Sitting outside my college’s cafe, I watched a woman (let’s call her Laurel) walk past and stop blatantly to check herself out in the reflective window.
Much like a scene from Mean Girls, I felt the toxic words climbing out of my mouth: “Yuck. She is so self-absorbed!”
It should be noted that I previously had exactly one interaction with Laurel, and it was when she and my partner were flirting in front of me (that was my narrative of the situation, at least).
A lot of people have been here. You feel threatened by another woman— her job, her intellect, her talent, her beauty, her sexuality. There are a million ways in which we as human beings can envy others. For women especially, we are taught that we are never quite good enough, that our worth is fragile and contingent upon how others perceive us. We learn that we must compete with one another in order to prove ourselves valuable, worthy, and lovable. I experience this concept—“I am not worth it”— as such a deep wound that when I feel threatened by someone else’s perceived “worthiness,” I feel my own slipping away. I feel threatened, and, unfortunately, that visceral reaction can result in a comment like the one I made that day.
We are also taught that other women are, inherently, threats to our romantic relationships, which is a powerful concept. Think about the language around cheating: Adulteress, the ‘other woman,’ whore, slut, skank, home wrecker. All of this language is incredibly gendered, and that’s not a coincidence. It’s a part of a huge system that tells women that other women are not trustworthy, threatening, and constantly aiming to take away the people that we care about most.
Thankfully, my partner was there and told me in the most kind and honest way that my spiteful words seemed jarringly discordant with my feminist views. If she likes the way she looks, that’s great, right? they asked sincerely. At first I was on the defensive: No, I’m not wrong! She’s wrong! Then I dug a little deeper. They were right. The way I had reacted to Laurel was completely against my desire to create a support system with other women—one of appreciation, empowerment, and encouragement. It was based in my own insecurities, not her actions. Her actions were extraordinarily harmless.
When my own shame of mocking Laurel slid away, I tried to be gentle with myself, take the moment in stride, and learn from it. So now when I encounter a situation like this, I try to be more mindful of how I react. Ultimately, we can either honor the ways in which other women are incredible human beings, or we can derogate them to have transient moments of toxic validation.
What if, in that moment, I had said instead, “You go girl, that’s awesome. You’re awesome”? How would I have felt then? Probably pretty amazing. Not only would I be telling Laurel that she was incredible for celebrating herself in that moment, I would be, in a way, giving myself empowering permission to celebrate myself, too.
The way that our society teaches women to think and act and feel is powerful. But I fully believe that we as women can continue working to change the narrative we are given. I believe that we can actively practice bolstering up other women and their choices, instead of clawing them down in an ever-losing battle. When we come together, when we lift each other up, we are a powerful force, beautiful and flawed and strong as hell.