When I was a kid my mum reminded me over and over how important it was that I be platonic friends with boys. She encouraged play-dates and mixed birthday parties, I read books with male protagonists, and most of my stuffed animals were boys. It was just kind of assumed that I would know how to get on with girls. Girls stuff wasn’t something I would have to learn. Initially this seemed true — I got on equally well with girls and boys throughout primary school and had a large mixed group of friends. My best friend was a girl who was smart, beautiful, well-adjusted and friendly – from the kind of two-parent, lived-in-the-same-big-house-their-whole-lives family that I’d often longed for. Being her best friend made me feel important, but also deeply inferior. I was driven to set myself apart, to not be associated with, and therefore compared to, my female friends.
So I became one of those ‘not like the other girls’ girls. In high school I sneered at my schoolmates who wore obvious makeup, forced myself to like sports and, to my great shame, pretended that Top Gear was the height of entertainment. I glowed when one of my male friends would refer to me as ‘one of the guys’. And though I was prone to spectacular, obsessive crushes, I tried to hide them and pretend I was cool with being called ‘bro’ by dudes I would later lay awake at night fantasising about kissing.
After high school I slowly learned how fun girl stuff was. Although I was still clumsy with makeup and personal grooming I saw that these skills were not frivolous. I made friends with terrific talented women who helped me move towards the kind of person I wanted to be. But the feeling of valuing men’s opinions more than women’s (that Clare Vaye Watkins wrote so excellently in this essay) stayed. As I made friends with these talented women, doing the same kind of things that I was doing, I had something to compare myself to again. And as I struggled against my envy, my feelings of competition towards my very best friends, I hated myself. Why couldn’t I have the kind of pure love for my girlfriends as Amy Poehler did for Rashida Jones in Parks and Recreation? Why couldn’t I be absolutely confident and encouraging like Illana is towards Abbi in Broad City? What was wrong with me?
Girl gangs, girl squads, and television shows that follow women more interested in their bonds with other women than with men, are becoming increasingly popular and held as models for women to emulate. Which is obviously positive: anything we can do to subvert the authority of white men over how we feel about ourselves is great. But what’s rarely discussed are the things that get in the way of forming strong bonds between women. These things that should not exist, but do.
Because valuing ‘girl stuff’ is still new. Because knowing how to interact with other women has not been taught as a worthwhile skill to have. Because even those of us who grew up when ‘girl power’ was well and truly a thing can still suffer from that terrible feeling of competition that comes from comparison. Part of this, for me, can be put down to generalised bitterness. I personally don’t particularly enjoy anyone in the world being more successful or better looking than me. But when men achieve things that I wish I could achieve, I take it for granted. I expect it — of course things are easier for them: they’re men.
However, when women close to my age (or god fucking forbid, younger) and experience have success, things go awry.
‘She can do it, why not you?’
‘Because you’re too stupid, too ugly, too unlikable, talentless.’
‘Why can’t I just feel happy for my friend?’
‘Because you’re a bad person.’
I pile these thoughts on top of each other like a big self-hate sandwich that rots in my belly and fills me with bile. We’re encouraged to celebrate the achievements of other women, and anyone who admits to feeling bitterness or envy for their friends is a sad case of internalised misogyny, a bad feminist.
I’m not writing this because I think these thoughts are right — it’s because I know they’re damaging and unhelpful, but also probably pretty common. And that other girls that feel the same way are probably suffering the same kind of self-loathing that I do. Instead of ignoring the problem, and repeating the same line that we support all women always, that we know the rising tide lifts all ships, that we’re so proud and happy for every success of our besties (even though we do, it does, we are) we can admit that throwing off a lifetime of comparison self-critique is a harder than just knowing we should. Telling yourself that there’s room for all women to succeed is hard, because the evidence of history isn’t there — we have always had to fight for token spots and quotas, setting ourselves apart from ‘other girls’ by being unapologetically confident and tough. And though things are changing gradually, it’s not so easy to forget.
But we need to be more open about how hard it can be sometimes to be part of a wonderful group of kickarse amazing women when you’re not feeling so wonderful, kickarse, or amazing yourself. We have to try and stop torturing ourselves for every pang of jealousy and ‘why-not-me’ bitterness. Because liking ourselves makes it a whole lot easier to believe we deserve to be successful, and makes it a whole lot easier to be happy for the successes of other women.
Madeleine Laing is a bookseller and non-fiction writer from Brisbane who writes about food, music, fashion, sex and art – and tries to do it without sounding like a wanker. Her memoir and non-fiction have appeared in Spook and Scum Magazine and she’s a regular contributor to Broadsheet Brisbane, Whothehell.net and The Music Brisbane. She was previously a contributor to and deputy editor for Four Thousand and runs a website about sharehouse dinners called Foob (goodfoob.com). She has no current plans to move to Melbourne.