Most women have witnessed the day-to-night atmospheric change when a man enters a room previously occupied by only women. This man could have 3-foot long nose hair, a lisp and a pear-sized bald spot, but no matter. Suddenly, every head is turned, every back straightened, every smile widened to coat-hanger proportions. Conversation turns to that dull brand of innocuous chatter sprinkled by strategically-bell-like laughter that drowns out the previous impassioned discussions and heart-felt guffaws.
And whoever does it the best– whoever radiates, whoever dazzles, whoever hair-tosses with extra flourish– is usually on the receiving end of a thousand “dead-to-me” glares from her compatriots.
It is a prime example of the female competitive universe that was studied by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, as covered by the New York Times this week. Researchers have found fascinating evidence of intrasexual competition (competition among females), but their explanations dangerously rely on evolutionary and biological mechanisms for the phenomenon– ignoring the host of social and cultural forces that foster mean-girl behavior.
The researchers in question studied female intrasexual competition by putting female test subjects in a room and then sending in an “attractive” confederate subject who was either dressed conservatively or not-conservatively. They then observed the reaction when the confederate left the room– women were not aggressive to the subject’s face– finding that:
almost all women were rated as reacting negatively (“bitchy”) to an attractive female confederate when she was dressed in a sexually provocative manner. In contrast, when she was dressed conservatively, the same confederate was barely noticed by the participants.
(Side note: can you use “bitchy” in an academic article?)
The study concluded that intrasexual competition, then– not pressure from males— may be the “most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance,” according to the New York Times.
It’s a basically intuitive concept for many women (I’ve heard many women say that they primp and dress up more for other girls than for potential suitors). But the explanation offered for this competition was evolutionary: Sex is a limited resource and women have to compete for that resource.
Even if we assume this is valid reasoning (and I’m not entirely convinced), I take issue with ignoring the cultural component of this problem. Women aren’t haters because they are genetically predisposed to compete for men– at least, that explanation does not speak for the whole problem. If it did, we could simply ask, “Why is this competitiveness seen among men?” Given that the gender breakdown of the population is slightly equal, why aren’t men throwing shade at their slightly-better-coifed counterparts? Why aren’t men crowding the bathroom mirrors?
The unspoken element of this conundrum is that women are taught that their prime motivation in life is to find a man. To get married. To raise children. You can graduate magna cum laude from Yale, go to Harvard Law, and get hired at an established firm by the age of 25, but you’re still going to answer Aunt Sally’s pressing “So, are you seeing anyone special?” over the turkey dinner.
Society devalues women for their accomplishments and overpraises them for their culturally-conditioned adherence to the standards of beauty. It’s not shocking that women feel an intense pressure to accommodate, even if it means casting aside their fellow women.
I’m not denying there is some biological basis for competition. At the end of the day, women have a limit on their reproductive years that men simply do not. But this alone can’t account for the pure vitriol with which some women cast judgment on other women. This anger– this frantic urge to be better, to hate on other women– stems from something else.
While it glosses over the cultural components of female competition, the study does highlight the indirect, often unnoticed, aggression that occurs in female groups, thereby putting to rest the idea that women are complacent, delicate, opinion-less flowers. It’s something that is definitely worth talking about: the pressures of womanhood, the intense feelings of competition, the passive-aggressive put-downs that have become all too common, etc.
But that conversation is not worth having if we are going to cast aside these behaviors as examples of immutable biological determinism– a scientifically-backed “girls just being girls” mantra that leaves no room for in-depth understanding or avenues for change.