7. 5. 2021

English Version | Dear frenemies

by Ana Murcho

 

The topic is not at all pink, but it must be talked about, dissected, discussed, analyzed, debated – to sum up, put out right there in the open. We’re talking about a very subtle form of bullying, which is rarely seen as a trending topic but that, however, causes just as much collateral damage as any other type of psychological mistreating: bullying amongst women.

Let us start with a little amuse-bouche, courtesy of the chef in charge of this feast. It’s composed of two little courses – metaphorically speaking, of course – with completely opposite flavors, and yet very common in the menu we are about to enjoy: “You lost weight, didn’t you? Are you on one of those crazy diets that will lead you to a hospital bed? Or is it worse? Don’t tell me you’re doing drugs?” Some prefer other appetizers, with a different taste: “You shouldn’t wear that dress. You’re too curvy. It’s not that it looks bad, but I wouldn’t wear it…” Satisfied? Let’s proceed then, to the main course: “You look sick, you’re so skinny”, “You must not have any mirrors back home, or you wouldn’t leave the house looking like that”, “You should be ashamed of wearing that skirt, with your age”, “That cellulite is disgusting. Not even a burka would save you this summer.” For dessert, something a little bit more bittersweet – and surprising: “I think you need to get some rest. You’re obsessed with your job. Everyone in the company has noticed. I’m only saying this because I’m your friend. How about taking some time off? It would probably give you a more down-to-earth look, more human.” Or you can also opt for something more jelly-like: “I noticed you’re very focused on your job. How do you manage to do house chores? Do you have time for your kids? Doesn’t your husband complain? One of these days he’ll trade you for another…” Ready for coffee, or has the reading become indigestible already, as intended? The thing is nothing that has been written above was born out of the imagination of the writer of this text alone – as any reader, of any age, might be able to confirm. Because if there is one certainty in this world, besides death, is that women can be absolute bitches to one another.

Exaggeration? Nah. Examples of this kind of harassment, or aggression, can be found a little bit all over the place. They are, literally, embedded in us. Of course, by living in a world that values (glorifies?) more the virtual than it does real life, social media became the preferred choice for location on where to distill hate. To incite it. To preach toxicity as if it was a cult. Especially when, both the victim and the aggressor, share the same sex – the feminine sex. In the XXI century, in a time where the fight for female empowerment is still hot, we still waste time with petty nonsense that should have stayed back in Marie Antoinette’s court. Except it didn’t. The only thing that disappeared with her tragic death was… her head. The rest of it, the gossip, the chatter, the intrigue, the mean comments, they all held their ground, as intrinsic in society as the cult to the guillotined damsel. Let the record show the small fait-divers that occurred in Russia, in June 2018. Portugal was one of the teams present at the final of the Football World Cup. The girlfriend of Cristiano Ronaldo – the captain of the national team and, perhaps, the best football player on the planet – Georgina Rodríguez, decided to stroll around Moscow, to get to know the city, took some pictures and (sacrilege!) shared them with her followers. In less than a split second, the Spanish woman was torn apart for posing in front of the Kremlin wearing a top, joggers and sneakers. You read that right. Georgina was not being called out for touching a piece of artwork, for taking a selfie with Vladimir Putin, for showcasing a thousand and one luxury houses’ monograms (as it has happened many times before). No. Georgina was being torn apart online because she was dressed as “any other tourist”. The attack was so intense, that the model felt the need to address it: “Obviously, if I’m strolling around Moscow, from one end to the other, I won’t wear an extravagant look, nor heels, or skinny jeans, or silky clothing. Although I have eight beautiful looks packed in my suitcase. You’ve got to be realistic, it depends on the occasion. I am a practical woman, like all of you. If we stopped criticizing women so much, the world would be a better place. But oftentimes, we are our worst enemy. Together we are stronger.” And we are. Question for a million euros: who took Georgina’s advice? It is still to be determined.  

Call it as it is. This is bullying – purely and simply, bullying. But why does this type of bullying, practiced by women and targeting women, happens? Is there some sort of historical, sociological, or psychological reason that explains this type of action? That is what we asked Filipa Jardim da Silva, Clinical Psychologist and Specialist in Clinical and Health Psychology. “There are some reflections that might help us understand these types of actions. Firstly, these behaviors are reinforced at an educational level. Generally speaking, ever since childhood, girls are expected to be sweet, nice and pleasant. When a girl shows signs of natural emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy or hurt, or if she is persistent and obstinate, then she will tend to be reprehended, as if she was experiencing emotions and adopting postures that were not suitable ‘for a lady’. The choice for the female gender is clear: they should behave in a way that others can appreciate, without risking unpopularity. These social norms tend to force girls into hiding their true feelings, developing a tendency for concealed aggression and repression of authenticity. Women have higher expectations when it comes to other women more than they do men and, maybe because of that, they have more trouble in accepting and forgiving [other women’s] mistakes.” And she continues: “Secondly, our culture aids to sustain the toxicity amongst women in adult age. Oftentimes, in soap operas, reality shows and the media, conflicts among women are capitalized upon and highlighted, almost ‘normalizing’ this behavior, as if it were trivial and almost inevitable. Naturally, that tends to foment competition and to influence the perception that women have of the female gender since very early on, confirming this prophecy due to how they more often focus on the negative side of other women and because they are more defensive towards each other, much more than the male gender. Studies with chimpanzees and monkeys show that females usually attack other females and kill their babies, probably to ensure that there are enough resources for the survival of their own genes. In fact, female monkeys can ally themselves with a powerful male monkey so it can protect them from other females.” It so seems that, indeed, all human evolution, and our way of living in society, is based on an invisible war – women against women. Filipa wraps up: “If we think about the type of communication installed by the media and television shows, and the sexist values that proliferate to this day, and if we consider the comparative paradigm that rules in our society creating disaggregation amongst women, together with a set of pressures and expectations bestowed upon the female gender, it is not surprising that some women end up having certain less than honorable behaviors with one another. Let it be noted though, that toxic behavior is not something solely reserved to women. Men do it too. However, men managed to develop ways of competing and of challenging themselves more openly and then sharing a friendly moment, with a quicker sense of resolve and separation of realities. Women have a long history of trusting men to determine their own self-worth, which naturally potentialized competition and disaggregation amongst women, that manifests still to this day.”

But what leads someone to adopt a Regina George like behavior (the villain, if you care to call her that, the “head” of the Mean Girls, the 2004 cult movie with the same title), and transform into an evil person, whose only trace of innocence is, frequently, their looks? “Many women believe that there is only space for one woman to be on top, for one popular girl. That reductive perception makes other women look like they’re a threat, hence why they can then become a target of bullying.” And that is particularly visible in the job market. “Many women’s insecurity, alongside male leadership styles that still dominate the organizational world, contribute to harsh behaviors, authoritarian and aggressive on the behalf of some women towards their peers, who believe that through these actions they can become even more established, powerful and visible.” What doesn’t have any visibility at all, on the other hand, is the bullying itself, since it is done “under covers”, and many studies demonstrate that, in the workplace, women are indeed more affected by this type of “torture” which, being almost invisible, is harder to tell and, therefore, of reporting. We insist: why are the bigger part of the inflictors of this “torture”, precisely, other women? The specialist had the word: “If we think of a competitive job market, dominated by typically male leadership styles, there will be fewer spots for women, thus many will start taking their colleagues as targets to take down. If we associate this fact to the pattern of underlying aggression by the action of educational and cultural influences, then we realize why women do things ‘under covers’ by starting gossip, criticizing the physical aspect of one another and spreading rumors that might hurt someone’s image.”

Let us then do the opposite exercise. Let’s give the other cheek. Or, in other words, let’s try to understand what is it that this type of behavior tells us, in terms of psychology, about the women that practice it. Is it possible that they are, in the end, a way of “throwing rocks with glass ceilings”, of transposing onto others the problems they can’t see in themselves? “When someone bullies, generally it denotes psychological suffering, the absence of impulse control and/ or lack of emotional resources. A woman that humiliates another will tend to feel extremely vulnerable and, in an attempt to not come in contact with that vulnerability, she will dress it up as aggressiveness, disconnecting it from herself and focusing on actions that are directed to others. It might be, thus, a way of escaping rejection, the fear of comparison, insecurity about physical appearance or intellectual capacity. Likewise, many women with aggressive conduct demonstrate rigid mentalities, less capacity to self-observe and weak emotional skills, which heightens these types of behaviors to actions that are impulsive and aggressive, fed by absolutist thoughts that don’t take into consideration any doubt or self-reflection whatsoever.” And what consequences does this bullying have on the woman that is suffering from it? Filipa Jardim da Silva explains: “I have accompanied women who suffered from bullying by other women and without a doubt, when the situation is intense or is happening for a long time, it tends to increase the prevalence of depressive humor and anxiety outbreaks, with a very deprecative impact on self-esteem, self-image and self-confidence. There are absolutely destroying words and many women that have suffered from bullying end up developing post-traumatic stress, needing the help of psychological backup to overcome the situation in an adaptive way. Many women symptomize their anxiety and fear, hence why women who work in hostile environments frequently end up developing autoimmune diseases.”

Ostracize. Despise. Exclude. Here are the verbs that shouldn’t sound that weird to us, if we take a trip down memory lane to our childhood and adolescence, when it was “normal” – and here we need a lot of quotation marks because none of it is normal – to sit in groups and close down the circle with a few friends, leaving others out, on purpose, to reinforce the idea that they didn’t belong, that they weren’t accepted. Is it possible that this tendency to bully is something intrinsic to our behavior, as beings of the female sex? “A certain level of competition is intrinsic to our behavior, given that there is a lot of curiosity amongst girls to observe one another, share toys and clothes, compare dolls. What can be denoted is that the school system and cultural context promote comparison and that naturally sets a precocious tone in peer relationships. Many parents compare their children amongst themselves, they compare them with other people’s kids, they label behaviors and characteristics of those who are better or worse, right and wrong, and it is noticeable how with the female gender there are more expectations since the beginning. In addition to this, boys tend to be more physical, as the way they play assumes a more active character, exploring and sporty, also because it is expected and encouraged. Girls, on the other hand, tend to be led towards more peaceful ways of entertaining themselves, which tends to promote more mental space, also because of precocious sharpness, to talk about one another and create rivalries. As for the rest, many cartoons, kids’ stories and juvenile series depict this female rivalry, making this behavior look ‘trivial’ and expectable.” None of this should be trivial. None of this should be expectable. None of this should be acceptable. So, let’s set the record straight. If the reading of this text was not enough for the severity of the topic to be understood, consider yourself a dear frenemy. If it produced the desired impact, if the next time you find yourself on the verge of saying some less fortunate comment and you remember these lines and reconsider – and if, beyond that, it drives you to want to pass on the message (trending topic, anyone?), so that more people gain awareness that bullying amongst women is a problem that can have highly damaging consequences – then we fulfilled our mission and there is hope that, with time, the title of this article can become a little bit more… pink.

Translated from the original on the "Pink Issue", from may 2021.
Full credits and story on the print version.