Revolt!

25 Jul

Nearly all my life, I’ve felt like I’m competing with the women and girls around me. You’d think that, at least when I was in Kindergarten, I would have been able to see the other girls in the same way I saw the boys: as playmates, friends, naptime buddies. But even then, I viewed girls as my competition. We competed for the best dress-up outfits, our roles in the game of “house,” the boys we wanted to be friends with. We were never allies.

It continued into grade school. I was jealous and wary of the girls who had boyfriends at such a young age. I gossiped, all the while knowing that others were doing the same thing behind my back; I did it, even though I knew how much it hurt me.

Sick though it sounds, I started comparing my body to my best friend’s when I was in third grade; my friend, who was and is beautiful; who was joyful and intelligent and liked to dance around the room to the Spice Girls; my friend who had already started to hate her body. It made an impression on me. At a time when I should have been worried about who would get the last popsicle, I was wondering if there wasn’t something I was missing. Should I have felt worse about my body? Did she need to lose weight? Did I? We were 8, and already, we were judging our own bodies, and as a result, judging each others’ bodies.

“Recent surveys indicated that four out of five ten-year-old American girls have been on a diet; and children as young as six are dieting.” (source)

No girl that reads this is going to be surprised that middle school was probably the worst of it all. Although maybe we were just so young, looking back, that it seems more vicious than the high school stuff. Middle school was when the word “slut” first entered my vocabulary. I remember the first time a girl gave a boy head. I remember the first time a boy and a girl started grinding at a dance. And I remember the rumors that surrounded those girls then, and followed them all through high school. The boys weren’t talked about, but the girls were slut-shamed for the rest of their time in the public school system. The worst part, however, was not that boys were calling girls sluts and whores, it’s that the girls were doing it to each other. We compared our weight, our shoes, our bags, our boyfriends; everything. Even girls who were best friends said mean things about each other to other people.

I know, I know. All of this sounds routine. Every girl has experienced this at one point or another. Every girl has been talked about, and has talked about others. Every girl has compared herself and has been compared. But it really had a profound impact on the way I saw myself, and the way I saw the girls around me.

“In a survey of pre-teens in South Carolina, more than half of ten-to thirteen-year-old girls felt they were too fat and wanted to lose weight – and many said they vomited to do so.” (source)

As I moved into high school, the pressure to be thin increased. I was one of those girls dieting, worrying about my weight, and rejoicing at the thought of dropping a couple of pounds. Although I never suffered from an eating disorder, I didn’t mind the times when I got the stomach flu, and lost three or four pounds as a result. As people became more sexually active, girls became more vicious toward each other. We never gave each other the benefit of the doubt when faced with rumors, and the slut-shaming hit its peak rate.

I have a friend who was once invited to a party, only to walk in and be made fun of and laughed at, like one of those awful scenes out of Never Been Kissed or Mean Girls. For her, though, it was real life. I remember having to defend my best friend when comments were made about her larger-than-average chest. I remember people making fun of  “the fattest girl in the grade.” And I remember the jealousy that seeped into me, slowly, but surely. It was jealously, above anything else, that made us girls say those awful things about each other. Jealousy that made us think it was okay to ruin a girl’s self-esteem, trash her self-image, and isolate her from those all around.

There were things that saved me in high school. Most importantly, my mom, who taught me to love and cherish myself and my body, and who helped me develop a kind of self-esteem that could, for the most part, withstand the criticism. I was also a swimmer, and the knowledge of the power and stamina my body possessed made me more secure in its strength and beauty. I also had theatre. The drama department was one of the few places in the school where we were (mostly) free to examine our sexuality and celebrated each other for reasons other than thinness or beauty: we were rewarded for our talents (singing and dancing), our hard work, our camaraderie.

The further I got into high school, the easier it was for me to pull myself out of the gossip and self-hate and see further into the future. But I was lucky. For many girls, the things said about them in high school will remain with them forever. I don’t know how four simple years can change people so dramatically.

“By the time they go to high school, two-thirds of young girls are dieting, and one in five is using diet pills.” (source)

I won’t go into college much, because it so closely resembles high school. I will say, however, that as sex becomes more prevalent, and more openly talked about, girls become more critical of each other. Drinking is more common, sexual assault is more common, slut-shaming is more common. College brings with it a great many new issues, and expands upon the issues already established between girls in high school.

“1 in women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. College age women are 4 times more likely to be sexually assaulted” (source).

The purpose for this trajectory of my life as a girl interacting with other girls, is to point out one of the great travesties of our country, and maybe even world. Women see each other as competition, as enemies, as cautious friends; never as confidants; never as allies.

We are raised to critique each others’ actions, way of dress, manner of speaking. I’ve begun to notice, only in the past six months or so, that when I pass a woman on the street, my first instinct is not to smile at her, or offer a gesture of companionship (something which I think a lot of women need to see from people who fight the same battles). Instead, I evaluate her clothes, her makeup, her hair, the way she walks, her weight; I do it all with one glance. She is immediately someone with whom I compare myself.

I’ve been trying, lately, to reverse the effects of living in a society that teaches women to hate ourselves, and therefore, each other. When I see a woman, the first thing I do is try to find something about her that I enjoy, that I can celebrate in her. And I always smile.

One of my mantras, for the past year, has been “Start a revolution; stop hating your body.” What if, instead, we said “Start a revolution. Stop hating your sisters.” Stop hating your friends, your role models, your mothers and daughters. Stop hating yourself.

What if we became allies?

What if we taught ourselves and the generation that came before us, and the generation(s) that will come after us to love women? What a revolution that would be.

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2 Responses to “Revolt!”

  1. Molly July 25, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    I feel like there is more I could say. But, you are always going to be my ally. I like that about our friendship. I never worried about my appearance around you. Women just need to be more open-minded and free of negativity toward each other.

  2. molly July 29, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    I think there is a lot of solidarity among women. It seems that most, if not all of these women are feminists, or have been exposed to feminism, or understand that being in an oppressed position SUCKS and need the love and understanding of similar people to be okay.
    While many feminist women exist on college campuses, it seems to me that the majority of women who partake in the competition and catty behavior are not. I fear, though, that even attempting to turn such people into feminists would be a lost cause. These people often times do not take a critical look at their positions in society. I could be totally wrong, but as someone who HAS analyzed my position in society, has accepted my white privilege and struggle with being viewed as a woman, I don’t see how these people have done the same thing. And often times, the women who are surrounded by this behavior, but do in fact analyze it, are frowned upon and don’t know where to go to seek out solidarity and get sucked back into the bullshit.

    I’m wondering if there is a way to start a revolution among the women who do not understand TRULY what it means to be a feminist. Is there a way to educate, to make things different, to start an uprising against the patriarchy that has set us against one another for the benefit of sex, thin bodies, men?
    This sort of revolution exists in the queer community (for the most part), but how does one make it mainstream, something cool, something not so underground, not so scary because of the word “feminism”? That is a challenge I do not have a solution for, but would love to discuss.

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