.A., I was in my early twenties and emotionally secure enough to fully trust other women. However, it wasn’t until I was teaching one day that I was really able to put it all together and attribute some of the feelings I had been having to female acrimony.
At the time, I was up to my elbows and knee deep in feminist theory, planning to get a PhD in Women’s Studies or Cultural Anthropology. It was at this time that I became aware of female acrimony not only as a term but also as an epidemic. Prior to then, I thought most of my friends were men or at the very least, less feminine women, because pretty girls equal drama. While I had a pretty face, I always felt like I was too heavy to be considered one of the pretty girls to be feared enough to incite jealousy. I was no Regina George and therefore not a threat. I had come to terms with the fact that my bones just will not allow me to be any smaller than a 10, sometimes 8, without constant starvation and hip bones that pushed uncomfortably against my jeans. I had embraced my body and was at peace. Additionally, as an intellectual, I had little time for what I considered pretty-girl drama, and so I continued to immerse myself in militant feminist philosophy and listened to angry ‘chick music.’
Around the same time, I was teaching at Grambling State University, an HBCU in Northeast Louisiana and home of my first full time teaching gig. I was divorced and had been comfortably maintaining my weight for a few years and in a way I felt like I was on the other side of the fence. Where previously I had been the one jealous and insecure, I could sense similar vibes coming my way from other women at work, in the club, the mall, and so on. One day while teaching, I was discussing with my students how ethnic minorities sometimes are like ‘crabs in a barrel’ and ‘the only way to advance as a race is to be a race united, not divided.’ This then led to discussion of political and societal control. How best to control than to divide and conquer, right?
A couple of hours later the quintessential metaphorical light bulb went off…this is why women don’t like me, and I don’t like them…we are divided and like crabs in a barrel, we climb over each other to get that great looking guy, to get that promotion, to cut each other down first. And, you see it was at this point that I realized, my friend from middle school wasn’t so much into taking me down as she was into lifting herself up. And, she wanted that because society tells her, as well as the rest of us, that we need to be prettier, yet not too pretty; skinnier, yet also curvy; smarter, yet also dumber than the next woman to get that husband, to get that promotion, to have a sense of self-worth. We are told by society and supposed cultural norms that we must desire to be the best at everything and sometimes all we need to be the best is to tell someone else they are not. Women: divided and conquered.
In middle school and high school, we don’t get this. In all honesty and reality, I had not fully understood the implications of female acrimony until the last three years as my own daughter has gotten older. She is now in the 6th grade. But, the competition between she and her female classmates…that started in 3rd grade, much earlier than my own 7th grade experience. So, not only are our girls still going at each other, but they are doing it younger and younger. The school handled the situation well. The counselor started a club called Girl Empowerment, and all 3rd grade girls were required to attend. It was excellent and for a little while the girls loved and understood each other. Girl Empowerment has been resurrected a couple of times since, but now in the 6th grade, they merely bump into each other like hormone driven amoebas, purely reacting to each other. And, for my daughter’s sake, beautiful and well-adjusted girl that she is, I look forward to high school and the eventual, peaceful bliss of late college.
This phenomenon is unfortunate but also a part of our societal reality. Over a hundred years into the Western Feminist movement has not been able to temper female acrimony…why should it change now? It can’t. Not with women like Maria Kang and Amy Glass*. For example, in January, blogger Amy Glass published an article on Thought Catalog, titled “I look down on Young Women with Husbands and Kids and I’m not sorry.” In the article she discusses her contempt for women who choose to give into societal norms that dictate they must marry and have 2.5 children. Additionally, Glass in another article titled “Here’s How to Cheat Proof Your Relationship: Stay Attractive,” discusses that those of us who have/will experience a cheating spouse, deserve it because we have stopped caring about the relationship and that care is in some way indicated by our ability to stay attractive. She then goes on to say, “I feel like it’s the consequence these women deserve. They didn’t want a love relationship; they wanted a wedding and a status symbol.”
What strikes me most is that so many of us continue to embody these destructive thoughts about our own gender well into adulthood. I did and so do women like Kang and Glass. Consequently, both are challenging women, and by extension me, in such a way that I feel like if I do not subscribe to their lifestyles, I am in some way inadequate. Why can’t a woman just choose: choose to work out, choose to sit on the couch, choose to have a family, choose to be single? And, why can’t we other women choose to support her in those choices?
But, life doesn’t work that way and female acrimony, as I alluded to previously, is a two-way street. Back in April 2012, a reporter from the UK, Samantha Brick, wrote a titillating article titled “There are downsides to looking this pretty’: Why women hate me for being beautiful.” At the time, the article garnered worldwide attention as people scrutinized Brick online and off with comments about how she isn’t that hot or is that what hot goes for in the UK…and so on. This is female acrimony at its best or worst, whichever you prefer.
What Brick did that got under people’s skin was she admitted out loud that she is beautiful. How dare she, right? This contradictory standard is another aspect of female acrimony that many of us have internalized. Be perfect…but not arrogant…be the prettiest but not beautiful, be bitchy to anyone who may be better than you in any way and never admit verbally that you are pretty and that you may benefit from that. What people disliked about Brick, in my humble opinion, was her real-life self-confidence and her guts to go against societal convention in admitting that she is attractive. And while she may have gotten flack online, there have also been a number of articles and blog posts published on the drawbacks of being pretty since. Brick started a conversation and for that she should be commended. And, I have to say, unlike Glass, she did not fault others for their life choices, she merely outlined things she has experienced as an attractive woman and, by extension, brought to light the acrimony she has experienced as a result. Unfortunately, the blog-o-sphere decided to respond primarily with exactly what she was speaking out against.
Ultimately, I think that we, as women and mothers, have a great deal of power. We can incite a revolution where we teach our sons and daughters the inherent value of being a woman, as opposed to an object, and we can also teach them that love, compassion and understanding are the best ways to incite…even more love, compassion and understanding. We can encourage each other and our children to value the ability to choose: your own lifestyle, your own priorities, your own self-worth.
*Side Note* It is important to note that Amy Glass has recently come out as Chrissy Stockton, explaining her motives for writing the Amy-Articles and so on. I don’t know if this backtracking or not; Stockton/Glass says that it is intellect. Personally, the jury is still out and while I find what Chrissy Stockton has to say intriguing, I am not intrigued by Amy Glass. While the articles have started a dialogue, I am not sure if making people doubt their life choices is the way to go. Ultimately, as a writer, I own up to my thoughts and what I put out there and so am a little skeptical of those who don’t.