I met Jennifer at the farm stand. We got to chatting about the unbearable humidity that had plagued the U.S. northeast for much of the summer. We agreed that the only comfortable places to be were in air conditioning or a swimming pool. Although we’d never met before, she was one of those people with whom I immediately clicked. We talked unhurriedly on a range of topics, including that we were both looking toward retirement. Trying to find the measliest bit of shade to cover us while we chatted, we agreed that we’d prefer to deal with cold and winter over this insufferable heat and humidity.
“Your hair looks great, by the way,” she said.
Confused, I lightly touched it to assess if the humidity had turned my sleekly styled bob into a wiry Brillo pad. “You mean, in spite of the humidity?”
“No,” she said. “No qualifiers. I just like the way you have it styled. It’s very flattering.”
I continued to stare at her, not sure why she was telling me this.
“Isn’t it a shame that women can’t just compliment each other and build each other up,” she continued, “without suspicion of an ulterior meaning?”
Then it hit me. Jennifer is a Girl’s Girl.
I remember as a child, the friends I made were predominantly based on convenience. Who lived nearby. Who was in my class. Happy lunch hours were spent playing hopscotch or duck-duck-goose on the playground. I mainly hung out with my “best friend” or whoever shared my current interest in books and games. I recall being friends with many of the boys, too, particularly those who lived on my street. The only competition I noticed was athleticism – who was best at kickball and therefore chosen first for teams – and report cards. In the fifth grade, things shifted.
A new girl transferred into the school. Colleen was perky and adorable with enviable dimples and a splattering of freckles across her cheeks. The preadolescent boys were gaga, and several girls rushed to befriend her to establish themselves as “popular,” if only by proxy, and I watched the rise of Middle School Mean Girl Mentality. Whereas we’d once all played together as equals, a new hierarchy of who’s in and who’s not was established. Suddenly, cruel names, like “four-eyes,” “fatty,” and “dork” were spit at other girls, thereby verbally discarding former friends. At the tender age of ten-ish, the chubby girl, or the introvert, or the girl with a mouth full of metal, had her developing psyche and sensibilities stomped and ground to a pulp by those jockeying for social position.
In the seventh grade, the competition among the girls became based largely upon their physical appearance. Who was the prettiest? Who was the thinnest? Who was developing breasts? Who did the boys like? Of course, there were still plenty of girls competing academically and athletically, but they weren’t the ones society was instructing us to hold in esteem. Billions of dollars were spent annually on make-up, hair care, diet pills, the latest exercise craze, short skirts and low-cut tops. I don’t recall any of the messaging campaigns for “self-improvement” directed at boys.
By high school, it was clear that, while a girl could excel in areas such as soccer or physics, what was of utmost importance to most was if she was liked. In my own teenage mind, I believed I was in the popular category. That didn’t stop me from anxiously checking my friends’ schedules every day to make sure I would have someone to sit with in the dining hall; it didn’t stop me from spending all week arranging social engagements for Saturday. Better yet, if I had a steady boyfriend at the time, I never had to suffer the humiliation of sitting home over the weekend without plans. The residual insecurity and self-doubt that began during those middle- and high-school years haunt me still.
Are there exceptions to this thesis? Of course. But, it’s not difficult to see the evolution of how girls treat each other and understand the underlying problem. What if, instead of the cattiness and put-downs, girls were raised to encourage and support each other? What if, instead of eying one another to assess if the hair/make-up/weight/clothes were up to some superficial standard, we eyed each other with genuine caring and compassion? What if put-downs were no longer in vogue, having been replaced with build-ups?
And, what if girls weren’t taught that their value lay in youth and allure but, instead, on character and accomplishment? In Beyoncé’s song Flawless, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:
We raise girls to see each other as competitors/Not for jobs or for accomplishments/ Which I think can be a good thing/But for the attention of men.
Unfortunately, by the time we graduate high school, this shallow value placed on a woman becomes normalized for many. I can remember in my 20s, one of my college friends was studying a picture of the two of us. It was before I dropped the freshman fifteen I’d put on five years earlier. It was also during the time when she began struggling with bulimia. I can still envision her, as if she’d forgotten I was watching, looking from her image, to mine, and back, using her fingers to measure the thickness of my waist compared to hers, my thighs compared to her thighs. She walked over to a full-length mirror and began turning one way, then the other, to admire how skinny she’d become. Not that there was anything wrong with her wanting to look her best. But, during her short 20-something years, she’d become convinced that her very worth hinged on her appearance.
If we’re lucky, we have role models who can help buck the ideals society dictates. But, those lessons are always in competition with pervasive images and influences that are difficult to ignore. In Hollywood, there is a saying that “there’s always someone younger and thinner.” How many brilliantly talented actresses spend copious amounts of time and money being nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into plastic-looking oblivion? Renée Zellweger is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, having won multiple awards including an Oscar. Why, then, do entertainment sources concentrate less on her body of work and more on her body, with every pound she gains or loses? Susan Lucci, the undisputed queen of the soap operas with a career spanning over forty years, has undergone the plastic surgeon’s knife over and over to maintain her vixen appearance into her seventies. Sadly, the male-controlled industry continues to reinforce its standard of value. And, tragically, women continue to buy into it.
My girlfriend Kathy, who I’ve known for almost thirty years, is a Girl’s Girl. How many times has she come upon me in the throes of emotional self-flagellation to rescue me from my torment? When my thighs are too big, or my love handles have become a full-blown muffin top, I have only received support and encouragement from her. “I think you look great!” or “Really? I thought you’d lost weight!” When I complain about my slackening jawline or the turkey neck I’m developing, she tells me, “You have beautiful skin, and you always look great.” She builds up my confidence in the areas that have been my lifelong demons and focuses on my accomplishments, instead. When I announced I was taking the plunge and “going for it” as a writer, she became my unpaid marketing hero. This should all be a given between friends, right? Unfortunately, by the time many of us reach middle-age, we are still sifting through the women who are stuck back in that Middle School Mean Girl Mentality. So, when we find those who have managed to leave that all behind and enter friendship with real love, support, and kindness, we hold them dear.
I won’t say I have been above all that nonsense through the years. The appeal of being part of the “in” crowd is strong, and the influence of society is intense. I believe I’ve softened and grown, and I intentionally practice extending kindness to other women as I’ve learned from those in my life, like Kathy. A couple of years ago, I was on a mission trip to Guatemala. Each morning, we’d all meet in the dining room of our hotel for breakfast. Early in the week, I noticed another guest at the hotel, a woman slightly older than me who was always by herself and seemed a bit sad. Something from the Middle School Mean Girl Mentality days stirred in me and it felt like watching a high school classmate sitting alone at the lunch table. I made it a point to catch her eye, offer her a smile, and say “good morning” to her. Each day, I watched her face light up in response. At the end of the week, as we were getting ready to leave, the woman approached me in the lobby.
“I need to tell you,” she began. “I’ve been here all week to visit my son in the hospital. He suffered a brain trauma and has been in a coma. I live in Canada but flew here when I was notified of his accident. I have been sitting by myself at the hospital with him, each day, not knowing if he would survive.”
“Every morning,” she continued, “when I came down for breakfast, I was worried about what I would find when I went over to the hospital. And, every morning, you were in the dining room, smiling at me. You’re a complete stranger, but somehow you could see I needed that smile. Yesterday, the doctors said that my son was going to be okay.”
She reached out to hug me, and for nearly five minutes, we held each other. I had tears in my eyes for all she had been through with her son. She cried with relief that he was going to make it. It was such a small thing on my part, but to learn that merely offering someone a smile had helped her during the darkest time she’d ever faced, made me think.
Women can offer so much – to themselves, to each other, to the world. Why, then, do we allow ourselves to be pitted against one another from a young age? What if a conscious effort was made, instead, to teach our daughters how to build up other women instead of tearing them down? What if we stopped placing such value on the shallow and superficial? What if we cherished character and accomplishment? What if competition was based on how to be our best instead of how to look our best? Imagine how much healthier and happier we’d be if we were all Girl’s Girls like Jennifer and Kathy.