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Fighting to be Relevant? The Competitiveness of Women

When I think back to my middle school and high school days, one of the things I remember most was the gaggle of girlfriends I always had surrounding me. Had you asked my 13 year old self who my best friend was, you would’ve gotten a list of names big enough to fill a garbage bag. My yearbooks prove it: I had so many girlfriends I’m surprised I could fit all their signatures in the pages. And we were close – we knew all each others’ secrets, trusted one another to play matchmaker, attended each others’ family funerals, went on vacations with each other and shared our most prized possessions without abandon. If you attacked one friend, you attacked them all. Never was there more loyalty or trust in my friendships than when I was a teenager.

Then came adulthood. The transition was so slow, I barely noticed it, but looking back, there was definitely a point when my friendships became less, shall we say crucial, and more of a haphazard, casual kind of thing. I still had all the same friends, and we still shared secrets and clothes, but it was like we collectively became more guarded. Our secret club of girls became an open club of women, who made no bones about the fact that we cared more about men, family life, careers, and adult aspirations than we did each other. After all, that was the natural order of things. That familial bond that existed between us all as adolescents and teenagers had given way to a whole different lifestyle: that of the competitive adult woman.

Soon the every weekend slumber party became a once a month girls night. At that once a month gathering, the focus had jumped quite markedly from “˜catching up”˜, to “˜keeping up”˜. Who has the better job? The better hairstyle? Who is dating the cutest guy? Has the nicest car/house/pet? Who lost 10 pounds? It sounds silly when you address it directly like this, but it’s an honest observation. I can’t remember the last time I got together with a group of girlfriends when there wasn’t some sort of competitive banter over career, weight loss, relationships, children, or the like. Those posts by which we mark our level of “˜success’ in womanhood, seem to have such great importance placed on them by ourselves that we hold those successes in even higher esteem than our friendships. It is so ingrained into our very beings that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

Every time we laughingly mock or make a joke about a friend’s success, or try to put our own successes in the forefront, we are competing. These competitions between even the closest women can ruin a relationship, and ruin our own self-worth when it comes to how we see our own accomplishments.

It’s no surprise that women, upon reaching adulthood, begin to compete with even the women they love the most. Society grooms us from an early age to maintain a ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra. It’s hidden in the pages of magazines, the internet, movies and television shows. Despite all of the efforts of feminists and free thinkers in past decades, it is still subliminally ingrained into us that you’re only as successful as the man on your arm, the amount of money you make, the way you fit in that dress. And one thing society loves more than anything is to take a seemingly successful woman and tear her down in the blink of an eye (just look at Britney Spears – a few short years ago she was the epitome of success, and now we all love to make fun of her. Why? Because she had the audacity to be a human being with human problems).

I once had a close friend with whom my entire friendship was based on competition. Neither of us realized it at first, but after a while, it was became clear that we were vying against each other for everything. Attention. Popularity. Notoriety. If I lost 5 pounds, she lost 10. If she cooked a great meal, I’d develop a new recipe. We fought over everything, from who discovered a band first to who had the most successful relationship. Our friendship was so rooted in competition that we could not even be happy for one another’s triumphs. We simply existed in a bubble of spurring one another on, driving each other to compete to the point that I was miserable every time I was around her and felt anxious and irritated every time we so much as had a conversation. The word “˜frenemy’ must have been created for this very situation.

We never openly acknowledged this competition, and so much of the time it was a subconscious thing, that neither of us ever really addressed. Since it wasn’t talked about or acknowledged, that made it only so much easier for it to continue at our own detriment. For a while it seemed healthy to me, even. Since we were seeing ourselves through each others’ eyes, it made me strive to be better in everything I did. Or so I thought. All I was really striving to do, in reality, was be petty and shallow. I never changed anything about myself that actually mattered. All it was about to either of us was being the “˜better’ one.

I finally reached the realization that our friendship was detrimental when I caught myself in a yelling match with her over who had come up with a certain phrase. Yeah, that’s right. We argued over the ownership of saying; one that had actually been around for decades before either one of us were born.

When you’ve been conditioned to compete with your female peers your whole life, it’s hard to quit cold turkey. It isn’t easy to thumb through magazines or click on fashion websites without looking at the model’s body and hating your own. When a girlfriend has the most wonderful news, even though you may feel genuine happiness for them, there’s always the possibility of the most remote twinge of envy inside. We’re so afraid of being left out in the cold, of not measuring up to all the other women in our circle, that we’ll do just about anything to justify our relevance, to keep our place. At the cost of our own self-respect, in some cases.

It’s no wonder, what with the media and our own network of support teaching us to compete for spoils, that we all fall victim to competitiveness within our friendships. Many of us go through life not even noticing the damage we are doing to ourselves and those who we love.

The question is, why, now that we know what we know, do we still do it? Even those of us who are as happy as we could possibly be in our lives, successful beyond our own expectations, or even just content – those of us with nothing to prove – even we fall victim to the constant comparisons and bragging that comes with being friends with other women.

Do we do it to be relevant? Are we so afraid that, with every new thing, new trend, new face that is plastered before our eyes every day, we’ll become more and more invisible? Are we competing for relevance in a world that pushes only a select few women to the top and the rest to the bottom?

Does it have to do solely with men? Perhaps we, by instinct, feel the need to battle each other out for the choicest, primest male for our den. I’ve certainly been stabbed in the back enough times by girlfriends where guys were concerned, as have we all. Women competing over men is certainly nothing new; it’s as old as dirt. And the competition over men is when women truly bring out the evil they harbor inside themselves. Just watch an episode or two of Judge Judy to see for yourself. I’ve had women friends deliberately sabotage my relationships, try to hit on/sleep with/flirt with my boyfriends, even set me up with people they knew weren’t right for me out of spite. And in my younger and more catty days, I was guilty of a few crimes involving friends and boyfriends myself.

Maybe the whole ‘men’ excuse is just the tip of the surface. Perhaps it’s just that, in a society where women have always been deemed ‘slightly inferior’, where we get paid less on average, have less advantages at school and work, and are generally treated as second rate citizens, women feel they have to constantly keep that ‘edge’ in order to propel themselves forward. After all, befriending nothing but underdogs will only result in keeping you an underdog. Right? It’s a sad fact, but society does encourage women to compete against each other much more so than they do men. When there are only a select few opportunities out there, we have no choice but to fight each other to be able to get ahead.

I can’t explain the mentality behind it, or why any of us do it. I do have the advantage of having realized the negative behavior and have done all that I can in my life to change it. Competing with girlfriends does nothing but deflate your self-esteem, occupy time which could be better spent on more productive things, and damage friendships. Once I reached these realizations, I found that I changed infinitely for the better. In some cases, it even meant letting certain friendships fall by the wayside, for the greater good of both of us. It’s a sad fact, but sometimes it’s necessary. We as women should hold each other up, encourage each other, and be supportive in all our endeavors! The old adage definitely tells true: ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. After all, you can compete for everything, but neither of you will ever win until you love yourself more than you love to fight.

Several women in black formal gowns surround a table covered in a white cloth on a stage.

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

4 replies on “Fighting to be Relevant? The Competitiveness of Women”

I think I find myself competing more with my male friends than my lady friends.  I’m pretty competitive, at least at things I think I’m good at, but I see it more when I’m up against a fella. 

When I was younger, yeah, I would say I was a lot more competitive with other women, but as i get older the idea of working together seems a lot more productive, and requires less energy.

I’ve never reallly looked at friendship like this, though in retrospect, I’ve certainly had relationships that echo these sentiments. Although I must say, as I approach 40, what I’ve discovered is that I only maintain friendships where this isn’t the focus. Friends from high school, whom I’ve known for close to 20 yrs, we still keep in touch because we really like each other. I don’t hang out with people who make me feel badly, although I do have friends who may have more “worldy” success.

 

Brand new here and I really related to this post. I can barely think of a single relationship I have had with another girl/woman that hasn’t had some kind of weird competitive stuff going on. I think that to a certain point it’s normal, and not even particularly harmful – after all, it can spur you on to aim higher and do better in all aspects of your professional life and your personal relationships. I’ve felt competitive with colleagues, relatives, acquaintances and boyfriends. But when it gets to the point where the competition is the ONLY thing that defines the relationship, it becomes incredibly draining. A few years ago I had to remove myself from a relationship with a friend because it had basically turned into an exhausting game of one-sided oneupwomanship. Almost every conversation I had with this woman involved me being reminded that she was JUST that bit thinner than me, she was JUST that bit more stylish than me and she was CONSIDERABLY more intelligent than me because she read a lot and had gone further into the realm of Higher Education. The beginning of the end, for me, was a conversation where she patronisingly said something along the lines of “We all have our strengths. I’m really smart and have a great eye for interior design and fashion and colour and am just really into aesthetics, whereas you have great, like, spacial awareness and stuff”. I know that it’s insecurity that makes people act that way, and I understand completely. I’m insecure too and I enjoy outside validation, but I really prefer not to have to take it at the expense of someone that I’m supposed to care about. As you say, it isn’t always necessarily about men, it is really about relevance and trying to feel better in one’s own skin. I’d also wager that men fall prey to this a lot too, they just tend to be able to take part in friendly rivalries and downright unfriendly copmpetiton without the dreaded “catfight” accusation coming into play. I don’t see this going away anytime soon so it would be good if we could encourage women to see beyond it and not see other women as a constant threat. But what are the chances of that?

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