There’s this thing I used to find myself doing. I’d land on a random female stranger’s page after some mindless social media stalking, and instantly, I’d compare myself to her. I’d scrutinize to see who was prettier, who posted nicer photos, who had more followers, who wrote wittier captions. If I decided that the answer to all of the above was me, I’d snort to myself and feel pleased. If it turned out she was more attractive and had followers swarming to see her selfies, I’d tell myself that at least my photos were better composed and my captions were fire. And if it looked like she beat me on every point, well, I should just throw my damn phone away, shouldn’t I?
I know I’m not alone. Many women do this without even being aware of it. Whether it comes in the form of comparing, badmouthing, or excluding, and whether the target is a female friend, acquaintance, or stranger, it’s a manifestation of female competition.
I never really thought that I was unconsciously competing with other women until recently when I stumbled upon this article by Noam Shpancer, PhD in Psychology Today. According to Shpancer, females compete with each other to snag a suitable male, elbowing each other out for a man’s favor through traits that the opposite sex finds attractive, such as youth, physical attractiveness, and personality.
Shpancer cites the works of American evolutionary psychologist David Buss and Canadian researchers Maryanne Fisher and Anthony Cox in listing the following tactics through which women compete: self-promotion (presenting yourself as more desirable than other females), competitor derogation (putting another female down to make yourself look better), mate manipulation (setting up the situation so your mate won’t be subject to another female’s charms), and competitor manipulation (convincing another female that your mate is not worth going after).
Furthermore, Shpancer lists three characteristics to female competition as determined by American researcher Joyce Benenson: 1) As child-bearers, women need to protect their bodies from physical harm so they resort to veiled aggression instead; 2) high status and highly attractive women need other women’s support less, and anyone who tries to be such are seen as bigger threats and are much more likely to be met with hostility by her female peers; and 3) if a woman who enters a community is too attractive, the women in it may exclude her socially to drive her out and prevent her from snatching up the guys in their dating pool.
Clearly, whereas men compete overtly by trying to one-up each other at work, kicking each other’s butts in sports, or literally kicking each other’s butts in a fistfight, women do so in much more covert, sinister ways.
Shpancer also brings up another disturbing dimension to why women compete with one another. According to feminist psychology, women have been trapped in a male-dominated society all their lives that they’ve internalized the “male gaze”—which perceives them as primarily sexual objects—and have learned to see themselves and other women through that lens as well. And as they seek male attention to validate themselves, so must they battle other women for it.
Whichever way you look at it, whether from the evolutionary or the feminist perspective, it looks like we’re giving men way too much say in how we view ourselves and other women. This realization blew my mind because, hey, I might not even end up with a man at all—nothing like being single in your early 30s to make you re-evaluate whether you even need to be in a relationship—so why should I regard other women as rivals for some undefined prize?
Even if you don’t buy into either view, the fact remains that women compete with each other in so many little, unaccounted for, yet ultimately damaging ways, and that’s just disheartening. It’s disheartening to hold yourself up to some standard of womanly perfection you can’t seem to meet, It’s disheartening to always be on guard for the next woman who’ll make you feel like shit, it’s disheartening to never feel like you’re enough because other women are doing it—whatever “it” is—better.
But, as many a motivational meme and coffee mug quote will tell you, “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.” As hackneyed as that sounds, it’s true.
Since I became aware that I had unconsciously been competing with other women, I’ve been doing it less and less, and it feels pretty damn good. I feel lighter, more gracious, and I don’t get caught up so much in what I lack vis-à-vis what other women have; instead, I throw my focus on my own standards for being the person I want to be. I have a long way to go—you should see my 2017 to-do list; it has everything from mastering money management to learning how to contour—but at least I know that I’m working towards my own progress, and that’s a clearer vision in my mind’s eye than the murky finish line I used to place myself in a race with other women for.
It’s a constant process, having to remind myself to let other women be and just concentrate on my own journey, but it’s getting easier day by day.
I used to be one of those women who’d gleefully partake in gossip with shrill voices and shining eyes, but now, whenever I find myself in a conversation where other women tear another woman down, one of three things happens: a) I get quiet and try not to add to the trash talk; b) I bring up the woman’s redeeming traits or exonerating circumstances to balance out all the bashing; or c) I take part in it for pakikisama’s sake and end up feeling so guilty, I promise myself to be stronger next time. (I did C two weeks ago and I’m STILL guilty about it.)
From time to time, I still find myself landing on a random female stranger’s page after some mindless social media stalking. And I admit, like a reflex, I compare myself to her. As always, sometimes she wins a point, sometimes I do. But I stop myself before I can rack up any further points. The world is big enough for the two of us to win in our own ways.