First, I want to address the men. Men, the thoughts that follow are about women, written by a woman, representing an organization that serves women. Your eyes may already be glazing over, your mind wandering to the next page. Not because you don’t care about women – I’m confident that you do. It’s possible that you simply think we’re targeting an audience you don’t belong to. I am taking the time to acknowledge you now and say that is not the case. Your presence is very important to this dialogue. I think that because of the wounds that many women have, our impulse is to isolate ourselves from you when we talk about “women’s issues.” But I believe that is counterproductive if we want to find healing and shift paradigms. So, men, you are welcome – and wanted – here.
Ladies, the topic is Intrasexual Competition. In other words, let’s address the thing we pretend hasn’t been informing our actions since middle school: We are all secretly, deviously, relentlessly competing with one another. I’m going to pause now to give those in denial a chance to remember the times they saw an attractive woman and immediately felt hostile toward her. Or the times they felt threatened by a female because she belonged to the same age group and was achieving success in a coveted career. Or the times they couldn’t help but secretly hate their sisters and cousins for unfairly – or worse, fairly – receiving more attention. Are we all on the same page now? Okay, moving right along.
So, we are all competing with one another. Fine. Anyone who’s lost a best friend over a high school crush knows this is hardly a new phenomenon. Why use column space to write about it now? I represent the voice of the YWCA. Our mission is to empower women and girls. Historically, we have taken a stand against any threats to the realization of that mission. We have protested, we have petitioned, we have marched against those who have oppressed us. And the face of the oppressor has always been that of a man, bent on marginalizing women and keeping us from achieving our full potential. Men have undeniably shaped our sociopolitical condition. But look around. We are gossiping, hoarding resources, wishing one another failure. A recent New York Times article concluded that “intrasexual competition is the most important factor explaining the pressures that women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.” We have been abused by men, yes. But we’ve willingly taken the baton and are now running with it, inflicting damage upon ourselves: The face of our biggest oppressor today is distinctly female.
If you are a woman, you are affected. Whether or not you intend to compete with other women, other women are competing with you. And we are all breathing in the toxic exhaust of our aggression. Speaking of exhaust, isn’t it exhausting – the constant tension of measuring ourselves against the beauty, careers, relational successes of other women? The advent of social media has only exacerbated the issue: Proof that other women are doing better than you (by the way, they aren’t – they just know how to curate their Instagrams and Facebooks well) is just a click away. The danger is that it’s not just tiring, it’s distracting. We’re so busy fighting battle after battle inside ourselves against our fellow woman that we lose sight of the real enemy: The greater injustices that continue to plague our gender, keeping us submitted to a false sense of worth. Our lives have been reduced to an incessant boxing match. And we willingly step into the ring for round after round, throwing punches at other women – which are really punches at ourselves.
It’s not because we’re weak or stupid. Our very biology may be working against us. Florida State University’s Jon Maner and James McNulty released a study that showed women’s levels of testosterone – the hormone responsible for human aggression – increased when they smelled the t-shirts of ovulating women. In other words, our bodies physically prepare us for a fight in response to the threat of a female perceived as competition. Sounds primitive, doesn’t it? There’s more. The problem with female competition, especially when compared with the male counterpart, is its indirect nature. Competition is not an innately evil thing. We happily put our kids into competitive sports. But what we are talking about here is a perverted strain of competition, hallmarked by secrecy and manipulation. Psychologist Lynn Margolies, Ph.D., explains that unlike boys, in whom competition is encouraged, girls are taught from a young age that they are not supposed to be competitive, and that their naturally competitive nature cannot be expressed openly with other women. Margolies concludes that “when aggression cannot be channeled into a healthy, positive edge, it becomes inhibited and goes underground. What could have been healthy competition becomes a secret feeling of envy and desire for the other to fail – laced with guilt and shame.” Sound familiar? And if the biological and psychological influencers aren’t enough, the very reality of our surroundings is working against us, too. There really are fewer women in positions of power. The evidence tells us that resources are limited.
So, we have bodies that tell us to compete, brains that tell us to do it secretly, and circumstances that affirm there isn’t enough goodness to go around. Then we submit ourselves to these influencers and affirm their power over us every time we give into the impulse to antagonize other women. The odds may be against us, but it is we who continue to feed our perverted sense of competition, breeding a culture of insecurity and keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. We need to open our eyes and see that this system of intrasexual competition is making a fool out of us, setting us up for failure, because we are measuring our worth against an ever-changing standard. There is an endless supply of women to compete with. You may win a round in your mind, but somebody you perceive as prettier or more successful than you will enter the ring sooner or later. In a Woman v. Woman fight, nobody stays champion for long.
We have two choices: Continue to be victims of this vicious cycle; or break it. I believe we can effect real social change. Having seen the ugly truth, the journey ahead is daunting. Let the YWCA take the first step. We declare that we are no longer in competition with you. We disqualify ourselves from the match on the grounds that when we engage in competition with another woman, we have already lost the fight for progress. We must stop seeing opponents and start seeing sisters.
Sound too “Kumbaya” for you? We don’t have to hold hands and sway to show support for one another. Invest in other women. If you’re in a managerial position, be honest with yourself about whether you’re showing favor to the males around you to keep female competition at bay. Share your insights and resources to help open doors for others. We have an after school program at the YWCA that gives middle and high school girls a space to talk through their aggressions and build trust. We house young women emancipated from foster care – providing them with the space, resources and guidance to lead successful, independent lives and to help each other along the way. These may seem like small things we do in the community, but if we can all start to serve each other in small ways and affirm with our actions that there is more than enough fill in the blank to go around, the collective whole will begin to heal.
Men, you too have a responsibility in healing the pain of our gender. Know that a desire to win your affection – or compensate for a lack thereof – is one of the biggest motivators for our destructive behavior. As men, you have social privilege. Use that privilege to help create more opportunities for women. And consider that funding magazines, websites, and music that portray women in a degrading or abusive way contributes to the pain that is the root of our insecurity. Do not stand idly by, dismissing this as a “girl fight.” I said earlier that you are wanted here. I tell you now, you are needed.
It’s funny. As I’m writing this, a beautiful woman walks into the coffee shop. My body’s response is immediate: My lips tighten and my eyes quickly scan her body up and down to assess her threat level (I’m a female too, and certainly not immune to this sickness!). And only because I have just written ten paragraphs about the dangers of unhealthy competition do I find the wisdom and will power to stop myself from “going there” in my mind. I even counter the thought by smiling at the poor unsuspecting girl. I have to tell you, I feel an instant sense of liberation. It may not always be that easy, especially if your feelings of competition stem from deep wounds or abuse. But this is our first, powerful step to victory: Stop our minds from going there. We have everything working against us – history, biology, the job market, even our own brains. But we have the last say about what we allow to live in our minds and ultimately inform our actions.
Ladies, we can keep going, round after round, until one or both of us falls down in exhaustion and injury. Or this can be the final round. Join us in throwing in the towel. And little by little, we can start to rewrite our individual patterns. Eventually, our collective norm will shift, and we will bring the oppression of insecurity, jealousy, and competition to an end. K.O.
The YWCA Santa Monica/Westside is a nonprofit organization that empowers women and girls. Annually, we serve more than 2,500 women, girls and children from 10 communities on the Westside of Los Angeles.