Friday, February 13, 2009

Fighting to be Relevant: The Competitiveness of Women

When I think back to my middle school and even high school days, one of the things I remember most was the gaggle of girlfriends I always had surrounding me. Had you asked my 13 year old self who my best friend was, you would've gotten a list of names big enough to fill a garbage bag. My yearbooks prove it: I had so many girlfriends I'm surprised I could fit all their signatures in the pages. And we were close - we knew all each others' secrets, trusted one another to play matchmaker, attended each others' family funerals, went on vacations with each other and shared our most prized possessions without abandon. If you attacked one friend, you attacked them all. Never was there more loyalty or trust in my friendships than when I was a teenager.

Then came adulthood. The transition was so slow, I barely noticed it, but looking back, there was definitely a point when my friendships became less, shall we say crucial, and more of a haphazard, casual kind of thing. I still had all the same friends, and we still shared secrets and clothes, but it was like we collectively became more guarded. Our secret club of girls became an open club of women, who made no bones about the fact that we cared more about boys and adult aspirations than we did each other. After all, that was the natural order of things.

Soon the every weekend slumber party became a once a month girls night. At that once a month gathering, the focus had changed from just 'catching up'. It was more about 'keeping up'. Who has the better job? The better hairstyle? Who is dating the cutest guy? Has the nicest car/house/pet? Who lost 10 pounds?

It's no surprise that women, upon reaching adulthood, begin to compete with even the women they love the most. Society grooms us from an early age to maintain a 'survival of the fittest' mantra. It's hidden in the pages of magazines, the internet, even television shows. Despite all of the efforts of feminists and free thinkers in past decades, it is still subliminally ingrained into us that you're only as successful as the man on your arm, the the amount of money you make, the way you fit in that dress. And one thing society loves more than anything is to take a seemingly successful woman and tear her down in the blink of an eye (just look at Britney Spears - five years ago she was the epitome of success, and now we all love to make fun of her. Why? Because she had the audacity to be a human being with human problems).

I once had a close friend with whom my entire friendship was based on competition. Neither of us realized it at first, but after a year or so, it was pretty obvious that we were vying against each other for everything. Attention. Popularity. Notoriety. If I lost 5 pounds, she lost 10. If she cooked a great meal, I'd develop a new recipe. We fought over everything, from who discovered a band first to who was on the best diet.

We never openly acknowledged this competition, and so much of the time it was a subconscious thing, that neither of us ever really addressed it. For a while it seemed healthy to me, even. Since we were seeing ourselves through each others' eyes, it made me strive to be better in everything I did. Or so I thought. All I was really striving to do, in reality, was be petty and shallow. I never changed anything about myself that actually mattered.

I finally reached the realization that our friendship was detrimental when I caught myself in a yelling match with her over who had come up with a certain phrase. Yeah, that's right. We argued over the ownership of a saying.

And yet, despite realizing this, I still argued with her.

It's no wonder, what with the media and our own network of support teaching us to compete for spoils, that we all fall victim to competitiveness within our friendships. Many of us go through life not even noticing the damage we are doing to ourselves and those who we love.

The question is, why do we do it? Even those of us who are married/happily in relationships, with successful jobs, beautiful kids, happy home lives - those of us with nothing to prove - even we fall victim to the constant comparisons and bragging that comes with being friends with other women.

Do we do it to be relevant? Are we so afraid that, with every new thing, new trend, new face that is plastered before our eyes every day, we'll become more and more invisible? Are we competing for relevance in a world that pushes only a select few women to the top and the rest to the bottom?

Does it have to do with men? Perhaps we, by instinct, feel the need to battle each other out for the choicest, primest male for our den. I've certainly been stabbed in the back enough times by girlfriends where guys were concerned, as have we all. Women competing over men is certainly nothing new; it's as old as dirt. And the competition over men is when women truly bring out the evil they harbor inside themselves. Just watch an episode or two of Judge Judy to see for yourself. I've had women friends deliberately sabotage my relationships, try to hit on/sleep with/flirt with my boyfriends, even set me up with people they knew weren't right for me out of spite. And in my younger and more catty days, I was guilty of a few crimes involving friends and boyfriends myself.

Maybe the whole 'man' excuse is just the tip of the surface. Perhaps it's just that, in a society where women have always been deemed 'slightly inferior', where we get paid less on average, have less advantages at school and work, and are generally treated as second rate citizens, women feel they have to constantly keep that 'edge' in order to propel themselves forward. After all, befriending nothing but underdogs will only result in keeping you an underdog. Right? It's a sad fact, but society does encourage women to compete against each other much more so than they do men. When there are only so many opportunities out there, we have no choice but to fight each other to be able to get ahead.

I can't explain the mentality behind it, or why any of us do it. I do have the advantage of having realized the negative behavior and have done all that I can in my life to change it. Competing with girlfriends does nothing but deflate your self-esteem, occupy time which could be better spent on more productive things, and damage friendships. Once I reached these realizations, I found that I changed infinitely for the better. In some cases, it even meant letting certain friendships fall by the wayside, for the greater good of both of us. It's a sad fact, but sometimes it's necessary. We as women should hold each other up, encourage each other, and be supportive in all our endeavors! The old adage definitely tells true: 'United we stand, divided we fall'. After all, you can compete for everything, but neither of you will ever win until you love yourself more than you love to fight.

(originally published on and edited for blogger)

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