Why So Catty?


Reader Sara sent me these musings:

The idea of female camaraderie is one I have been thinking a lot about lately, and discussing with both my husband and a close friend. Your blog is the most acceptance-focused that I have read, so naturally I wondered what an Already Pretty post on the subject would say. I am very interested to hear your thoughts on the idea of women encouraging each other rather than comparing themselves or tearing each other down.

Why is it that I can see a woman in a dressing room clearly conflicted about an item she is trying (or just her own image before her) and offer up a compliment, and get looked at like I am a creep, or insane? Yet, if I were with a friend and I pointed out the same woman’s stomach pooch or bad shoes, it would be all fun and laughter.

I have never been one to have a slew of female friends, because I found it hard to relate to most other females for a large part of my life, but I have always tried to acknowledge “the sisterhood.” Now, I am not claiming to be innocent. I give random compliments, I offer help, I bring extra coupons to share in stores, etc, but I have certainly “contributed to girl on girl hate,” a phrase Natalie said in the post you linked.

The idea behind her post has definitely resonated with me. I TRY not to be judgmental of anyone, and Lord knows I am my own worst critic as most women are, but I will not lie and say I have not thought to myself, “What the HECK is that woman wearing?!” Or worse, pointed something out to someone else. I largely live my life with the idea of “it’s none of my business” but I have certainly raised eyebrows at exposed bras or extremely low-rise bottoms. As I get older and more conscious of what I am putting out there, I try not to say those things, even in my head. If I have the auto-thought that someone looks sloppy, I’ll remind myself that for all I know she is rushing to an emergency, or going through a hard time, or frankly is just comfortable that way and it is none of my damned business.

It’s amazing to me that we are hard-wired (or conditioned?) to be catty. One of the worst things in my opinion is to use a slam against other women as a way to bolster self esteem by using phrases like “REAL women have curves!” Real women are bony and skinny, too. Must we be exclusionary in order to validate our love or appreciation for our own bodies?

I will confess to the occasional bout of cattiness myself. I never claimed to be perfect, and I have to make a concerted effort to live up to my own ideals. When I feel myself getting judge-y about what someone is wearing, I say to myself (or aloud), “That is an interesting choice.” And, like Sara, remind myself that I have no idea what prompted the choice itself. But she’s right – it seems like a default setting for women to be catty and critical.

I believe that two main forces are at play:

Self-centered-ness: Women criticize other women because of how they feel about themselves. I know this idea gets a lot or airtime and may seem counter-intuitive, but hear me out. Whenever I feel like I’m frowning upon another woman’s stylistic choices, I know that my reaction is actually all about me. My taste, my financial situation, my body. As in, “I would NEVER buy/wear that item, or style it in that way. What does her choice say about me? Am I superior for having better taste, or inferior for not being trendy enough? Inferior for not having sufficient money to purchase the same thing, or superior for not flaunting my wealth? Since I don’t show my midriff and that woman is showing hers, am I superior for being more modest, or inferior for not having a show-off-worthy midriff?” Oversimplified, for sure, but you get the gist. We want to know how we rank, who is better, prettier, stronger, more successful. And we use disdain to get there. It’s an ineffective, destructive, and infantile way to make ourselves feel better … but we do it anyway.

Unexpressed aggression: I took a behavior disorders class in college about 12 years ago and learned a fact that has stuck with me. It may have been debunked by now, but I still think it illustrates an important concept. At one point, biopsychologists believed that a certain amount of chemical X was necessary to make a man a sociopath. A woman with that same amount of chemical X in her system simply exhibited constant psychosomatic pain. It took twice as much of chemical X to make a woman a sociopath. THAT is how much society doesn’t want women to express aggression.

So I believe that we turn to verbal abuse. Remember middle school? If you’re anything like me, you’d rather have your hair set on fire than go back to that time, when we’d finally learned to be cruel, to humiliate each other publicly in the name of social status. And why did we do that? Because our bodies were changing, our world was shifting, it scared the shit out of us and, unlike boys, we weren’t “supposed” to break stuff, beat each other up, or run around like hooligans to exorcise our fears. Now here we are and our bodies are changing, our world is shifting, it scares the shit out of us and … we attack each other. It’s a socially-sanctioned action for angry, confused women. Again, ineffective, destructive, and infantile. But it’s what’s expected of us.

I told Sara that it sounded like she was trying to train herself out of feeling judgmental of other women with some smart techniques, and I commended her. I also told her that it may take a looooooong time to truly eradicate those thoughts – I’m still working on it myself – and that she shouldn’t beat herself up if she slips. The bald fact is, people are INTERESTING! The way they look, the choices they make, how different or the same they are to us … fascinating stuff. And our brains are set up to see, evaluate, and compare. Rewiring a brain will take time and patience. But it’ll be worth it.

Now tell me: Why do YOU think women are so judgmental of each other? What fuels cattiness and girl-on-girl hate? Do you think it’s nature? Nurture? Both?

Image courtesy ashley rose.

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  • Kaija

    A potentially incendiary topic and good some observations/insight. I agree that some of the woman-on-woman cattiness is really an outgrowth of turning it around and making it about ourselves…driven by insecurity which is driven by all kinds of very real pressures on women to live that "effortless perfection" ideal. And we get tired and frustrated and paranoid and start thinking that every choice someone else makes is in direct challenge to ours.

    I also agree that women tend to turn their negative emotions inward, choking down anger, aggression, and competition only to have it leak out in catty or passive-aggressive or critical ways (self-critical and other-critical). I personally believe that the more our culture gets over the narrowly defined gender expectations and constricting scripts that we are "supposed to" follow, these things will become less of a problem. In other words, instead of "real women are _____", "ladies don't ________","femininity means ______" and accept that there are as many ways of being a woman as there are women, the array of styles and choices and personalities and self-expression will be a colorful bouquet that makes life more interesting.

    I have made a conscious effort to stop the negative self-talk I give myself (and much progress has been made!) and I find it has the ripple effect of making me less prone to negatively judging others and more prone to complimenting others on their strength/abilities ("wow, a 100k bike ride…you are a machine!" instead of "that must have burned off some calories"), while still appreciating their great clothing choices ("that pattern is gorgeous…you look great" instead of "that dress makes you look so skinny!"), and generally focusing on things other than looks.

    But I am a product of my Midwestern culture, raised with the notion that functional always trumps decorative ("make yourself useful", "what are you doing to contribute"?"), that pretty IS as pretty DOES, and that classic "if you can't say something nice, keep you trap shut!" πŸ™‚

  • Gwen

    The initial leadup is a little off, I think:

    "Why is it that I can see a woman in a dressing room clearly conflicted about an item she is trying (or just her own image before her) and offer up a compliment, and get looked at like I am a creep, or insane? Yet, if I were with a friend and I pointed out the same woman's stomach pooch or bad shoes, it would be all fun and laughter."

    In the first case, the emailer is speaking directly to the person. In the second she is talking *about* her. So it's not just positive vs. negative comments – it's who's listening.

    In the first case, social pressure is high to say nice things and not to say bad things. So I'd tend to discount compliments on something I'm trying on. I'd feel a little pressured, in fact, wondering if she was really a salesperson looking for a sale, or someone who had overshopped who was trying to get others to join in with the overshopping. That might explain the poor response she gets there.

    In the second case, we're people, and we talk about other people. If we're in a good mood we're more generous about them; if not we tend to tear them down. Clothes are just part of that, and the targets aren't always just women.

  • Toby Wollin

    As someone who has raised all different sorts of livestock for about 20 years, I think part of this is 'pecking order' behaviors.

  • Lisa

    I certainly thing part of it is nature. Just like men try and establish their pecking order in society by macho acts, women need to establish where they fall in society and amongst a group. I think no matter how much self-esteem training and positive messages and whatnot that we put forth part of it is in our nature.
    That being said, we can certainly teach women (especially younger women) how to interact more positively with their peers and try and curtail some of that degrading mentality.

  • Casey

    I have to admit as I read Sara's email, I could only nod my head–it sounds like I could have written that! Especially about not having a ton of female friends (mostly because I can't stand the cattiness that ensues eventually, and wrecks things). I am definitely not innocent of being catty–goodness knows I've had my moments! I still struggle with keeping "if you don't have anything nice to say/think, don't say/think anything at all" my life-mantra. πŸ˜‰

    I think you, Sal, brought up a good point about the self-centered-ness related to the outward expression of the negativity/criticism of self and others. Only because it hits so close to home, and is something I've observed in others and discussed with females of various ages who have insight into the matter too. I think we're so bent on being the best–and overly emphasized by the culture around us–that we become extremely self focused. Whether we like it or not, we spend an awful darn lot of the day with thoughts about ourselves and how we feel. It's not easy to always put yourself in someone else shoes and take yourself out of that mindset. But I commend women like you who try to!

    β™₯ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

  • emm

    I suspect it's more nurture than nature. In our society, women are visual objects whether we like it or not. Hence the female pecking order is established via critiquing looks.

    A friend of mine lived in a small village in Africa and said women didn't comment on looks very much. Pecking order and desirability of a woman was based on how much livestock she owned. Now there's a different system for ya.

    Fascinating post, especially the chemical x part.

  • Hannele

    I'm certain it is not Nature. I think competitiveness is something that's deeply ingrained in the North American culture and psyche. A sort of "You must succeed at all cost and in all aspects of life or you're a Nobody" mentality. Which in turn creates that inferiority and superiority complex. I'm from France, and that is not something I've experienced there or at least not to the extend that I've been accustomed to in the U.S.

  • Cynthia

    I don't know. I don't think I'm catty about bodies or fashion, but I sure can be catty (inside my head) about girls who act dumb to get dates, girls who only care about clothes and material stuff, women who make poor life choices because they aren't strong enough to stand up against traditional expectations, women who in some sense "waste" their potential. I think that's a different kind of judgy, but I admit it's judgy. For me it springs from having been a girl-reject all my life, and being on the receiving end of a lot of the traditional kind of judging. The only thing I had to compare myself to other people on where I could feel like I was successful was being smart and learning the arcane wisdom. I think everyone (not just women) compares themselves to other people and tries to find things to feel good about themselves, and the judginess is the dark side of that.

    I was so beaten down by the grade school and jr. hi picking that I just gave up on being friends with women until I was in my late 20s/early 30s. And now my best female friends are scientists or internet writers or dancers and we don't bond (or judge) over traditional "women things".

    • Kim

      I am in total agreement with Cynthia. I too am much more catty about women who “play the game” of acting weak, needy, subservient, and ditzy to get a man or sleep their way to the top to get the “things” that they want. I also have no tolerance for Botox, boob jobs, or the like that are not medically or cosmetically necessary. I have no problem with a woman being attractive, well-dressed, or intelligent, in fact I will be the first woman to compliment a woman on an outfit that looks sharp, or their nice haircut, or their looks. If they’re hot, they’re hot! Give em credit where credit is due.
      I have more male friends than female friends. Always have, always will. My friends who are female are very strong women. We women are our own worst enemies and the cattiness will come back to haunt us everytime. I’ve learned to just ignore most women and go about my day. They have the problem, not me. But I will say that it makes for a long work day if you’re in an environment like that.

  • costume jewellery

    I really enjoyed this post, I think it's very frustrating that women are made the subject of other women's cattiness. It can happen everywhere- the worst kind is in the workplace.

  • The Raisin Girl

    I think it's completely a conditioning thing. For men, it's socially acceptable to just get in a fist fight. And after two men get in a fist fight, they can go right back to being friends. Why? Because they went ahead and worked it all out in the fight. I've seen two men beat the living daylights out of each other and then walk off, arm-in-arm, laughing and comparing cuts and bruises.

    Now, women…we're not supposed to do that. It isn't "ladylike" (a term I passionately hate and have fought my whole life to keep from being called), so instead we have to be sneaky. We talk about each other, make subtle jabs. In the words of Dane Cook, we're "mental terrorists." Because those are the socially acceptable tools we have for dealing with aggression.

    Now, seriously, think about this: we ALL have unexpressed aggression. And as long as it goes unexpressed, we never really get over it. That's how we hold grudges. I'm about to be a senior in college, and a small part of me still stings over things some girl said to me in high school. I don't obsess over it or think about it often, but if I ever DO think about it, I'm angry all over again. Would this be the case if it had been socially acceptable for me to just deck her one good time? I seriously doubt it.

    The sad part is, the "mean girls" turn even the nice girls mean. How else are they supposed to defend themselves? I was always a "nice girl" in school, and I got picked on relentlessly for various reasons: I was too smart, I wasn't trendy, I was nice to the one overweight girl in our grade and would tell off people who weren't, etc. So eventually, how did I have to learn to defend myself? By picking on the mean girls right back, by saying mean and catty things right back to them. It's a vicious little cycle.

    All that said, I don't think it's judgmental to look at someone and think to myself that I don't like what they're wearing, or that I wouldn't wear it that way. I think it would be incredibly RUDE to voice that opinion, and incredibly shallow to draw any conclusions about that person from my thoughts on their clothes. But just seeing an outfit and thinking "nah, not really fond of it," or "not my style" isn't really judgmental, or at least, not inappropriately so. Not any more so than saying "Wow, I love that!" to myself or "I have shoes that would look great with that!" to myself. I mean, we all use a certain amount of judgment every day. It's all in how you apply it, really.

    Phew. Maybe I should just start writing my own blog posts and linking to you, rather than writing you novels on your comments. πŸ˜›

  • emadethis

    Sally, you're too funny–yes, I'd rather set my hair on fire too than go back to middle school. Ack!

    I think it's just plum easier to find 10 nasty things to say about someone than it is to find 2 nice things. I remember being in the awkward years and my writing being particularly acerbic and satirical. Once I found something to make fun of the pen just flowed and it was kind of fun. I realize now how destructive my words were.

    I can't say that I'm above saying icky things or thinking them. I have a girlfriend who has been tremendously hurtful to me on a lot of levels in the past. Even though we're trying to work through our differences, I can't help thinking bad things about her appearance when she's irritating me because it's easier than trying to love her.

    You're right, it does take time to get rid of these thoughts, and this side of Heaven we may not be entirely rid of them, but I myself pray that each day I can love others and myself beyond the nasty.

  • Gillian

    The Raisin Girl and Cynthia took the words right out of my mouth.

  • emadethis

    Sally, you're too funny–yes, I'd rather set my hair on fire too than go back to middle school. Ack!

    I think it's just plum easier to find 10 nasty things to say about someone than it is to find 2 nice things. I remember being in the awkward years and my writing being particularly acerbic and satirical. Once I found something to make fun of the pen just flowed and it was kind of fun. I realize now how destructive my words were.

    I can't say that I'm above saying icky things or thinking them. I have a girlfriend who has been tremendously hurtful to me on a lot of levels in the past. Even though we're trying to work through our differences, I can't help thinking bad things about her appearance when she's irritating me because it's easier than trying to love her.

    You're right, it does take time to get rid of these thoughts, and this side of Heaven we may not be entirely rid of them, but I myself pray that each day I can love others and myself beyond the nasty

  • Sara

    First, thank you all for your thoughtful responses to my ponderings, and especially to Sally for continuing the discussion.

    Kaija, that was an interesting point you made about being less harsh on yourself, and realizing it's made you less likely to turn it towards others.

    Gwen, I suppose I could have elaborated further, though I think Sally got the gist of what I was trying to say. Mainly, that people can often be startled by random compliments and (but?) expect/encourage random insults directed at others.
    I doubt anyone could mistake me for a salesperson in a dressing room, since I am trying things on, bogged down by bags and accompanied by my husband, but I suppose it's possible.
    I'll continue to compliment where it's warranted though; the times it seems to make someone's day are certainly worth the times I get a dubious expression!

    emm, I wonder how high my status would be with one fat cat and one cat that thinks he's a dog!

    Cynthia, the form of cattiness you mentioned is the hardest one for me to overcome, hands down.

    The Raisin Girl, thank you for the food for thought!

  • Melissa

    I agree that it's mostly insecurity. I know that when I become judgemental of what another woman is wearing, it's because I want to believe that my outfit is better.

    I'm slowly gaining a little bit of confidence through blogging and getting positive feedback, and I've noticed that I'm much less prone to judge someone else's outfit and more prone to commend them on their creativity and individuality, even when it isn't a style choice that I would have made.

  • ougian

    I think it has to do with insecurity and powerlessness. Confidence usually trumps petty behavior.

  • Mother of Style

    I think many women have this idea that when another women "succeeds" it means that they are a failure. They should just be happy for the others, but instead they feel like it means they didn't do as good, or that there is some competition and they just came in second.

  • jm

    Great post, and questions, as usual. I don't know WHY it's so easy to devolve into cattiness, but I know for me, personally, it's very hard to stop it. Even if I don't voice my judgements out loud (I would never be cruel), I feel like I am always looking at people and wondering about them. Some of it is curiousity — thinking about style and being interested in other types of bodies. But most of it is insecurity in that, "is she skinnier/fatter/prettier/etc than me?" way. I find that it's natural to want to place myself in some kind of pecking order, to know that I'm safely in the middle somewhere. I find that as I'm nicer to myself (an enormous work in progress), my thoughts about others are much nicer as well.

  • Liz

    I understood a lot of commenters here to be saying "I haven't got a lot of female friends," which interested me. I'm in the very same situation. I have a few women friends, but they don't really move in the same social circles at all, and I've never really been a part of a group of women friends – I just befriended the people that I liked, for whatever reason, if they happened to like me back and circumstances were favourable to our spending time together. Kinda lazy, I guess, but it's been nice…

    HOWEVER – this got me thinking about why I don't have a lot of women friends: why not, and whether it's even a valid statement to make! Here's why….

    Some commenters were saying things like "I didn't like the cattiness, the clique-y-ness, the gossip, etc inherent in female friendships." I have said the same things, many many times. But I think I need to examine whether that's the true reason (that "other women" are catty, nasty, clique-y, and I am not). Putting the "other women" into a "bad" category and putting me, all alone and lonely, into a "good" category.

    I'm starting to think whether it wasn't to do with my lack of self-confidence. I said and believed nasty things about myself, so I was sure others would… I saw others saying nasty things about others, so I was sure they'd say the same things about me… MAYBE this is the reason: that I don't trust other women because I don't like myself all that much to begin with. That perspective puts me in the "bad" category too! Or, it breaks down those categories completely.

    And then, I need to consider whether it's really true that I am exceptional or odd for not having a whole slew of female friends to kvetch with… Is it true that most women have a lot of friends, and I am special for only having a few? I don't think so.

    the older I get, the more I see that real friendships are very special, and rare… precious, really. And great huge gaggles of so-called friends, in my experience anyway (I played team sports for 15 years which is where I found most of my so-called friends) are usually thrown together by circumstance, spend time together out of habit, and are catty to one another because the strong bond of true friendship is lacking.

    My two cents! Thanks, Sally, for another thought-provoking, encouraging, and insightful post! Already Pretty is dependably refreshing to read!

  • Liz

    I understood a lot of commenters here to be saying "I haven't got a lot of female friends," which interested me. I'm in the very same situation. I have a few women friends, but they don't really move in the same social circles at all, and I've never really been a part of a group of women friends – I just befriended the people that I liked, for whatever reason, if they happened to like me back and circumstances were favourable to our spending time together. Kinda lazy, I guess, but it's been nice…

    HOWEVER – this got me thinking about why I don't have a lot of women friends: why not, and whether it's even a valid statement to make! Here's why….

    Some commenters were saying things like "I didn't like the cattiness, the clique-y-ness, the gossip, etc inherent in female friendships." I have said the same things, many many times. But I think I need to examine whether that's the true reason (that "other women" are catty, nasty, clique-y, and I am not). Putting the "other women" into a "bad" category and putting me, all alone and lonely, into a "good" category.

    I said and believed nasty things about myself, so I was sure others would… I saw others saying nasty things about others, so I was sure they'd say the same things about me… MAYBE this is the reason: that I don't trust other women because I don't like myself all that much to begin with. That perspective puts me in the "bad" category too! Or, it breaks down those categories completely.

    And then, I need to consider whether it's really true that most women have a lot of friends, and I am special for only having a few.

    I think real friendships are very special, and rare… precious, really. And great huge gaggles of so-called friends, in my experience anyway (I played team sports for 15 years which is where I found most of my so-called friends) are usually thrown together by circumstance, spend time together out of habit, and are catty to one another because the strong bond of friendship may belacking.

  • mashiki0603

    Gah, going back to middle school – try being a foreign exchange student of 16 from a culture different and not different from American at the same time (I am Russian)… That's a whole different kettle of fish as they say there! πŸ™‚

    Anyway, some of what the commenters said made me think about the nature of judging and cattiness, the "pecking order", etc (guys have the same thing, just expressed differently, by the way). I think a lot of kids judge trying to determine where they stand in this world – are they smarter or not, better-looking or not, more popular or not, you get the drift, and it's sort of ok with the kids. I mean you learn about yourself and the world, and while comparison is not the best thing for doing it, it is the means all of us employ, some more than the others. But, as we grow up, we begin to appreciate the diversity, we begin to understand the futility of comparing oranges and apples – different is not better or worse, it's just what it is, different. Unfortunately, some of us stay in that comparison stage.

    Oh, and I personally do appreciate (polite) comments in the dressing room – after all, a stranger who couldn't care less about making a sale might provide some valuable insight about how I look to the world out there, no?

  • V

    I'm with Kaija. I was raised in the pretty is as pretty does school of thought deep in the Midwest. I was also in the odd position in jr. high and high school of being both an outsider and a desired individual. I was (and still am) very geeky, but I would also tutor my classmates when they asked for help. Plus, I went to a small school (17 in my graduating class) so there was no hiding out, only varying levels of inclusiveness. I actually had more problems in grade school with girl on girl bullying, but I always fought back. (As the youngest of 12, it's a reflex.)

    I have more female friends than male friends, but that's only because I've run into more geeky females loose "in the wild" and we've formed a pack. That pack is for the most part, all positive and all inclusive. We've all had to become comfortable inside our own skins early on. People who aren't positive don't stay around long — mostly through their own actions and choices. They're pursuing something and keep moving on in search of it. None of us will permit personal attacks based on looks or clothing choices. We don't go as far as shunning them, but the number and length of hanging out instances drop off.

    As for why there is "girl on girl hate", I'd say it comes down to a pressure to conform to standards. What those standards are, vary. People who don't conform to the viewers standards immediately get put in to the "them/other" category and are viewed as the enemy/outsider and therefore a threat. Others and outsiders take away the resources from the Us/we group.

    Yes, it's a bit Darwinian, but my personal experience of "I don't conform because I don't want what you have, and that's okay for both of us" worked out well in the long run — for me. But then I refuse to associate with people who are negative and build themselves up by tearing others down. Life is too short, and there are too many other interesting people who are positive.

    I still won't go back to any class reunions. It's not that I hate them, it's because I have even less in common with them now. There's no urge to stroll down memory lane.

  • Liz

    Sorry for the double post, above! It was a mistake.

  • leah

    I have recently moved from Australia to the USA and I am perplexed by the obsession with negativity. Some things in life (from my perspective) are ugly, wrong, look silly etc. That's ok.

    I'm an optimist, so more often I will perceive things that other people wear or do as being awesome, beautiful, interesting and so on.
    I think denying your ability to politely and delicately recognise when things don't suit your taste or the recognised boundaries of acceptability is not a bad thing, nor does it make you a bad person.

    In my recent experience, North American people (women in particular) are so frightened of saying something is bad. Sometimes things *are* negative, and it's ok to say so, you shouldn't beat yourself up. It's also important to understand that different people will have different opinions on things, so my wrongness or rightness will vary. That's fun too!

    As long as you aren't writing that person off wholly because their bra strap is showing, I don't see why you can't say that it looks wrong. You aren't saying the person is wrong and bad, just the bra strap! It's an inanimate object, it won't get upset. That being said, being nasty and catty about your opinions is something that you need to curb, but I think that comes down to manners and tact, and not about stopping whatever thought comes into your head, whether you label that thought "negative" or "positive" or somewhere in between.

    I think once we get rid of all the meaningless body politics of every thought and opinion we'll feel so much lighter, and social interactions with other womem become easier and truer. If we don't, then we are the victims and the constant round-a-bout of what we ought to be and think drives us crazy and makes us buy $500 wrinkle creams and do super cleanses to lose weight πŸ™‚

    PS. Always compliment people, it's a nice thing to do and you should never stop!

  • Anonymous

    What I dislike is that you can't criticize looks on sewing or fashion blogs or websites like PR without feeling bad or afraid you'll be banned or beat up by other members.

    If a dress looks like crap, we're not allowed to say so and if we do, we're considered mean.

    Here's another question: Why do we lie to each other? Why can't I tell you that dress makes you look fat?

  • Anonymous

    I appreciated all of these comments! I don't have much to really add to that except personal experience and my opinions.

    I do think that women should express themselves more. I think it's true that we are emotionally constipated sometimes and we need to let it out constructively! The pressures on our looks (although they are there for men as well it seems amplified for woman) are ridiculous and unnecessary.

    It would be awesome if this world were perfect but what would we learn! The trials make the lesson and from that comes personal growth.

    Even if all I attain is a daily conscious effort to do my best then I am satisfied. All we can do is our best.

  • AfroTina

    Love this topic. I think this phrase here encapsulates it all…
    "Must we be exclusionary in order to validate our love or appreciation for our own bodies?"

    For some reason it is so hard to validate someone who is different from ourselves and still find the space in our hearts to accept ourselves. I, too am on a mission to tear down this degrading behavior. i was inspired, we can do it!!!

    I loved hearing your thoughts as well, thank you for sharing.

    xoxo
    Tina
    http://www.afrotina.com

  • Steph

    There are some wonderful and insightful thoughts here in the comments, in addition to yours, Sal. I agree with a lot of it, especially with what Liz posted about the reasons she suspects she didn't/doesn't have many female friends. I've always had more female friends than male friends, not sure why, it just happened that way. And only a handful of people who I consider true friends I can trust with anything. Good girlfriends are worth a 10,000 pound bag of gold. And I've always thought (and judged) those women who have few or zero female friends as being highly competitive with other women for male attention and insecure about themselves: their bodies, their choices, their right to be as they are and let others do the same.
    There is occassionally some playful cattiness among my close friends and myself, but it truly is all done in good fun, and we never bash each others' looks or weight or clothing or life choices. Why bother? What do any of us gain from that? We're open and honest with our opinions, especially on the important things, but it's intended as support, not a way to tear someone else down and feel better about oneself. I don't know if it's a conscious decision each of us has made, but my personal experiences growing up as kind of a misfit socially who didn't give a damn what anyone thought about me, although they were welcome to their opinions, certainly informed my resistance to tearing others down simply to make myself feel better or validate myself in some way. It never works anyway. The few times I've done it I just ended up feeling cruel and remorseful, because no matter how much I dislike someone and no matter how harsh they might be towards me, I still have no right to make them feel as bad as they've made me feel on the rare occasions anything has penetrated my defenses. I feel justified in defending myself, but I feel much better when I can do it by basically just shrugging off their judgements. Because their opinions truly don't impact me in any way. It's a bit harder when a friend says something a bit catty or just tactless. It hits home because that's an opinion and a person I care about. But we all slip up sometimes, and forgiveness for our lapses in judgement is part of what makes good friendships last, not to mention making them worthwhile. What's the point of spending time with people who only make you feel bad about yourself–male or female? That's the line I draw. If a person constantly puts me down or makes me feel bad about myself or gives me shit all the time for everything, then that person isn't a friend, or doesn't know how to be a friend. And what's the point of bashing other women because they're heavier, or don't make flattering clothing choices. I don't have that kind of mental energy and what I have I don't want to waste on that kind of childish behavior.
    I know this is all a tad tangential and rambling, but it's where my head went and I didn't want to just repeat the many valid things that have already been said.
    I can't help judging others. I have eyes and opinions and a perspective. But I don't have any right to inflict my judgement on a complete stranger, or even someone I know, especially if it's negative and not going to help them in some way. I'm happy to pass on the kind of positivity that offers a compliment to someone else in a dressing room. And why offer a negative judgement on something another woman is trying on? Unless she asks for my objective opinion, and there are always ways to be positive and uncritical even when saying "that just doesn't work for you." Seriously, it just takes a little creativity and a desire to not make someone break down amid the hangers.

  • AsianCajuns (Lar)

    I have an inkling it's both, but I can't be sure. Cath and I attended a woman's college for three years (with one year abroad). I loved the academics and not sharing the classroom with men, but socially it was incredibly catty. It surprised me because there weren't men around to impress. Just girls tearing each other down to make themselves feel better.

    "Luckily" Cath and I had also grown up attending a competitive ballet school and it toughened our skin to some of barbs.

    Growing up in an atmosphere with women tearing each other down a lot taught us not to do the same, but like everyone I still need to be reminded to be even less judgmental.

  • Kyla

    The topic of "girl-on-girl hate" and cattiness shows up occasionally, and I'm always surprised. I've always suspected it's a greatly exaggerated phenomenon. Although I've met some very negative women, the vast majority of women in my social circles have been pretty supportive. I don't know what's in their head, but it seems like from high school on, most women have the sense to keep their negative comments to themselves.

    Actually, I find the majority of times accusations of cattiness and jealousy get thrown around it pings my feminist radar as a silencing measure. Legitimate critiques of someone's ideas or works are passed off as "she's just jealous" or attempts to address another woman's inappropriate or hurtful behaviour are dismissed as "she just can't stand to see another woman get attention". If I had a dime for every time a man wrote off women as back-stabbing, catty b*tches, I'd go buy myself a new pair of fancy shoes.

    Although it's not just men writing off women as back-stabbing and catty. I've met several women who don't have female friends and claim it's because they can't stand the insecurity and cattiness. As I said before, I've been friends with many women in my life, and I don't see that kind of behaviour. In fact, the women who claim other women make bad friends seem to do it the most. I'm not sure why that's the case, but it certainlyhas made me wary of women who claim they don't get along with other women.

  • Birdie!

    I feel like it's not only looks. In business, we like to see the other girl go down because we're told that it's harder for us to get ahead. So we should take every chance we've got and maybe kick her a little while she's on the floor. We are taught as children to be exclusionary, and we practice it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. You're right – any cattiness is just an infantile way to take our insecurities out on someone else.

    We're always trying to prove ourselves to a world that, at this point, doesn't actually give two shits – it's all in our heads. If you spend your entire life trying to prove how smart you are because you have such a high IQ and you were in… like Deca or NHS or something you come off sounding irrationally self centered, insecure and to be frank – not that smart. Why should you have to prove any of that to anyone. Instead, you could be out making a difference, focusing outward, and being really impressive.

    But cattiness is expected of you. And passive aggressive, out-the-side-of-the-mouth cattiness is still just that – extolling what you hate about yourself.

    When you criticize someone's style choices, you SOUND ugly. When you beat down someone for a "fault", you often possess that faulted trait yourself.

    Great post, Sal. Thank you.

  • Molly

    I want to echo what V said about geeky friends; what Steph said about friendships being supportive; and especially Kyla's whole comment on the nature of so-called "cattiness."

    My close friends are almost exclusively female, for the simple reason that I like talking about relationships and personal motivations more than doing anything else, and I find more women than men with whom I "click" on this level. It also means that women who become my friends are those who easily admit their insecurities and generally try to empathize with others. Additionally, I've never been the prettiest or the most popular, so I don't expect to compete for men's attention or to undercut others to maintain some arbitrary social status.

    Don't get me wrong, sometimes I don't like another woman's outfit or whatever, but in my social group it doesn't benefit me to go around criticizing strangers. As for my friends, in our discussions we can certainly be negative, but it's based in real concern about how Annie always ends up dating men who make her miserable or about how Susan's job has her stuck between a rock and a hard place. I call such negativity part of being supportive, and I don't think Annie or Susan would be upset to hear that I'd been discussing her difficulties behind her back.

    So why haven't some women been able to find positive female friends? Perhaps their church, job, or other social group has a screwy hierarchy that requires undermining others to get ahead; if so, it might help them to reflect on it and try to get out of the bad situation. If this isn't the case, though, maybe it's their own insecurities, attitudes, and actions that are the problem.

  • Sophie Miriam

    I have a few thoughts, which are somewhat unrelated to each other.

    1. This is NOT exclusively a North American thing. I spent six months at an all girls school in Germany, and let me tell you, it was Hell on earth.

    2. I have heard it said that women are more catty than men because they are always trying to get ahead in the social pecking order. Men have one guy who's top dog, and that's cool. Women have one girl who's top dog, and everyone else wants to shove her down and take her place.

    3. I certainly agree that part of the cattiness is our own insecurities and jealousies, however, I also think some of it is just plain nastiness and judgmentalness. I think that skirt is objectively too short, I think you look like you're a streetwalker because you're wearing too much make-up, I think that dress makes you look 15 pounds overweight, etc., but rather than giving you the benefit of the doubt, I'm mentally criticizing you.

  • RETRO REVA

    Dear Sal,
    I have been hearing about excessive "cattiness" in blogdonia lately, and a really neat blogger I follow was recently hurt because of a negative comment left on her blog by "annoymous" (of course).
    Is there a particular incidents or incidents where mean people are being really harsh as of late? Or do you believe it is growing pains?
    Thanks, Reva

  • Poppy Buxom

    Why are women always generalizing about wome's behavior? And don't think I don't realize I just did it myself.

    But serious, can't we recognize our own uniqueness?

    And what's wrong with criticizing someone's appearance? After I spend years trying to perfect my taste, I'm not going to turn off my developed eye when I'm looking at another woman. Why should I?

    And haven't you heard a Man criticize another man? Granted, it tends to be about his balls or the lack thereof, but still … it happens all the time.

    Our need for preeminence is probably one of the things that allowed our species to survive.

  • angeline

    Lots of great thoughts in the post and in the comments here. I am most intrigued by some of the comments that noted that saying/thinking something "negative" doesn't necessarily mean you are writing off someone or judging them. What makes a comment "catty" to begin with? I tend to notice a lot of things when I'm out in public and sometimes do point it out to folks I'm with, but usually just as observation, not to judge or ridicule the person.

    I do think, however, that it is beneficial to think more positively in general. If you think making fun of someone makes you feel better, try complimenting someone–the high you get from their genuine reaction will make you feel even better.

  • Sal

    Thanks, as always, for SO many insightful and varied responses, everyone!

    My two cents on the question of "why not" say something negative or critical of another woman or person? I'd like to know what is gained by doing so? Why is it important or beneficial to feel empowered to put others down for choices that you have absolutely no background on? As Steph pointed out, these comments are seldom made in an attempt to HELP another person, especially as many of them are made indirectly. Dialogue is important, observations of the world that surrounds us are what keep us engaged in our lives, and I'm not suggesting anyone keep mum about issues or concerns that affect them directly. But simply looking at someone else and criticizing her choices seems pretty pointless to me. Especially when it comes to appearance.

    Poppy Buxom: Generalizations are sometimes necessary to spark discussions, as here. And why shouldn't you turn off your critical eye? I ask again, what do you gain by leveling criticism at another woman's style choices?

    RETRO REVA: Negative comments are pretty commonplace, and I don't think there's necessarily been a rise in them recently … they're just part of blogging, I guess.

    Kyla: I assure you, I'm not issuing a gag order. And I doubt anyone else who levels accusations of cattiness is either. Many of us have been on the receiving end of these kinds of comments, overheard them in passing, and they can really wound. It's one thing to address inappropriate or hurtful BEHAVIOR verbally – especially if it affects you or those you care about – but to issue a critique on appearance, style, weight, etc. feels different to me.

    Anonymous (1): There is definitely social pressure to focus on the positive in blog comments, but I think most sewing and style blogs allow negative comments so long as they're constructive. Maybe that's not true, but it's my perception. Why can't you tell me my dress makes me look fat? You can. Why is it important to you to do that? What will you gain, and what do you think I will gain? Is there a way to express that feedback diplomatically and kindly, so that it can be received well?

    leah: Fascinating – and I hadn't thought of this as a cultural difference. I think that, for many, it is hard to hear a critical comment and take it at face value. Criticism DOES carry some weight of judgment, whether that judgment is intended or not. Humans are such emotional creatures, it can be hard to hear "that dress looks bad on you" as a dispassionate, scientific observation and bit of feedback.

    Liz: Such insightful observations! Thanks for sharing your thought process.

    The Raisin Girl: Totally. Making observations based on taste and preferences is completely natural. Voicing those observations can cross the line into invasive.

    Kaija: So true. If we open up our definitions, our criticisms are bound to diminish.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Sal,

    I am Anonymous (1), thank you for your response!

    I admit that I am on the heavier side and I struggle with what makes my body look good, what makes me feel confident and what feels comfortable. It's a struggle. But I do wish people were more honest with each other. I don't like being told I'm fat any more than anyone else but if I *appear* larger in "that" outfit, please tell me and I'll never wear it again.

  • WendyB

    I've never complimented someone in a store (I've done that plenty) and have her react with anything other than pleasure.

    In my experience, women who worry that other women are catty/competitive tend to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. I never expect the worst. I expect the best and my expectations are usually met.

    I wrote about it a while ago http://wendybrandes.com/blog/2007/12/self-fulfilling-prophecy/

  • Jodie

    Female bitching is such a complex individual issue that I really think it's impossible to answer what causes it. It's a mix of insecurities generated by a very appearance focused society (which men play a huge part in creating and passing on to women), taught agreement with beauty standards, the need to prove that you have 'the right kind of taste', the kind of background you grow up in, how your parents teach you to relate to the world and an inbuilt human need to let off a bit of steam by being bitchy about others. And probably a bunch of other things I haven't even thought of.

    I also think instead of making this a gendered debate focused on female cattiness we might want to consider what humanity gains by knocking others down based on appearances, because it's very human to do so, it's not just a female thing. Lots of people say women are worse about it, but I think it's pretty even between the sexes. I think it's more that women aren't often included in authentically male conversations/are the target of male derision so they rarely hear the way men talk about people behind their back. Having been a very quiet girl in very male workplaces I can say that they're just as bad in my personal experience.

    All my friends are female and I kind of feel like people doubt our friendships, because we do bitch. But if you hear a couple fight or casually slag each other off on a bad day – well every couple fights right, every couple has bad days right? We may be judgemental and catty sometimes, but there's something strong under all that.

    And yes I agree we should try to cut the appearance based bitchery, but not because it's bad for WOMEN to bitch, because it's pretty horrible for HUMANS to bitch. Is there jealousy mixed in female bitchery sometimes – sure, but what human is never envious? And can't anyone transcend that envious feeling after a bit of consideration? Does bitching mean that you can only be judged by your bad words and not by your later attempts to move on from what you first said?

  • Susie

    From time to time, I make an effort to find something that I think is genuinely nice or good about everyone I see – no matter what they're wearing or what they look like. It's amazing how much more I like humanity when I do that than when I go the easy route and judge people.

    If I'm being completely honest with myself, I think that I'm quick to judge partly because I want to feel better about myself, and partly because if I have to interact with that person, I want to know where I stand.

    I've found that when I'm trying to find something good about people, it's much easier to be friendly and kind to them. I always try to be nice to people, but it isn't always easy.

    Thanks to everyone for your comments and thoughts. I'm definitely going to make more of an effort to try to find something good about everyone, instead of focusing on the bad.

  • Sunfell

    Part of the problem, at least from where I stand, is that some women believe that they live in a binary universe. If someone is 'good/beautiful/rich' that means that they are 'bad/ugly/poor', and vice versa. There is no middle ground.

    For me, the key to nullifying this problem was twofold: nurturing my own self-confidence, and detaching myself from judgement. The two actually go hand-in-hand, because if you are confident and comfortable with who and what you are, you can detach from judgement- both positive and negative.

    I'm not fashionable. That's OK. I don't hide my intellect under a bushel. That's OK, too. That woman over there is dressed in clothing I would never leave the house wearing. That's OK- that's her life. I can only judge myself.

    Nulling out that catty and competitive facet of female interaction opens one up to many wonderful things. It expands possibilities, too, if you permit it to. And it gives you a way to make new friends, if you do not fear difference. I'm authentic and real- and so are you. Enjoy it!

  • Anonymous

    It's fascinating to read this post after just having taken a linguistics course! {Many} Women are "programmed" as young children to believe that too much power makes you a bitch, or mean, or unpopular. In the society we live in we need to remember that we are one of the first countries to recognize women at ALL let alone in a powerful way. We are still trying to find a delicate balance between being stepped on and being bossy. In my opinion, I am going to continue to be nice and try as hard as I can to get my points across – but will most likely never be labeled as a bitch. It's not who I am, and I will ALWAYS be the girl who compliments you in the dressing room. We all need a reminder that we are beautiful sometimes.

  • Poppy Buxom

    Jumping back in to say (after six years at an all-girl school and four years at a women's college) that I don't find women particularly catty. And that men jockey for position just as much as women do–they just do it differently.

    Also, I always wonder what's wrong with women who loudly proclaim that they prefer the company of men to that of women–as though somehow that made them superior. To my mind, it's like being an antisemitic Jew.

    And I stand by my belief that turning off my critical thinking does myself–and others–a disservice. I've spent 40 years pouring over fashion magazines learning about silhouette and fit. I'm not going to forget all that to improve someone's self-esteem.

    But I would never make a hurtful or catty remark to someone's face. That's not the done thing.

    On the other hand, I reserve the right to make fun of fashion don'ts on my blog. I feel it's my mission, in fact.

    The world needs to hear me tell it to stop flaunting its midriff bulge and either wear looser clothes or better-fitting underwear, because this Pop'n'Fresh muffin-top nonsense has got to stop!

    πŸ˜‰

  • ccbeautyy

    I think it is not just women who are catty but men as well. It is not about genders I believe both men and women are capable of tearing one another down based on body image.

    Media that constantly bombards with what is acceptable and what is not acceptable body types create this illusion that a certain body type like "skinny" is in vogue. To me there is no such thing. It is all a pointless illusion to make people feel more negative and harsh on themselves and others.

    The fact is humans veer towards beauty and veer away from ugly. What actually defines ugly and beauty? Once again the media claims to provide all the answers. If people turn to the media constantly to seek answers for this there lies a danger. Human beings no longer think for themselves they let a "higher" power like the media tell them what is beautiful and desirable and what is most certainly not.

    With such a culture no wonder people are taking to making catty remarks and being nasty. It is going to get worse I have seen it happening and it beginning to start from a younger and younger age.

  • Anne

    I know that this post was put up ages ago, but it is a really interesting topic, and one I think about a good deal.
    The conclusion I have come to, personally, is that I dislike the idea that, because I am a woman, I should have some sort of inherent companionship with other women. I am many things that I chose to be; physically active, knowledgeable about literature, interested in current events, religious, and politically active, passionate about Ancient Greek writing, and I feel companionship with other people who have similar interests.
    I went to a military school for college, and there was always a subtle suggestion of “well, you are a girl, you will understand,” where other girls were concerned, even though I might have nothing in common with someone other than we both happened to be born female.
    I don’t feel any sort of “companionship” with other women anymore than I feel it with white people, people with brown eyes like mine, or people who are left handed like me. I know the intention behind an idea of women- wide sisterhood is a good one, but I can never help but feel that it is a little bit sexist in its thinking. Maybe it is just me, but I cant look at someone and connect with them because they are a woman anymore than I can connect with someone who has a big nose like me, because it is something you are born with, not something you chose, and I feel that it is our choices that define us and bring certain people together.

  • Melinda

    Thanks for this insightful blog post. πŸ˜‰

    I agree with one particular statement…it doesn’t benefit anyone to offer unsolicited criticism on somebody else’s appearance, clothing, or lifestyle.

    Since the age of 12, I have experienced hostility from other females. One teacher in middle school told my mother that I thought I was “better than everyone else”. She had no reason for saying this. I’ve experienced Black women disliking me because I happen to be a biracial (black/white) woman with very light skin.

    I’ve been openly mocked and ridiculed by other women because of the way I look. I remember hearing other girls walk by me and call me names. I’ve had women look me up and down with the most bitchy expressions on their faces. I’ve been harshly criticized for my weight, the clothes I wear, and the way I talk.

    I’ve complimented other women only to receive the stink eye in return. This is a real problem with a lot of women. Some of you might be lucky to have wonderful friendships free of competitive and catty behavior, but this has not been my experience.

    I don’t have an attitude problem. But I do have an issue with women who project their insecurities onto me. I believe that ALL women have something special to contribute to the world.

    Not all of us fit society’s beauty ideal, but we’re all still uniquely beautiful.

    Who cares if another woman is prettier? It doesn’t make you inferior. It doesn’t make you less worthy of love or respect or happiness. You’re still beautiful even if you don’t possess a tiny waist or big boobs or the so-called “perfect” looks. Perfection is overrated, in my opinion.

    Sometimes I feel a bit insecure when I notice certain women who seem to have it all…beauty, confidence, and glamorous style. But you know what? I’m pretty cool in my own way. If you know that you’re bad-ass in your own right, there will be no need to hate on other women.

    Be inspired by the world around you…be positive and speak kind words. If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all. Don’t hurt other women with insensitive words and actions. Insulting another woman will not make you a better person. It will only highlight your insecurities and show how immature you are. A real woman is classy and does not put others down to boost her own self-esteem.

    I’m realistic about the way I look. I’m not gorgeous. But that doesn’t make it OK for some women to be openly mean and judgmental if my shoes don’t always match my outfit or if I’ve gained 15 pounds or if my hair isn’t always in place. Sometimes I believe that the concept of “sisterhood” is false when so many women seem to belittle one another and tear one another down.

    Have I disapproved of the way some women carry themselves? Definitely…but I would never make somebody else feel bad because her clothes aren’t my style or whatever. I simply don’t feel the need to express negativity about others, unless I am specifically focusing on the person’s attitude or behavior. What another woman chooses to wear is none of my business.

    When I was in high school, some girls made fun of me because I liked wearing red lipstick. It is fine to have an opinion…but I draw the line at being cruel to another female because she is either too pretty or not pretty enough, too confident or not confident, too sexy, too smart, too shy, etc.

    Sorry if my post is emotional, but this is a subject close to my heart. Women can accomplish so much by being kinder to one another instead of reinforcing sexism. We need to uplift one another.

  • Nancy

    I honestly stay away from groups of women and no longer have any females I’m individually close with. My experience has pretty much always been the same for as long as I can remember. Which is why I can’t relate to them. They’re mean. They sit around gossiping and cutting other people up. This is very harmful to those people. It hurts their confidence, reputations and abilities to fit in smoothly and easily otherwise. I don’t understand why women act this way. Or people in general, men can be mean too. I don’t treat people like that. I know how much it hurts. It has ruined my life, those types of people. For what. Why. I will never know why some people have had a problem with me to the point of needing to be mean and even cruel. So what, you don’t care for someone. Think what you will about those around you but why give them a hard time? Some sort of vengeance. Pecking their way to the top. Wherever that is. I don’t know why anyone would make their way to the top being mean to others. Beats me.

    I also don’t like all the competition between women. It’s boring and I don’t know what the point is. I just seem to have different interests than the average female. That would be fine. But they’re mean.

  • cynthia

    I rarely agree with blanket statements about why people behave the way they do. We’re all different.

    There’s nothing worse than catty behavior. It’s an ugly and despicable character flaw. Very low class.

    Have to wonder why the above image was chosen for this article.

  • geez zam

    I am starting to wonder if it is a generational gap thing. I am in my 40’s and have had friends with bad behavior. We would pick little arguments and laugh if toilet paper is on the high heels but now it seems everyone has some bad blood. I blame the economy because women weren’t this aggressive and hateful on all levels years back. I know alot is hormones but when everyone has to be a big ole to get ahead then just do my 8+ hours and go home. uggh good grief!

  • Carole Heath

    I have worked with catty nasty women in my time. Especially when it is an all female work force. Some of the worst culpits were older women over 45 years old. They picked on the younger members of staff and made their life a misery, i can’t understand such nasty carrying on as i am not like it myself. and i am glad i am not. When i met such catty backstabbers i won’t have anything to do with them and i normally walk away. Why be stressed out by such people if you can help it. They need to get a life to me they have nothing else better to do sad really.

  • Jennifer

    It will never stop unless a common line is formed with respect. Why can’t we be a little compassionate and happier?

    my last job this woman was a constant pain on my mind. Finally after the work ended I just picked up my work and left. It’s not worth the 10.87 per hour of a job. Some people get kids and every thing else. Others pick up the garbage and just have to bite our tounges. I put chapstick on my lips.

    A prayer for you all. Just remember to BE A LITTLE NICER. It doesn’t hurt!