“Look at this one. She’s trying way too hard. She’s screaming desperate with that dress” a woman commented as another woman passed by, trying to find the end of a very long line to get into a bar over the weekend.
“It’s Saturday night, not a ball, Cinderella,” she cackled as her hand was stamped and she walked through the entryway. One of her friends added, “What was she thinking when she put on that dress? That the sequins would land her a date?” The group of friends laughed as they disappeared into the dark building.
I was shocked. The comments were harsh and unsolicited. I turned to my husband, confused and offended on her behalf, and asked if he had heard what just happened.
No (*insert my long sigh here*).
So, naturally, I started to stew on it a bit. Why were they being so harsh? Why did they care what this other woman was wearing to dance the night away? How would it feel if they directed their criticism toward me?
I got a little uncomfortable as I started thinking about what they thought of the dress I was wearing. I started pulling at it, commenting on how maybe I should have gone with something a little looser… a little more forgiving. Was I trying too hard? Who was I trying to impress? You can see where this is going.
As my mind spiralled about my own outfit, I hoped that my sequined-wearing-sister hadn’t heard those mean-spirited comments.
Sequins aside, this type of indirect aggression is what keeps us, as women, stuck. Stuck in a place of competing with other women. Stuck in taking stock of other women’s value based on how they look. Stuck in feeling insecure about our own appearance, accomplishments and goals. Stuck in perpetuating an ideal that we, as a whole, aren’t good enough.
When we support and stand up for one another, we break the mold and give ourselves the space to lean into deeper social issues.
A 2011 study found that when meeting an attractive woman, 85 percent of the female subjects gave their peer a critical once over and made harsh comments about her appearance. Another study has shown that the woman on the receiving end of such comments will feel socially excluded and can experience psychological pain that is comparable to physical pain.
Regardless of whether this indirect aggression toward other women is a result of biology or social conditioning, we all have a choice. A choice to change the overwhelming trend of tearing each other down instead of building each other up. In a society that’s striving for gender equality, it is our responsibility to be the example. To embody what a strong, supportive woman is. To push back against what is expected of us; falling into a competitive, mean-girl way of interacting with one another.
In order to be a force to be reckoned with, to break the glass ceiling and to be seen for the value we offer to the world instead of the value of our appearance, we have to stop falling into these old patterns.
When we tear one woman down, we tear all women down. When we support and stand up for one another, we break the mold and give ourselves the space to lean into deeper social issues. Issues that are far more important that what we’re wearing and who we think we’re trying to impress.
Here are a few strategies to start pushing back:
1. Take stock of who you’re spending your time with and how they interact with other women. Do you see a trend that they always have something to say, or have a tendency to tear others down? Call them out when they make comments about other women. Uncomfortable, yes, but it will only continue if it isn’t brought to light.
2. Get honest with yourself. When have you fallen into this pattern? Every one of us has done it at one point or another. Don’t hide in the shame of it. Instead, take responsibility and apologize when and where you need to.
3. Do the work of figuring out what needs to be healed within yourself to stop falling into these patterns. Talk it out with a friend or set up an appointment with a therapist. Get curious about what is triggering you to be in competition with, or negative, toward other women.
4. Empower and applaud one another. The woman that got the promotion she’d been working so hard for? CELEBRATE her! The woman who wore an out-of-character sequined dress and heels that made her feel good about herself post-heartbreak? (yes, I sought her out to tell her how beautiful she looked. And, she told me her story) PRAISE her! Let her know what a beautiful badass she is to be doing something that makes her feel good.
5. Speak to your own worth whenever possible. Share your successes. Scream them from the mountain tops if you want! Focus on your accomplishments instead of comparing yourself to others. Unapologetically become the best version of yourself possible. You’ll likely inspire the women you’re surrounded with to do the same.
In the words of Madeline Albright, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Ladies, wear sequins whenever you damn well please. And, stay in your lane. Don’t get distracted by those who try to tear you, or anyone else, down.
Sarah is a therapist and coach in Horsham, PA who works with women struggling with anxiety, self-esteem, body image and disordered eating. You can learn more about Sarah and her work at sarahherstichlcsw.com.