At the age of 15, we got into the habit of pulling up our shirts above our bellybuttons but beneath the thin underwire of our bras to analyze the pale lumps of our stomachs in the bathroom mirrors.
“You’re so skinny,” my friends would whine; yet our gazes both remained downcast and dismal on the small bulges protruding around our waistlines, flickering from our own to the other’s to compare.
“Yeah, your boobs are bigger, though,” I would respond, falling into the familiar formula: acknowledging my fleeting victory + mentioning some part of my friend’s body + insisting that part beat out what I had. And just like that, I continued my complicity in a vicious cycle, one of putting both my friends’ bodies and my own under a magnifying glass and then a slide to compare, just to consistently find disappointment.
It is just one of many ways in which young women are entrenched in a relentless cycle of structural violence — the unconscious ways in which we think we are just studying our body parts (a stomach, thighs) but are actually doing something much more damaging to our minds, our souls. This is something I am still seeking to understand today.
In an article recently published by the New York Times titled “Why Women Compete with Each Other,” Emily Gordon reasons out one of our main violent acts toward one another and ourselves — female competition. She explores why we stand in the mirror to compare our stomachs, why our tongues repeatedly find themselves curled around an insult of another girl, why even our most sincere friendships are twisted around some form of competition. She proposes two main theories: one, that female competitive nature is a vestigial thought process of evolutionary psychology, a remnant of when we had to physically fight for the best genetic material, and two, that we see other girls as better versions of ourselves.
“For many of us,” she writes, “we look at other women and see, instead, a version of ourselves that is better.”
This is true, and true to a terrifying degree when applied to physicality. How many times did I look at my friends’ bodies instead of my own in those mirrors, seeing them as some perfect extension of what I could be? Or on the other end, how many times was my group of friends irrationally excited about a girl who “got fat” in college because she reminded us of how skinny we still were in comparison? I remember a side-by-side photo that jumped from one phone to the next in high school — the lefthand picture of a girl proudly showing off a thin belly, the righthand picture of her a year into college with a potbelly. We gleefully exclaimed, “Holy shit!”
I read Gordon’s article engrossed and pleased, and wasn’t too surprised when my older sister texted me the link later that day — we had both attended an all-girls’ school since elementary school; we had grown up in sometimes painful proximity. We understood what she was saying.
But neither of us could shake a feeling of dissatisfaction with the article as a whole. Perhaps the article’s brevity — just fewer than three and a half pages — wasn’t enough to explain the dominant psyche of growing up as a woman. Or maybe it was the way Gordon flippantly ended the article with a generalized solution to all of our competitive troubles:
“But we don’t need to lower the stock of other women, either for the future of our species or for our own psyches,” she writes. “When we each focus on being the dominant forces in our own universe, rather than invading other universes, we all win.”
But is it really that easy? Do we just stop being competitive, opt out of this violence, and then “we all win”?
My confusion is spurred by Gordon’s assumption that if we stop “invading” other universes, if we focus on our “own universe,” we will find ourselves in a world devoid of competition and therefore devoid of violence. Our own personal universes, however, are still wrought with violence, still full of female rituals dependent upon it.
Even if we are still focusing on our own patch of skin beneath our bra lines, we still focus with eyes a bit too sharp.
“I feel so fat,” one friend says. Another friend responds, “Me, too. I haven’t worked out in a month.” Another friend, influenced by some extension of Newton’s first law applying to female body talk, sighs: “OK, screw both of you — you’re so much skinnier than me.”
This isn’t just banter; this is a psychological phenomenon coined “fat talk” by Northwestern psychologist and professor Renee Engeln, and it has evolved into a basic female bonding mechanism. But unlike friendship bracelets and late-night slumber parties, it’s violent — so violent. Engeln urges, “Fat talk is not a harmless social-bonding ritual. … (It is) linked with body shame, body dissatisfaction and eating-disordered behavior.” It makes us feel closer to each other, just some friends all coming together to outwardly recognize their errors. But its premise is pretty disturbing.
Fat talk is just one example; being a female today is ritually entrenched in violence in other ways we often don’t realize. I press my boobs together in the mirror to make them look bigger; my roommate and I glorify photos of model Alexis Ren, whom we have renamed “Brita waist” because her waist is smaller than our water filter; we internally lament the things our bodies can’t do, the things we wish were better. If our tongues and thoughts were knives, the cuts would lie numerous on our skin.
This is violence.
Yet I think no matter how hard we try, a little bit of it will always be prominent within us.
We are competitive creatures by creation. As Gordon points out, we have evolved from beings who had to fight to procure the best genetic material — it’s in our DNA. Part of knowing ourselves is knowing that we may always still compete. Yes, we should try to decrease its prevalence. We should opt out of fat talk, we should be kind to ourselves and to our bodies — but we must also accept that a part of it will always be there. We may always look at the girls around us and imagine the ways in which we could have their hair or their Brita filter waist.
But knowing this, and accepting this — that is true self-acceptance. We are horribly and wonderfully imperfect, sometimes tending toward love, sometimes tending toward all the opposites. There are times when we will be jealous. We will feel enormous discomfort with our bodies; it will make us mad, it will make us sad, and we will yearn to look at those around us. There will also be times when we love our bodies — love the way our hips give way to our stomachs, how quick our limbs can flop out of bed to go to class, how quickly our body allows us recover from hangovers. But no matter how many good days, we must be OK with the fact that we will still have those bad days.
There will always be days when we lift up our shirts and study the space between our waistlines and bras — but there will be a million other ones when we keep them down, feeling confident enough in ourselves to be.