By Rohini Banerjee for Cake:
“I don’t like her because she wears too much make-up,” I heard my cousin remark about one of her peers the other day. Both her and the girl she was talking about are barely 15 – an age that’s an important formative milestone for young women (both physically and mentally) – so I was taken aback at how casually my young cousin put down a fellow woman for a reason so baseless.
It made me think of my own teenage years, a time when I too was struggling with exploring and defining my own identity vis-a-vis womanhood. It’s not an easy terrain to navigate because society, popular culture, and domestic pressures are constantly trying to define your femininity for you. And in a situation like that, analysing and engaging with one’s femininity often means comparing it with that of the women around you – and when their choices don’t coincide with yours, you start seeing them in a negative light.
“I identify as a feminist, and yet find myself judge other women unwittingly,” says Anamika, a 25-year-old IT professional, “I know how problematic it is, but it’s so deeply instilled that I cannot stop myself sometimes.” Anamika’s predicament isn’t hers alone. Girl-on-girl hate and the processes that incite it are so insidious that one often doesn’t even realise when one is participating in it. There are myriad ways in which this hate manifests itself – whether it be body-shaming, or judging and criticising sexual choices, clothing choices or even (like my cousin did) something as trivial as make-up.
Divya, who just started college a few months back, admits that she’s fallen prey to it multiple times. “I was never the popular kid,” she says, “Which is why I was and sometimes still am jealous and resentful of the girls who hang out with boys and party a lot.” With time, Divya has realised that this jealousy was irrational; a result of the sense of competition with other women that she had internalised from a young age.
Feminist scholars and psychologists have actually found basis to this argument. Patriarchy teaches women to subject themselves to the male gaze, to model their personalities and physical appearances to appease heterosexual male standards of desirability; and that’s what causes all the harm. Psychologist Noam Shpancer writes in Psychology Today, “As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.”
I have watched many a female friendship crumble because of this reason and have sadly been privy to this myself, though in a different way. As a teenager grappling with femininity there came a point when I tried to denounce it and along with it, the women who embodied that womanhood. I briefly cut ties with female friends and hung out with boys instead, often chiming in when these men were benevolently sexist and laughing at or ridiculing other women for being “stupid” or too “self-absorbed” (or various other baseless reasons). I turned myself into “the cool girl” stereotype, became “one of the guys”, and, in trying to reject male standards of desirability (and the female competition fostered by it), I ended up being horrible to the women who didn’t ascribe to my choices.
Shpancer’s theory also ties in with evolutionary psychology, or, what we call natural selection – an innate urge to level the playing field to ensure that we have access to the best genetic material for our survival. But in the modern context, this competitiveness becomes a more intimate one for women because it is linked to our perception of ourselves. Because patriarchy constantly tells us that we are inadequate, the urge to appear less so gets manifested in pulling down other women – and that’s our version of natural selection.
“When I look back, I realise that a lot of my hate towards other women was more about my own issues rather than theirs,” says Sharda, a homemaker in her fifties. Having moved to a metropolitan city after growing up in a more conservative, patriarchal small town family, Sharda has had to overcome a lot. Initially, she used to morally judge women who were more sexually liberated or opinionated, but over time, she realised she was internalising and embodying the same misogynistic beliefs that her family had perpetuated. “When I think about it, I realise that my disapproval of the neighbour’s daughter wearing short skirts and going out at night was more because I was envious that I didn’t have those freedoms when I was young,” she concludes.
And this is an important phenomenon. Like my 15-year-old cousin, many of us still haven’t broken out of the gender expectations that society thrusts upon us, and that angst gets manifested in how we regard our fellow women. We see in them what we ourselves lack – whether it’s conventional attractiveness, intelligence, competence or simply, the access, freedoms and opportunities that aren’t available to us, and that’s why we end up resenting all of that. It’s ourselves that we’re actually hating, not really them.
Though it’s a hard and long-drawn process, perhaps the only healthy way to unlearn this hate is to seek the company of fellow women who have gone through the same thing. As Aunty Feminist says, we can start this off by doing the little things, by complimenting our fellow women, telling them how amazing they look or brilliant they are, and that would eventually solidify into a stronger network of mutual support and positivity. Patriarchy pits us against other women using our insecurities because its foundations are threatened by female solidarity, and so, coming together is the most powerful way of challenging it.