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“You Bitch!” The Science Behind Female Bullying

“You Bitch!” The Science Behind Female Bullying

Research says the instinct to gossip about and feel threatened by other women is basic biology. 

Recently, a friend randomly called me up in the middle of the workday to offer some well-meaning “advice” that left me in tears – after hanging up on her in a huff.

Utterly taken off guard and devastated, as soon as I recovered my composure, I proceeded to tell my roommate, my boyfriend, my therapist, and several other friends what had happened, in tones of righteous indignation. “You’ll never believe what she said,” and “Can you imagine?” and “The nerve!” I said, relishing the telling of the story more each time.

I’m 42 years old. Shouldn’t this mean girl BS have ended in junior high school?

Apparently not. In my old apartment building, I was friends with two women in their seventies, who’d both lived in the building for decades. I joked that they were the mayors of the building: they knew everyone, and everyone knew them. But they hated each other, and neither one ever passed up an opportunity to complain about the other to me.

“Did you see her talking to the UPS man this afternoon? That old bag never shuts up. Who is she kidding? He doesn’t want anything to do with her! I should have kicked her dumb ass. She knows I will, too!” I tried not to laugh, realizing this old lady was dead serious. Many times, I watched them pass by each other without saying a word, exchanging icy glares. Later, I knew one or the other of them would come by to unload, telling me old stories of husband-stealing and other unforgivable offenses.

Mean girls

Canadian psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt traces mean girl behavior back to prehistoric times, when women had to compete with each other “to find suitable males with whom to reproduce.” This leads me to wonder whether Vaillancourt is familiar with modern-day New York City, where her words pretty much describe the dating scene I’ve experienced. In any case, she says that bitchy behavior is hard-wired into the female brain.

In her study, Vaillancourt secretly taped 86 women who were paired up told they were participating in a study on female friendship. While they were waiting for the “study” to begin, an assistant came into the room. Half the time, the assistant was dressed in a T-shirts and jeans, with her hair tied back. The other half of the time, she let her hair down and dressed in a low-cut blouse, short skirt, and high-heeled boots.

The results? When the assistant was dressed plainly, the waiting research subjects barely acknowledged her and had nothing to say after she left the room. When she was dressed provocatively, the subjects stared at her, appeared angry, rolled their eyes, nudged their companion, and became hostile. After she left, they made rude comments and wondered aloud whether she was looking to sleep with a professor. Let me say again – these research subjects were all women.

Proving a point

In a perfect bit of irony, Vaillancourt has received a cascade of vicious criticism after publishing her theory that women are born to be bitchy to each other, nearly exclusively from women. “I get comments like ‘You must be a man’ and ‘You’re probably really ugly’,” she told The Times. “I get ‘You’re a bitch’ a lot…In debasing my study and debasing me, these women are using precisely the aggression tactics I discovered in my research.”

None of this will come as any surprise to anyone with a vagina. Yes, I love my girlfriends, my sisters, and my daughters. But women can be absolutely ruthless, and we all know it.

When Hillary Clinton ran for President of the United States, much of the misogyny that was so cruelly aimed at her came from other women, (although plenty came from men, too). And Clinton herself, much as I love her, has certainly thrown out several nasty barbed comments directed at women. Remember her smug contribution to the “mommy wars” between stay-home parents and work-outside-the-home parents? “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” Ouch. Then there was the time she dismissed accusations against her husband from women he’s had affairs with as “bimbo eruptions.”

Don’t be such a bitch

So, if we’re genetically programmed to gossip, slut-shame, and metaphorically stab each other in the backs, how come so many of us are actually able to have longstanding, wonderful friendships with other women? Maybe it’s something to do with getting older – after all, once we’re past menopause and no longer competing for mates, what’s the point of being nasty to each other? But those old ladies in my building were certainly long past their childbearing years, and it didn’t seem to be stopping them. Likewise, the friend who called me already has children, as do I.

Author Rosalind Wiseman, whose bestselling book Queen Bees And Wannabees sparked the movie Mean Girls, says that “some women do grow out of being mean,” but usually only after they’ve learned the hard way, through losing a good friend or ruining an intimate relationship with their bitchy behavior. “Women who don’t grow out of it, in my opinion, don’t do so for two reasons: fear of losing control, and not having the emotional maturity and support to self-reflect,” she says.

One way to stop bitchiness in its tracks is to simply be more mindful – or self-reflective, as Wiseman suggests. How does it feel when you say something unkind about another woman? While it might provide a temporary rush or release, chances are, it doesn’t feel so great later on. Another thing to ask yourself is why something another woman does bothers you. Do you feel threatened when another woman dresses provocatively, is flirtatious, or otherwise acts in a way you find irritating?

Let’s face it, ladies: if we’re going to run the world, we’ve got some work to do.

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Join the discussion: Do you find yourself having mean-spirited thought about other women? Why do you think this happens?

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