The Sexist

Sexist Beatdown: The Self-Loathing Spiral of Girlhood Edition

This one's for the tweens. Say you're a typical seventh-grade girl. And so, as is typical for a girl your age, a good deal of your existence is devoted to self-loathing. You hate everything about yourself—your skin, your weight, your clothes, your hair, the way you eat, the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you look in a swimsuit, the way you look in shorts, the way you look in pants, the way you look to boys, the way you look to other girls.

Perhaps you are wondering when this hell on Earth is going to end? When you're going to gain a little bit of confidence in yourself? When you'll be able to do things humans do—eat, walk, talk, dress, swim—without hating yourself for it? Eight grade, maybe? Ho ho, not so fast, girl who doesn't want to hate herself anymore! As Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and I discover in this edition of Sexist Beatdown, insecurity is all part of the social hierarchy of girl culture. Sure, a little bit of confidence might help you live a full, human life—but it just might make all the other girls in school hate you.

Sady has already laid the groundwork on this pervasive negativity of girlhood, in which  a social order is built upon this delicate balance between feeling like shit and making other girls feel like shit, too. Fast fact: according to Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, the no. 1 way to put yourself on the fast track to social hell is to be a confident girl. In order to avoid appearing too confident—while keeping other girls self-loathing as well!—passive-aggressive social strategies develop. Sady points to two particularly odious rituals of girl culture:

a. The Complinsult. Sady on the "complinsult":

Here’s one of the best I have ever received, which I keep close to my heart: “Your outfit is amazing! I think it’s so great that you can wear that out in public. I’d never have the nerve.” The words are saying “I suck and you are awesome,” and yet? That is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what it means.

b. The Fat Talk. Sady on the "Fat Talk":

For years, I thought this was some grody stereotype that you only found in male stand-up comedians’ routines about how women are awful. But then I met women who actually did it: the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady.

Any social order which denies girls the most delicious nachos of all simply cannot stand. So: How do we get out of this mess?

AMANDA: Before we begin this conversation, I should inform you that I am fat, and also that I think it's so great that you're the type of girl who could post a long, introspective essay on self-esteem and female relationships, because I would never have had the nerve to say such a thing in public.

SADY: I think it's really brave of you to admit that in public, Amanda, considering the sort of backlash you are likely to get from people who think it is stupid! Although I, myself, have a hard time concentrating on what you are saying, because mostly I am thinking about how ugly I am at the moment. Have we done the rounds yet? Do we need more backhanding?

AMANDA: I think we're fine for now. Until you start to get too confident! Then, I will commence with the outright shaming.

SADY: HA. This is something I have been thinking a lot about, the shaming! And it had two causes: one, the Clay Shirky piece I read [Quick plot overview: Dude thinks women just need to act more confident, and all the problems of women will be solved. -Ed.] and then used as a platform for my particular dive off the Deep End. And, two, the fact that I Googled myself.

AMANDA: Oh continue!

SADY: And the first thing I thought, after commencing the Googling, was—not that there weren't nice things and bad things and one bad thing from a guy who wrote a bad thing about me before and then had to list it in his top-trafficked blog posts of the year, I think because I read it 9,000 times—the FACT THAT I HAD A GOOGLE PRESENCE sent me into this weird shame spiral. I was like, "Oh, no! For every person that knows about me, there is ONE MORE CHANCE for someone to HATE MY ASS SEVERELY!" And this led a very strange series of reflections. Which I will not dominate the discussion with, because they are boring.

AMANDA: I'll reflect on something: I feel like for much of my adolescence, I was both repulsed by and unable to ignore the self-shaming hallmarks of female bonding. I hated myself, for sure, most furiously during the 7th-8th grade years, but I was also extremely uncomfortable with other girls expressing their own imaginary failures—the "I'm too fats" or the "I'm too uglies" or the "I'm too dumbs." I think I did realize at the time that this was an odd form of bonding that had to be engaged with in order to prove your friendship to the other person—"you're not fat! you're not ugly!"—but I never felt comfortable engaging in those kinds of proclamations.

SADY: Right. And I think this is something that I actually ran up against when I started to engage with other feminists: like, people would point out that I apologized for something trivial ninety thousand times over the course of the discussion, or couldn't have a conversation without being like, "By the way, have I pointed out that my outfit is horrible?" But it was very hard to get over, even though I could notice it when other women did it and provide support for them in that respect. And I think that it's interesting, in that those things can become social currency among girls—you have to apologize for taking up whatever space you take up—and is pretty clearly part of the Patriarchy deal which is that women aren't supposed to take up space. But it gathers a new level of nuance. Like, somehow, we're so caught up in this that it exists even when no dudes are present in the room, and we self-lacerate and lacerate each other to the same degree.

AMANDA: I agree, and now thinking back on it, I think part of me, as a kid, just wanted my friends to deal with all that horrible shit silently. I didn't want to talk about that stuff, so when my friend in the 8th grade who was stick-thin repeatedly complained about how fat she was, I got annoyed at her, instead of understanding what a fucked-up situation she was in and talking about THAT. I didn't have that kind of awareness then however, and I wonder where those kinds of conversations would have situated me in the female social group I was in.

SADY: Right. Like, allow me to present you with two ways I have handled this conversation in the past: "What are you talking about?! YOU WEIGH LESS THAN I DO." Which amounts to, basically: shut up, your body insecurities are not worth my time. Or: "What are you talking about?! THAT IS SO SELF-LOATHING." Which, while engaged in with a slightly purer intent, still translated to: shut up, your bodily insecurities are not worth my time. Like, instead of engaging women on their insecurities, I would try to shut them down. Which is clearly super feminist, right?

AMANDA: Right? I think the way that I handled those situations was to, again, put it in the perspective of this hierarchy where a) someone skinnier than me was saying she was fat, which b) implied that i was fat, which c) made me lash out at this person in some way. It's certainly interesting to see how boys in our culture at least have defined their social hierarchies by boasting, while girls have done it by passive-aggressively cutting themselves down in order to lift themselves up in another way.

SADY: Right. And I think that this is where "Odd Girl Out," the book I have been reading that I think everyone should read, and also the "Trashing" essay from forever ago [Quick plot overview: This shit that little girls do? Grown feminist women do it, too. -Ed.] comes into play. Because, the thing is, we are dealing with this excessively complex hierarchy wherein (A) Women aren't supposed to value themselves over and above the people around them, (B) Women, to demonstrate how not-selfish they are, are supposed to be nice all the time, and (C) Women find it easier to lash out at OTHER WOMEN for violating these tenets than to examine the fucked-up rules in the first place, but (D) You still have to win the Nicest Person in America trophy, so you can never express the lashing-out in a direct way. It has to look like something else.

AMANDA: The trick for me has always been staying out of that horrific, horrific structure without shunning other women.

SADY: Yeah, exactly. Like, shaming women for DOING this isn't exactly breaking away from the overall structure of women-shaming, you know?

AMANDA: that's one of the main complaints about the Rant About Women, which that it explicitly tells women that the way out of this trap is just to act like dudes. When the point is that we don't get to choose, actually. The pull-yourself-out-of-your-gender-by-your-own-bootstraps argument doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

SADY: Right. And I think we can agree that this is perhaps overly simplistic.

AMANDA: this is where we come up with a better solution. :-/

SADY: HA! Um, carousel rides for everyone? Overthrow the capitalist system? For me, I guess I'm situated at a weird place with this argument, which is the place I always wind up in with structure/agency arguments. Which is: YOU, by yourself, cannot singlehandedly escape the system. Your bootstraps are NOT THAT POWERFUL. However, you cannot say that there is no way to RESIST the system, in your own personal life. Like, even if I acknowledge that registering www.sadydoyleisthebestever.com will have more negative consequences than positive ones, being freaked out and self-sabotaging and constantly downplaying everything are ALSO not likely to have the most positive consequences. Does that make sense? Am I point-missing, here?

AMANDA: That makes sense to me. But I mean, I also haven't had significant issues with the typically feminine self-esteem stuff since I left high school, so maybe I'm one of the lucky ones. [OK, actually, in retrospect, this is totally not true! I think what has actually happened is that I have become so accustomed to the casual and absurd self-loathing that women experience (i.e. "I'm fat") that I don't even recognize it anymore, I just consider it a constant fixture of my life. Fuck! -Ed.]

SADY: I am building an escape pod from this whole deal where I basically surround myself with ladies who tell each other how great they are all the time, and are cool about ladies! That's what I'm doing. JOIN THE LADIES ARE GREAT PARTY, EVERYONE. That's my shitty little personal solution that doesn't fix everything! YAY LADIES WOOOOO.

AMANDA: Maybe we can all pitch in for a cruise ship or something.

SADY: HA! If there are any super-rich ladies, maybe they can help us build Self-Esteem Island. That seems like a solution! Yes, I think we've just fixed it. ALL BY OURSELVES. RIGHT HERE. YOU SAW IT HAPPEN.

AMANDA: well great! I'm going to have a nap then.

SADY: Okay! I'm eating a cheeseburger. Like, THREE of them. RIGHT NOW.

AMANDA: Oh shit I forgot. I REALLY want those nachos you spoke of.

SADY: Extra guacamole is a feminist act, dude. Enjoy!

Photo by bugeaters, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • alex

    you make me really want nachos, sad that i know of no nacho delivery service, then depressed about that state of society.
    but great article! i think about this a lot. and want a solution! let me know when you find it.

  • Julia

    Wait no! I need more practical tips on how to handle fat talk! It is absolutely RAMPANT among my friends, and I have no idea how to handle it in a constructive and healthy way. It doesn’t help matters that I’m thin, and so any objections I raise are usually met with “well you wouldn’t understand, anyway.” Actually, when I was younger that used to cut me deeply, because it felt like I was being ostracized for being thin, and I SO BADLY wanted to participate in fat talk with a level of authority. I don’t even want to think about how messed up that is… I was supposed to want to be thin, but then everyone [female] HATED me for being thin, so then I hated me for being thin, even though I supposedly possessed something praise-worthy. Which was/is confusing, to say the least.

    Anyway! Point being, does anyone have ideas/stories about how they have successfully navigated the fat talk mine field? I for one freeze in fear every time the subject comes up. (Because even more than a decade later, it still signifies being left out, in my mind). How do I effectively communicate concern about body image issues without coming across as condescending or dismissive? I love my friends, I think they’re all beautiful, and I love that we don’t all look the same! Why does self-esteem have to be some sort of messed up self-sacrificial zero sum game?

  • Em

    Julia, a friend and I successfully navigated this by just being honest. We were up late drinking one night and I honestly said what I thought for years, that I was really jealous of her 5'11, 120-pound frame. She laughed and said she had always been jealous of my curves! From then on out we've always discussed our INSECURITIES, not our supposedly awful, ugly bodies, knowing that we're being ridiculous.

    Of course, I only have this sort of candidness with one friend, so I don't know if that's a really group-wide solution. But for the girls you are really close to, I think it helps to think of the real reasons you engage in this kind of "fat contest" and then to be honest about it. It usually comes down to jealousy--I've had to explain to my boyfriend, men look at women to check them out, women look at women to compare. Constantly and exhuastively. If we talk about this pissing contest and we're all aware of it, sometimes we can transcend above it.

    Of course, this assumes the maturity of all parties. Ha.

  • b-bop

    I have a friend who is extremely gorgeous and always turns heads wherever she goes....she thinks her teeth are a major embarrassment because they're "too pointy" and is sensitive about her age for some reason...

    I have known girls who were size 0 and model height claim to be fat...

    Affects everyone I suppose.

  • Frankie

    I have an awesome group of close female friends. I don't think a single one of us is the same height, weight or shape and yet we've all engaged in this weird 'fat talk' thing, where by one of us gets to feel guilty for being the skinniest/lightest/curviest/tallest/shortest or whatever is deemed the most awesome trait of that five minutes whilst everyone else feels terrible for not winning the contest to be most beautiful right that second.

    It's ridiculous because there is no way that my gorgeous six foot tall friend should weigh the same as I do, or that my girlfriend should be both proud of and embarressed by her breasts because they are somehow both something to be envied and ashamed of at one and the same time. We all know this but still engage in this behaviour. So we've been trying something new, something my therapist suggested when I was being treated for Anorexia.

    When any one of us says 'I feel fat/ugly/whatever' we do our best to make the time to sit down and talk about what is making us feel bad. It's not ideal but it seems to be working, enough so that I'm more likely to get a call from a friend now saying she feels low and could do with a chat than I am to be asked to reassure her that she's not hideous.

    One thing we seem to have noticed is that nine times out of ten, something which is unrelated to looks is going on but our self esteem is so tied up in how we see our bodies that we translate feeling bad about anything into feeling bad about how we look. So for example, if I forget to do something important aswell as feeling terrible about forgetting I ALSO feel fat or ugly, even though there is no way the two have anything to do with each other. What's more, I will feel so bad about feeling fat that I am more likely to mention that as the reason I am upset. I did used to think this was just because I had an eating disorder, but it turns out that the same is true to a greater or lesser degree for all my close female friends.

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