Last week I wrote an email called
Eliciting Male Desire: The Legacy of Female Power
and received tons of feedback from women who had experienced a similar amount of pressure and drive– especially throughout their younger years– to make themselves sexually desirable to men.
A while back I spoke with several gay women about the phenomenon of feeling pressure to be attractive to men, despite not even being interested in men. That speaks to how this is less about sexual attraction and more about power.
Gay women are just as susceptible (especially when they’re young, when we’re all the most susceptible) to the messages that a woman’s job is to be desirable to men, and that her worth comes from how well she performs this job, because we intuitively know who has the power in our culture, and who doesn’t.
Which brings me to the question of the role that “other women” play in the perpetuation of female beauty standards. After last week’s post, many women were quick to point out the fact that they care way more about what other women think of them than about what men think of them, and I get it.
Women are taught that we are in competition for male attention, so we are constantly evaluating each other and sizing each other up. In this way women are often MUCH harsher critics of each other than men could ever be, and a lot of the female beauty standards are set and enforced by women, not men.
Women methodically study the behaviors and appearance of other women, of what works and what doesn’t, how we rank against each other, what category and type we are, what’s expected of us, and how we can each capitalize on our assets and hide our flaws. Women are constantly looking to each other for this information, following the cues of our female peers and trying to stay on top.
This is a huge reason why women so often struggle to connect with each other– because we’re taught to see each other as the enemy.
We tend to view all new women as potential threats or competition, or we get so used to the cold/catty/judgey behavior that arises when we’re sizing each other up and cutting each other down that we stop trusting other women altogether. When this happens, women leave our walls up around each other, guarding against the judgement and attack we expect, and making it nearly impossible to connect.
The original oppression might have been men oppressing women (I mean literally, we had zero human rights and men owned us), but at a certain point, the competitive mindset around a woman’s ability to earn male attention turned us against each other.
At this point we women technically have the majority of human rights, but we still ferociously police each other’s behaviors and bodies, enforcing the expectation of impossible beauty standards that keep us all insecure and distracted for our entire lives.
Men have told me that the main way they assess each other as competition is according to physical strength, power, and masculinity.
Basically, many dudes are constantly sizing each other up to decide whether or not they could “take” the other guy. A man might walk into a bar and instantly assess all the other dudes there as either “I could kick his ass” or “he could kick my ass,” as a way of determining if anyone poses a threat to him.
In short, for men, the assessment of each other as a threat is based around physical safety in a fight. How about women? We assess each other, too. We size each other up in an effort to decide if the other woman poses a threat to us.
The big difference is that the “threat” another woman poses is the ability to steal our man, or steal male attention in general. When women walk into a bar, we immediately look around and decide if the other women there are hotter than us.
Our version of “can I take her?” is really “which one of us would a man choose?”
This means, basically, that while male power and status come from being physically safe, female power and status is based on how sexually desirable we are to men.
The very measuring stick women use to assess ourselves and others is based on the opinion of men, even if we are the ones who are now enforcing it for each other.
Think about the way many women experience the emotion of jealousy when viewing a gorgeous woman. Jealousy is an emotion that arises when there is a threat of losing something precious to us. Even if we are single, we might experience jealousy upon seeing the kind of woman who effortlessly elicits desire, because we view male desire as a zero sum game, meaning the more attention she gets, the less there is left for us.
No wonder we women compete with each other, hold each other at arm’s distance, and cut each other down!
I don’t know exactly how to wrap this up except to say this: every single woman I work with feels judged more harshly by other women than by men.
We worry that other women will notice our cellulite, our belly fat, our blemishes, and the bags under our eyes. We dress to ward off the insecurity of other women deciding we don’t stack up, or other women trash talking our decisions, of other women stealing our partners.
Which is actually kind of amazing and empowering. Because it means that WE have the power to change this. WE have the power to shift the way we show up around other women.
If every single woman reading this shared it with 10 other women and we all made a commitment to stop policing or judging other women— if we all pledged to show up as our warmest, most open, and most accepting selves around each other– than maybe this impossible female beauty standard bullshit would finally turn a corner.
Yours in female power,
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