comforting friends

I graduated this year wearing a satin, yellow, mid-length dress. So did my ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend. The coincidence doesn’t end there, we were graduating at the same ceremony.

I know.

We laughed about it when we bumped into each other, milling around the balcony of Royal Festival Hall and joked at the consistency in his choice of girlfriend’s style. Once we were out of earshot, my sister was quick to assure me that I wore it better and that she looked shit.

Personally, I can’t say I agreed. In fact, it irritated me. I appreciated my sister’s attempt to make sure the whole situation didn’t bother me, but it had been years since we dated. I actually thought my ex’s new girlfriend was really nice. Plus, I evidently couldn’t have made a better outfit choice myself.

“Almost as if on cue, someone exclaimed “Oh, don’t worry about her. You’re way prettier.”

The following Saturday, the girls and I were enjoying one of our favourite pastimes: hosting a mezze and putting the world to rights. Predictably, the conversation turned to the latest boys on the scene. My friend had met someone at a job she had recently started. She knew that there was something between them but, he had a girlfriend. Of course, our in-depth psychoanalysis of the scenario couldn’t commence until we had each carried out a preliminary scroll and nosey around of the necessary Insta feeds and relevant Facebook profiles. (On reflection, I suppose this in-itself is problematic).

Almost as if on cue, someone exclaimed “Oh, don’t worry about her. You’re way prettier”.

“It is in these types of throwaway comments [so often said by women, about women] that engrained, subconscious and outdated attitudes about gender sink their teeth.”

I don’t mean to take the high ground here. I certainly can’t claim that this sentiment has never
slipped from my lips in the past. Yet, in light of the rising tide of feminist activism and with Jameela Jamil’s recent ‘I Weigh’ revolution playing on my mind, it nevertheless seems crucial to unpick the meaning behind these words, so often spoken by women, about women. It is in these types of throwaway comments that engrained, subconscious and outdated attitudes about gender sink their teeth.

The ‘I Weigh’ movement was a knee-jerk reaction to a controversial Kardashian ‘gram which exposed the exact numerical value in KGs of each member of the clan’s weight. Its concept, however, is linked to a much greater crusade to promote body positivism across the board and encourage society to take interest in more than just what women look like. As Jameela Jamil emphasises; “we are worth so much more than our physical appearance”. Now, over 161k follow the Instagram page and Jamil has reported she receives 50-100 ‘I Weigh’ selfies every day. We have rallied around this movement and we have celebrated the values which underpin it.

Yet, the stories I refer to here occurred within the last couple of weeks and, having heard similarly superficial statements in conversations since my teens, I don’t believe they are that unusual. We often blame men and the media for sustaining this patriarchal gaze which we feel equates our value to our appearance, yet these incidents show that women can’t claim complete innocence either. Female efforts to console a friend by putting down the woman who their ‘crush’ is currently dating or who their ex has moved on with, based on her physicality, is not sisterhood. It is indicative of the power of internalised misogyny, exposes our (perhaps unconscious) propensity to compete against other women and entirely disregards the fundamental premise of important feminist movements like ‘I Weigh’.

“When you enliven your friend with the assurance that she is prettier, or thinner, or has nicer hair than another girl, you suggest that she is better because she is more attractive.”

When you enliven your friend with the assurance that she is prettier, or thinner, or has nicer hair than another girl, you suggest that she is better or more desirable because she is more attractive. By implication, the ‘other’ woman is lesser because she is less physically attractive. By all means, resent the ‘other’ woman if you must. Envy is a natural emotion. But, comments about her looks are completely irrelevant to the conversation, if not downright insulting to the friend who you are trying to support.

Think about it.

If this sentiment is usually deployed to relegate the female who has been ‘chosen’ (for want of a better word) by the desired boy or ex-boyfriend, then the pair are together in spite of her looks. Her other qualities (her values, achievements, humour, interests…all of which are undoubtedly more important) have presumably been enough to override her allegedly inferior appearance. Which, in turn suggests that your friends supposedly ‘superior’ appearance was not or is not sufficient compensation for her mediocre personality.

You see, these words completely contradict their original objective.

“If a member or members of a minority agrees with the majority in terms of a negative judgement or prejudice about their minority, then this liberates and legitimises the majority to carry on oppressing.”

Perhaps the sentiments delivered in the aforementioned anecdotes were nothing more than good-intentioned yet poorly articulated efforts to comfort. However, these words nevertheless perpetuate the notion that our value as individuals, as women, is inextricably bound to our physical appearance. How pretty we are. How thin we are. How clear our skin is. How well we dress.

During an episode of the High-Low Podcast, Dolly Alderton explained why this type of internalised sexism, when exhibited by women, can be so dangerous to the wider pursuit of gender equality. “If a member or members of a minority agrees with the majority in terms of a negative judgement or prejudice about their minority, then this liberates and legitimises the majority to carry on oppressing.” As people, and as women who live and breathe the unfair consequences of the androcracy, we should be doing all we can to further the eradication of gender inequality, not legitimising it and consequently hindering positive change.

Whether Becky has ‘good’ hair or ‘bad’ hair, it doesn’t matter.

Words: Rebecca Wade

Illustration: Izzy Ayres