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'She's Not Making Any Friends Today'

A lot is written about mean girls and bullying, but not that much is focused specifically around the issue of looks.
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...said Natalie Morales this week on "The Today Show" in response to a photo someone put up of herself with six-pack abs four days after delivering a baby.

Interesting response, Natalie.

Aside from the ridiculousness of a woman having a flat stomach four days after giving birth, the fact that this was morning news and the reaction it got was fascinating.

I am going to set aside one part that many reacted to, which is the idea that a photo like this could provoke women to think that this is how they are supposed to look after giving birth and possibly create bad "self-esteem."

If you think this is what you should aspire to when your boobs are leaking milk, your hormones are going on a nosedive to blues land and your stomach is the closest thing to jelly you have ever imagined, (not to mention that baby whose life depends on you?!) then I think you have bigger problems. Like, perhaps, insanity?!

So no, I am not even touching that one. What totally interests me however, is how we, as women, respond to each other when we feel envious of each other's looks. Was this what you meant Natalie, when you stated that this woman was "not making any friends today"? Inciting all that jealousy in other women, was that it?

But all silliness aside, that comment about the friends grabbed my attention. How do we react when confronted with feelings of envy about another's looks? How do groups of girlfriends, coworkers, families -- all sorts of social groupings of girls and women -- navigate competition, envy and connection, specifically around looks?

I am always pondering these issues from different angles since I work as a psychotherapist with eating disorders, and I do a lot of workshops in schools on body image and eating issues.
In this day and age of bullying and mean girls, are there things we can continue to learn about that can help us navigate the reality of envy and jealousy and the ways we respond as those feelings get touched off? Can that have any relevance to helping girls and women navigate these very real issues?

I once had a really close friend who broke up with me. Yes, you heard it right. I think it was truly the most heartbreaking breakup I had ever dealt with. I have to say this felt worse than any time a guy had dumped me.

This friend agreed to meet to try to explain why she wanted to end our friendship after eight years. This wasn't a case of growing apart, different lives, different needs; she said it simply: "I can't deal with the feelings of envy I have when I'm with you. Maybe it's because I never had sisters, I just can't deal with the feelings of competition and envy." My guess is that there had to be other things she couldn't stand about me, maybe that was her 'nice' version, but I was totally flabbergasted by that statement. It also left me feeling that I had done something "bad" by being "too something" and now was being alienated and "shunned."

I pondered the relationship I had had with my sister and thought that perhaps she was not exactly the best preparation for me in the land of girlfriends. She is probably the least competitive and envious person you will probably ever meet. I never felt her begrudge my need for attention or the strengths I had; besides which, she said years later, she always knew she had the edge over me anyhow, being the older one.

So, perhaps I was a bit naïve; it never occurred to me that you wouldn't want to have friends that you admired, respected, perhaps envied and felt a bit jealous of. In high school I always wished that I had my friend Karen's legs and my friend Debby's body -- they were beautiful! While I may have felt insecure about my own body in ways, it never occurred to me that my envy was a feeling I had to avoid. When I entered the dance world (and especially in New York City!), well, there was no shortage of envy and competition while surrounded by the beautiful women with gorgeous bodies. So yeah, it was certainly not new for me to wish I had that girls' legs, or that one's hair, or eyes. The beauty was astonishing and certainly something to appreciate!

A lot is written about mean girls and bullying, but not that much is focused specifically around the issue of looks. One of my friends calls it "the elephant in the room." A recent New York Times article, "A Cold War Fought by Women," written by John Tierney, discussed a study that focused specifically on women's reaction to a woman who was dressed by the researchers to attract attention, and on other days with other groups, to draw no attention to her figure. There was a statistically significant difference by the responses to this woman by the other women in terms of disparaging comments that were made about her when she left the room.

Perhaps not a shocker.

But what part of a woman looking good and perhaps drawing attention to those good looks is what provokes our hateful reactions? Is it our discomfort with our own envy and feelings of competitiveness since we are also hardwired for connection? These days one would argue that we only need each other for emotional sustenance, but back in the day those hunter gatherers truly depended on each other to help raise each other's children while they picked the berries and the men hunted the meat.

As a psychotherapist working with eating disorders, I obviously talk about looks a lot as it relates to self-esteem, management of anxiety, the wish for perfection and the fantasy of how that might make someone feel. The irony is that most of the girls and women that I have treated with eating disorders are highly attractive, but don't see it. At all. In fact, I have had to coach some of them, that despite their own belief that they are not at all attractive, (which in fact may never change), that others will see them as beautiful, and that it will be an issue. It might help them, hurt them, but it will not be a benign issue and that they need to know this. They may never think it themselves, but they need to know that others will think it of them.

Is it possible in any way that this negative belief about one's looks is socially self-protective? We know that nobody likes an ego maniac; is it possible that we tend toward self-deprecation because of our fear of being alienated? Amy Schumer did a great video where one friend after another arrives, is complimented, and makes some radically self deprecating remark to downplay the compliment. Until the last woman responds simply: "Thank you,"and gets shot. Literally.Killed off.

We laugh, but boy do we "get it."

So, what is the message here for ourselves, our daughters, the next generation? It's OK to have good self-esteem, but not too good? It's OK to feel good about your looks, but don't show it? Be confident, but not too confident? Some girls have instincts that give them the information about how to play this with others, some do not. Perhaps it is something we can learn. Or teach.

I think these issues are complex and there are no simple straightforward solutions. But we don't necessarily need solutions, do we? We love to talk, to dissect, to connect around issues! We don't need to solve anything, there is a relief in understanding our human nature, and being able to talk about it openly.

I want to start a conversation where girls and women talk about their relationships with each other and how looks have affected those relationships in any way. I am not talking about romantic relationships between women but all others, including mother/daughter, sisters, colleagues, boss to worker, friends, grandmother to granddaughters.

In all of their shapes, sizes and configurations. Let's start a conversation to out the topic of our own experiences of envy, competition and connection. And perhaps any shame associated with our desire to look beautiful, our wish for this attention while at the same time never wanting to incite any disconnect alienation from other women.

Please help me in this endeavor if you can, by emailing me anything that strikes you on this topic; or answer any of the following questions:

Do you think having sisters helped you (if you have them), learn how to compete without feeling worried that it will destroy the connection? Or do you think it hurt?

If you went to a girls' school, do you think that environment did the same?

Have you ever lost a friendship over looks?

Have you ever felt that your parent or grandparent was disappointed in your looks?

Have you ever felt that a parent or grandparent was overly invested in how you look?

How if in any way have you dealt with envious feelings regarding looks with your own friends, family or colleagues?

Have you ever felt that your looks have affected your relationships with female bosses? Negative or positive?

How if in any way have you dealt with envious feelings regarding looks with your own friends, family or colleagues?

Given the ability via social media to get a constant 'status update' on the ever shifting social circles of where you are in, or out, connected, or disconnected, thanks for contributing to this conversation.

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