Recently, columnist Meghan McCain wrote an essay on how the Republican Party was failing to attract young people. How did conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham respond? By sarcastically deriding her as “plus-sized.” Ouch. And these are two women who are supposed to be on the same side! We’re taught that women should stand together in solidarity, so it was more than a little shocking for a respected pundit like Ingraham to respond to McCain’s essay by crudely mocking her weight.
Fighting for Scraps
No matter how much progress we’ve made in the past fifty years, the truth is that women are still very much unequal to men in our society. Women might comprise half of the population, but we hold far less than half the power. We earn less money, shoulder most of the burdens of children and family, and are subjected to beauty standards that we can’t live up to. When there’s only room in the world for a select few powerful women, then we have to squabble and fight for these few scraps, and sadly, we don’t compete with men for these leftovers—we compete with other women. Women are always on the lookout for someone who might usurp their place in life—someone smarter, younger, or prettier—and when we come across another woman that makes us feel threatened, even if she’s really a friend, a jealous “I want what you have” mentality takes over.
It’s easy to imagine why an older, established personality like Laura Ingraham would pounce on a relative newcomer like Meghan McCain. To Ingraham, McCain is young, hip, pretty, and relevant. It’s the same reason that the high school homecoming queen might spread dirty rumors about her closest competitor—to protect her position as top dog. Even the women with some power are keenly aware that their hold is tenuous and they tend to exert what authority they have over people who have even less. The wealthy society matron may be beholden to her husband, so she takes out her aggression on her housekeeper.
What Are Little Girls Made Of?
Many women have a hard time competing and directly expressing aggression because we’re taught not to. Boys are allowed to punch and kick, but little girls are socialized to “be nice” and avoid conflict, even when that means giving in or not defending ourselves. The trouble is, aggression is natural, and it has to come out somewhere, so girls become masters at indirect aggression and backhanded compliments. Young girls learn to compete with each other early on, fighting over who’s prettiest, who has the nicest clothes, and who has the cutest boyfriend. Girls learn that although they can’t attack each other physically, psychological warfare does even more damage. That’s why girls are masters at rumors, cold-shouldering, and exclusion.
Beauty Standards—The Impossible Dream
Part of what makes women so competitive is the sheer difficulty of living up to society’s expectations of us. Most criticisms of women, no matter how accomplished or professional they are, still revolve around looks. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton received more criticisms for her choice of wardrobe than her policy. The sword cuts the other way, too, and attractive women are often deemed unintelligent and frivolous. Sarah Palin endured withering commentary on whether she was capable of running a family and the country. In her book Catfight: Women and Competition, author Leora Tanenbaum says, “A woman is categorized by her looks in a way that a man is not … Unlike a man, she is caught in a double bind—a beauty bind: Whether she is considered ugly or beautiful, her looks can be used to justify withholding the recognition she deserves. In either instance, she is reduced to a stereotype.”
It’s hard to be a successful career woman, perfect mother, and supermodel sex goddess all at the same time. We’re trained to always want to be the better woman: thinner, more beautiful, and more successful than our peers. In fact, studies show that most women care about the opinions of other women more than the opinions of men. Knowing that being held in high esteem by other females is so important, one of the surest ways to undermine another woman is to criticize her appearance. We are our own worst enemies. Beauty is a currency and in a society where women are required to be beautiful in order to be taken seriously, beauty (or the lack thereof) is a ripe target for attack.
The way that Ingraham attacked Meghan McCain isn’t pretty. It reinforces stereotypes that we wish didn’t exist and it distracts us from the real problem—that women today face real obstacles to attaining positions of power in all walks of life. Women should treat each other as compatriots, not just competition. As Tanenbaum says, “Competition between women serves only the status quo. And the status quo keeps us from gaining more power over our lives, our work, and our relationships.”