A few weeks ago I sat on a career power panel for a summer camp put on by local Austin nonprofit, Girls Empowerment Network (“GEN”). I regularly volunteer with GEN because I love the organization’s mission to support and empower young girls and help them grow into confident leaders. I wish I had similar programming as a young girl.
My panel of three women spoke to several groups of girls in elementary and middle school, and they asked us questions about our lives and careers. From what’s your favorite emoji (unicorn), to have you always known what you wanted to do (nope! I’ve changed my mind many times), and who is a person you look up to (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), I was impressed with the questions they asked. One question that stuck with me was, “Looking back at your life, is there anything you would change if you could?”
While I usually try not to dwell too much on the past (try being the operative word because sometimes nostalgia hits me hard), I knew immediately how I wanted to answer the question, and I was the first woman on the panel to volunteer to do so. With the curious faces of twenty young girls looking up at me expectantly, I told them that if I could go back in time to when I was their age, I would stop viewing other girls as my competition, and view them instead as friends and allies. I explained to them that at the end of the day, they are all going through the same stuff, and they will feel less lonely if they band together than if they undermine each other. I, for one, think my life would have looked a lot different in high school and college if I had learned sooner that other girls were not my foes.
Sometime around puberty, I stopped regarding other girls as likely friends and
started viewing them as potential enemies.
In my elementary school days, I had plenty of girl and guy friends, and I was only competitive in the way that little kids are. If I was competing with my female classmates, it was in sports and games, not for the attention of boys. But beginning around 7th or 8th grade, as hormones began to surge and I started to become very interested in male attention, I perceived some of my classmates as a threat. All of a sudden, many of the girls just seemed…meaner.
Our appearances became much more important. Many of us started wearing makeup, experimenting with new hairstyles, and, as this was the early 2000s, wearing visible thongs peeking out from our low-rise jeans (yes, we thought that was suuuuper hot in middle school). I can still remember negative comments about my appearance made to me in middle school and the first fight I had with a friend over a guy. Things were changing alright. I suddenly became distrustful of new girls, and struggled with jealousy when boys or teachers would give praise or attention to other girls instead of me.
I coped by convincing myself that I wasn’t like the other girls.
I tried to compete by taking on a “one of the guys” persona. I did honestly like football, many video games, and bacon cheeseburgers/pizza, but I played up the parts of my personality that would appeal to whomever I was interested in dating at the time, and suppressed whatever he wouldn’t like. I wanted guys to think I was chill and laidback instead of dramatic and demanding like “other girls.” Consequently, my friendships with girls mattered less than my potential relationships with boys, so I was more than willing to throw other girls under the bus. I was desperately trying to be the “Cool Girl” that Gillian Flynn describes in her novel, Gone Girl:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer . . . and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth . . . while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
It’s only now in hindsight that I understand why the “Cool Girl” exists. The phenomenon of girls exclaiming with pride that they are not like other girls and don’t have many friends who are girls is best understood in the context of society’s treatment of girls as a whole. When young girls hear boys, other girls, movies, and more describe girls as catty, mean, needy, bitchy, backstabbing, slutty, and vain, that sinks in. Before girls even have the chance to make up their minds about their classmates, the world makes loud and clear that their expectations should be lowered. If a girl doesn’t want to be associated with similar negative qualities, an obvious tactic is to declare that she is different from other girls and disassociate herself from them. Girls and women are, of course, not inherently catty, mean, backstabbing, etc., but because society pits us against each other, we are more likely to fall back on those cliches.
A life without meaningful female friendship was a life that felt less full.
Now as a grown-ass adult I can see how harmful my views of other girls were as a teenager. My obsession with comparing and competing with other girls robbed me of an important kind of kinship, and I truly regret that. I count myself lucky to still be close friends with some of the girls I knew in high school despite my bad behavior at the time. I suppose that in different ways we all behaved badly while we were trying to find our way in the world.
My life has improved immensely since learning to treat the women in it like sisters, friends, role models, mentors, and mentees. Lumping all women together is as laughable and ridiculous as lumping together all of the people of a single religion or race. It took so long for me to come to understand that women are messy, whole, unique, wonderful, and complex human beings with varying interests and talents. Learning to love, trust, and respect other women is what opened the door for me to learn to love, trust, and respect myself. And my passion for helping other women develop those qualities is why Glitter & Grit exists.
When another woman shines bright, it doesn’t diminish your light.
A few years ago I read Amy Poehler’s book, Yes, Please!, and came across a quote that really struck a chord with me. She wrote, “That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me.” Huh. Good for her. Not for me. It’s such a simple, yet effective concept. Supporting other women should not be a “me vs them” endeavor. We should want other women to succeed and be happy when they do, and their success likely has no negative bearing on us. This phrase is also great for when other women are doing things that we wouldn’t necessarily do. “Oh wow, she’s really wearing some short shorts! Good for her! Not for me. I’ll stick with my chinos.” Or “Huh. I probably would have breastfed a little longer, personally. But good for her! Not for me. It’s none of my business.” I am at a point in my life where I can appreciate another woman’s beauty or figure without doubting my own. Where I can disagree with another woman’s choices without seeing decisions she makes as a black mark on her character or an assault on mine. Now when I see a woman I respect achieve something great, I beam with pride and admiration instead of doubting my own accomplishments. Admittedly, it has taken a long time to get to that place, and I still slip up sometimes and revert back to old habits. It takes hard work to change our conditioning and mindset, but it’s well worth it.
If girls learn the value of supporting one another earlier, they will be better off.
I wish I could have given this entire message to the girls in that room when I was participating in the career panel (probably with less curse words). Even still, I hope that I got my point across in the limited time that I had and that some of them really heard my words and took them to heart. Even if they don’t need them now, maybe they’ll remember them when they are trying to decide how to treat a classmate or which boy or girl they want to pursue in a romantic relationship. It is our responsibility, as parents of girls, mentors to girls, and volunteers with organizations that work with girls, to combat the stereotype of the catty mean girl and help girls realize their collective power earlier. It is our job to teach them that they don’t have to compete with each other to be successful and that they will flourish even more if they help each other along the way.