I left the bar in a crowd of my male friends, all of us chatting about where to go next. As we rounded the corner, we saw a group of teenage boys of similar age to ourselves, decked out in tracksuit bottoms and baseball caps. Several of them began shouting at my group, throwing the standard insults of teenage male posturing. As the group parted, one of them spotted me.
“Hang on a minute. One of them’s a girl!” he shouted. There was a silence. My friend Ross, who was walking next to me, turned in confusion. He looked around.
“Where?” he said, bewildered.
I was about 18 when this happened, and at the time, I was immensely proud that I had become “one of the boys” so successfully that they’d actually forgotten I wasn’t one of them.
This is my confession: I was the woman who didn’t like other women.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I decided other women weren’t worth my time. Throughout school, while I had female friends, I was always more comfortable hanging out with the boys. It was when I was a teenager that the switch flipped from “I enjoy spending time with both genders” to “I’m not like other girls.”
The friendships between teenage girls can be elaborate warfare, as you navigate the complicated social waters. It’s easy to find yourself in competition with each other, for no real reason, beyond a limited social pool and bubbling hormones. At my high school, the girls were divided into strict camps. There was the “make-up corner,” who spent their break times sitting together in a corner, sharing the contents of their make-up bags and preening. There were the tough girls, who smoked behind the science block and had their belly buttons pierced. There were the girls who played Netball, and the girls who were smart. It was rare to cross between groups. I learned this the hard way, after a girl I had been close with in the first years of school was accepted into a cooler group. She dropped me like a hot brick and we barely spoke for the rest of high school.
Things changed when I started to spend time with my boyfriend’s friends. His friends didn’t seem to be bothered by the camp divides of friendship groups, or to be in competition. They just had fun.
Even after that early relationship ended, I continued to spend time with these boys (some of whom are still close friends of mine to this day) and reveling in their comparatively calmer company. By the last year of high school, I had drifted away from my female friends and had developed new, close friendships with boys.
In hindsight, I can see how much my friendships were influenced by my own internalized misogyny. From an early age, we’re taught that women gossip, and bitch. We’re taught that men, in contrast, are straightforward and confident. Being “not like other girls” is seen as a compliment.
As women, we learn from an early age that we’re in competition with each other. Society values men more, so we vie for their attention and approval to earn a seat at the table.
Throughout college and university, I felt proud of being the woman allowed into the boys’ club. I built a personality around being the girlfriend who my boyfriend’s friends thought was cool. I played video games, I drank pints of cider, I ate enormous burgers and I declared that I bought all the negative stereotypes about women and declared that I wasn’t interested in hanging out with them.
I’d like to say I snapped out of it, but even in my early 20s, I struggled to find women I wanted to be around. I worked in offices populated with women who could tell you the exact calories in a cookie without blinking, and I listened to them talk about boyfriends who’d managed to put away their own socks as though they were domestic gods. I felt smug; I’d cracked the ideal friendship code and had meaningful connections with a handful of women I deemed “sensible.” They were largely women like me who also didn’t have many female friends. My other friends, and the people I spent most time with, were men.
Aligning myself with men made me feel powerful, and my behavior was rewarded. I often heard my male friends complain of girlfriends who played mind games or who couldn’t get along with their friends, and I felt proud. My relationships were better, I thought, because I was straight-talking and no nonsense. I understood men. No boyfriend of mine would sit in the pub, bewailing my habit of ordering a salad and then eating half their fries.
I think having male friends made me feel protected. The world isn’t always kind to women, and having that protective shield of male energy around me cushioned me from some of the worst of it. Joining them gave me a taste of their privilege and I loved it.
On one memorable occasion, I was sitting in a theater-bar managed by an ex-boyfriend, when a female performer described the place as somewhere women wouldn’t feel comfortable. I pointed out I was there all the time and was perfectly happy.
“Of course you feel comfortable. I meant, like, proper women,” she snapped back. Her own interesting ideas about womanhood aside, I was taken aback. It had never occurred to me that my “not like other girls” attitude was limiting me. I felt clever that I was comfortable in male spaces, but it had never occurred to me that I was so actively pushing away other women, too.
It was a wake-up call, and I began to push myself to not write off women immediately upon meeting them. I began to find other women like me, who were interested in food and comics and writing. Those first tentative connections came online, as I began to speak to other bloggers, and fiercely intelligent women on forums. I had to learn how to make friends, but as soon as I dropped the idea that being accepted by men was “better,” I began to find amazing women.
I now have a large group of female friends who are the most amazing people I know. They’re intelligent, funny and don’t put up with any nonsense from me. I realized that being friends with men might be fun, but female friendships can be as empowering as hell.
I’d stupidly assumed those high school dramas were just how women are. In fact, the women I know are my biggest support network. They’re the first people to celebrate my good news, to come over with wine to commiserate hard times, and they’re the loudest voices pushing me to succeed or to shut up when I’m getting in my own way. My group has carried each other through new jobs, marriages, miscarriages and grief. I regret that I waited so long to open myself up to other women.
Being “not like other girls” didn’t make me cool. Because the other girls, I eventually realized, are often quite amazing.