Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Fickle Edge of Female Friendships

MacKenzie grabbed my arm and dragged me to her parent’s bathroom, where she began vigorously digging through her mother’s makeup bag. I was seven, a worldly few months older than Kenzie’s six-year-old self. We were having a carefully-arranged playdate, a regular occurrence set up by loving mothers. Kenzie’s younger neighbor was there. I immediately took her as a friend, full of the blind assumption of childhood.

Kenzie held up a tube of lipstick in victory. Solemnly, she turned to us and laid down the new law. We had to wear the lipstick. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in the club.

This was my nightmare.

I had already banned my mother from using any beauty products on me—no hairsprays, nothing. They felt gross, with their slimy stickiness and nasty smells. And yet here was a friend, telling me I couldn’t be included unless I played by her rules. I took the lipstick and tried, inexpertly smearing bright red across my top lip. I hated it. It wasn’t me. It felt wrong. I wiped it off on her mother’s towel, leaving a bright gash across the cottony surface. Kenzie and the neighborhood girl skipped away. Their fluorescent mouths widened with laughter. I walked home. The walk was long and uphill, as these things are.


It was my first experience with female exclusion, and definitely not my last. Soon the world of female friendships revealed itself as a treacherous battlefield, a shifting sea of changing alliances and unspoken rules I was always breaking.

But who to blame? Myself—which I did often? The other girls—which I also did, with bitterness and hatred? Or is there something else, something more nefarious and far-reaching?

I propose that conditioning is to blame. Girls are bombarded from birth with messages about not only our body, but how we are supposed to act. Cartoons transmit messages of women as ditzy blonds and comic-relief characters, the commercial breaks saturate us with images of popularity in the form of material possessions over personality, and even childhood movies depict untouchable princesses that only exist within the sphere of romantic relationships. Is it any wonder girls don’t know how to navigate friendships? All their cultural ingestion, from programming to advertising campaigns, is poisoning the waters of female camaraderie.

This is what Jean Kilbourne, creator of the lecture series “Killing us Softly,” calls a “‘toxic cultural environment’—an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images and sacrifices our health and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit.” In her presentation, she presents images of the female in advertising, noting that the form promotes unrealistic standards of beauty. When those bodes are all a young girl sees in advertising, she can interpret them as the correct appearance, and the correctly subservient and objectified behavior. Kilbourne continues to describe this method of advertising, saying that “women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and above all money striving to achieve this look, and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness.”

So we have this precedence and predilection for self-dissatisfaction. The shame and guilt Kilbourne discusses is a key proponent of the problem. We are taught to immediately shift blame to ourselves. Things are never the fault of the ad creators, or of the bullies who demand more from our appearance. Their criticisms are completely internalized, consumed and morphed into a mantra of “never good enough,” dragging women further down towards despair and depression. Even the greatest accomplishments are brushed aside because every aspect in life is not radiant perfection.

With the individual demanding such an unattainable reality for themselves, the natural progression is to take that need for perfection and scrutinize it outwards. In that sense, other women become a means of comparison, rather than a potential source of friendship and support. Possible friends are held to the same unflinching standard we hold ourselves to. They must also be beautiful, talented, and poised. But here comes the double edged sword—they are not allowed to be more so than we are. Their achievements prompt reflection about our own flaws and weaknesses, contributing to the cycle of self-hatred.

This results in a nasty competition with other women. Girls are trained to see what should be friends as enemies, constantly measuring themselves against this girl’s perfect nose, or that girl’s flat abs, or the fact that Suzie got first place in the Spelling Bee.

The media has accepted this phenomenon as fact. The cattiness of women is so universal that advertising makes it a basis for campaigns. The hamburger joint Wendy’s introduced their new salads by having two women fight over one, with one stealing the salad because its high quality suited her better than her co-worker. The latest ad campaign for Cascade dishwasher detergent is completely built around the idea that women resort to passive aggressive digs at each other, even within friendships. It features two women standing at a dishwasher. One loads, and the other says (with an overly practiced false grin), “Marjorie, I can’t stand you! You’re too perfect. Even the inside of your dishwasher sparkles.” This dissolves into petty sniping that requires a Kitchen Counselor to step in and fix their “dirty fighting” with the cleansing power of Cascade.

In-fighting and comparisons happen so early that as girls mature, their ability to form social relationships with other women through adulthood is stunted. There is now a pervasive mistrust of others. It’s immediately assumed that women judge each other from first encounter. Forming friendships becomes too much of a risk to personal health and safety.

One method many women form to cope with this is through quickly and brutally rejecting other women. This serves as protection from vulnerability. It can also be used in adolescence to impress another group of girls, as it shows an exertion of power and confidence that may or may not exist.  Psychological scientist Joyce F. Benenson calls this “preemptive social exclusion.” In her study “Mean Girls and Queen Bees,” Benenson says that “preemptive social exclusion appears to be a valuable strategy for women because it allows them to protect their relationships by keeping an outsider at bay.” In such a way, women protect their social standing with pre-existing friends, they protect their romantic relationships from potential threats, and they keep themselves at the top of a precarious tower of worth, a tower built on comparison to others rather than self-satisfaction.

With such a wealth of pre-conditioning teaching women to mistrust other women and to base self-worth on material goods and outward appearance, moving beyond that to make genuine friendships can be a daunting task. In a 2011 article for, author Micah Tutay encourages personal responsibility as the perfect weapon to strike against insidious messages in advertising. She states, “even if we don't believe we can have an impact in changing society as a whole, we can be sure that we do have the ability to change how much we let it influence our relationships, our sexuality, our spending habits, and so on. It is up to each of us to take back our dignity and self respect."

Taking back that dignity is difficult. It requires a conscious over-riding of basic instincts that have built up over time, layer over protective layer hardening into a tense shell of deflection and wariness. But how sweet are the rewards! Fighting against the system will send a message to the agencies responsible for the conditioning ads. It will show that women can demand respect, and will not accept their down-sizing of the strength of female relationships. But more importantly, it can create a thriving community where the first instinct is love, not evaluation.

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