“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores. Who here has ever been called a slut?”
-Ms Norbury (Tina Fey), Mean Girls
One year ago, I shared a tiny flat with two women I thought were my friends. We lived on the edge of Queenstown, enjoyed a stunning view of The Remarkables from our kitchen window and stuck to an obsessive cleaning rota that kept the flat in tip-top condition. In spite of the beautiful surroundings and exceptional cleanliness, it is the most stressful living experience I have ever endured. Privacy was a rare commodity and alone time the elusive Holy Grail. Peace and quiet hardly ever occurred. I had never lived in an all-female environment before and naively assumed it would be a tranquil, enriching and supportive phase of my life. It turned out to be the most miserable time of my whole stay in New Zealand.
In spite of being 30, 26 (me) & 24, it was like the last two years of primary school and most of secondary school all over again. Gossip, speculation and spiteful remarks, always behind the absent person’s back, were commonplace. This would usually be a good opportunity to insert the tired Oscar Wilde quote, “a true friend stabs you in the front,” but frenemies will stab you wherever they can with their double-crossing blade. A self-professed ‘girls’ girl’, it was incredibly depressing for me to live with women who not only do not have your back, but are the ones twisting the knife. Perhaps I might have stayed out of it, had I not been the recipient of some very nasty face-to-face criticism with regards to my love life. After that, it was open season.
I spoke to a trusted friend the following day and her verdict was the standard, “ignore it, they’re just jealous of you.” I’m sure part of it was jealousy. They were both average weight and I am overweight – how had I managed to bag a good looking bloke and they hadn’t? And why did I get more male attention on nights out than both of them put together? It could have been as straightforward as that, but the kind of meanness I experienced goes deeper, straight down to a heart of darkness in mainstream attitudes women seem to have towards other women.
Women like the ones I lived with buy into the gossip-rag mentality that being female means you must be shamed into celibacy, self-doubt and starvation. We must feel perpetually guilty about everything. This very harmful attitude is reinforced in the majority of the media, but the tide has (mercifully) begun to turn in recent years. However, successful women who are smart, funny, attractive and display high self-esteem are still viewed as a threat by women so cripplingly insecure about their own bodies, personalities and attractiveness, it is a wonder they ever leave the house. Those dreadful gossip rags who put red circles of shame around female arm fat or patches of cellulite actively encourage us to pass judgement on other women’s bodies. And if we are constantly comparing ourselves to famous women, women in the street, and women we are supposed to be friends with, how can we ever be happy? I could wax lyrical about how this is a global conspiracy designed to make us spend vast sums of money on anti-ageing formulas, diet pills and plastic surgery, but Naomi Wolf does it better in her excellent book, The Beauty Myth.
While we are wasting time glaring at one another for reasons so superficial they literally do not matter (who is thinner, prettier or has the best arse), we remain grossly under-represented in arenas that control global decision making – government, banking, boards of corporations, conservation, scientific discovery and religious leadship. We were kept out of these arenas by men for millenia and now we seem to have turned on one another as well. It is a sad state of affairs, but as Radiohead sagely noted, “you do it to yourself, you do, and that’s what really hurts.”
I lasted three months with those women and when I moved out, tension I hadn’t realised I was carrying melted away. It would be easy to regret that time, but I don’t. I learned so much. I know who to trust and who to remain wary of. I can spot the frenemy warning signs, even when they start to develop in people who were genuine to begin with – offhand comments about how much pizza you ate or how the douchebag guy they’re seeing reckons women shouldn’t do this and shouldn’t do that. Don’t let these little digs damage you. Let them give you strength to reject the corporate media poison and think about how insecure and unhappy and ignorant a person must be if they derive their tiny shred of self-worth from putting other women down. Don’t join in like I did. Throw away the Burn Book, give your frenemies a big hug and tell them they look lovely today.
As the wise philsopher Unknown said,
“You can tell who the strong women are. They are the ones you see building one another up instead of tearing each other down.”
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Written over twenty years ago and now more poignant than ever.
Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter.