By Melissa Davidson
The other day, I told my sister about a study that said women are called ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ at least 10,000 times a day on Twitter. Even more surprising is that half of those tweets are from other women.
Me: “Why do you think women call each other ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ on the Internet?”
Emily: “Because… They are ‘sluts’ and ‘whores.’”
Her quick-witted response immediately elicited a cackle amongst us akin to Marge Simpson’s jaded older sisters (minus the blue hair and cigs). She was joking, of course, but as we talked about it more my sister told me that coincidentally she was making a concerted effort to curtail cattiness, gossip, and derogatory words aimed at other women.
Our mother never said nasty things about other women. She didn’t swear, and she certainly didn’t call other women bitch, slut or whore. My sister wore homemade clothes my mom sewed and thought of them as “grunge-chic.” It was the early ‘90s after all and her friends thought this was cool. My mom passed onto us a sense of pride in our clothes, so I made the assumption that I’d be safe from any scrutiny when it came to what I wore and even who I was.
Mean Girls and Women
But girls and women have a way of judging each other. And I found out early on that not every woman is going to like the choices I make or be supportive. I also learned that you could be made to feel like a slut without actually being called one.
In 5th grade I was sent home from school by Mrs. Mathers for wearing a store-bought skirt deemed “inappropriate” in length. I had no idea what this meant as I didn’t even have boobs yet. What did I do to deserve this humiliation and sexualization at such a young age? I sat cross-legged a lot, and I still do, so maybe that was it. Still, I felt deep shame and couldn’t understand why this teacher, a woman who was supposed to support me, sent me home.
This is just one of the experiences that led to my internalized misogyny and made me buy into the stereotype that women who have lots of sex (or who look like they do) are unworthy and deserve criticism. The effects of internalized misogyny cause women and girls to shame, doubt and undervalue not just others of the same gender, but themselves as well. Looking down on women for being too feminine or too masculine are both examples of the ways we’ve internalized society’s misogynistic script.
Feminist author Leora Tanenbaum explains that girls and women have always experienced pressure to look cute, but over the years it’s morphed into a necessity to look sexy without coming off as slutty. Many young women believe that their bodies are their primary source of power and identity, which is understandable because that’s what we’ve been told, she explains.
According to Tanenbaum, “slut-bashing” (or slut-shaming) is defined as the repeated and malicious verbal harassment of girls and women for having lots of sex whether it is true or not. She observed that 20 years ago, only a few girls in high school or middle school were singled out and labeled. Today, she has “yet to meet any female under the age of 25 who has not been labeled a slut or one of its synonyms.”
Honestly, I expect men like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump to say shitty things about women, because that’s what they do as misogynists. Remember when Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ for testifying before Congress about pricey contraception and the need for free birth control? Or when Trump made a disparaging remark about Carly Fiorina by saying, “look at that face.”
What’s more disturbing to me is seeing young women on Twitter tear apart another young woman, even if they aren’t calling someone a slut or ho. For example, I’ve read numerous tweets from young women calling actress Amber Heard a “gold-digging liar” after she alleged Johnny Depp was abusing her. Domestic violence is a bigger problem than people care to admit and is the most common cause of injury for women ages 18 to 44. Collective shaming like this adds to the stigma that prevents victims from seeking help.
Social Comparison Theory
Back in the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the social comparison theory that posits that people have an innate drive to compare themselves to others as a way of defining themselves. The theory explains how individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by how they stack up against others as a way to reduce uncertainty about their own success, intelligence, wealth and physical appearance.
Festinger further explained the types of comparisons different kinds of people make. Happy people tend to engage in “upward” comparison and assume they are better than or equal to the “best”. When a person is unhappy, they use “downward” comparison to gauge themselves against someone who is perceived as worse than them. While social comparison may seem like a dusty, old theory, its impact on self-worth is certainly alive and well in the age of social media. Long-term, daily social media use is associated with lower self-esteem which is mediated by exposure to upward social comparisons.
Living in a social media culture of constant comparison, we are now comparing ourselves to perfect portrayals of faces and bodies that have gone through a million Instagram filters. Let’s face it: we’ve been socialized to judge other women constantly and are jealous of other women for a variety of reasons. Have you ever found yourself looking disdainfully at another woman who walks in a room because her brilliant presence turns all eyes on her? I have. Have you thought of a friend as sleazy for sleeping with a guy on a first date? I have.
When it comes to negative attitudes about ‘certain types’ of women, a 2013 study involving college-aged women showed that women reject promiscuous female peers as friends. Female college students were less likely to be friends with another female who was seen as promiscuous because they view those women as competition when it comes to getting the attention of men.
The need to compete also extends into other studies where it’s been shown that women tend to be more sensitive to social exclusion. Women tend to gravitate toward one-on-one relationships because according to the theory then they don’t have to worry about a third party coming in and stealing their best friend or mate. Female chimpanzees have shown similar behavior. This leads to the question is it actually external socialization, internalized misogyny, or both that have taught women that they can’t trust other women?
Another 2013 study in the Journal of Adolescence indicates that high school students are susceptible to bullying when they base their self-worth on the perception of others instead of leaning on their own intrinsic sense of self-worth. When identity and self-worth are too closely tied to the opinions of others, the fear of rejection by social groups is unavoidable.
As a teenager, I tied my sense of self-worth to what others thought of me. I was certainly susceptible to bullying, too. Even as an adult I’ve been vulnerable to mean girls because I place too much value on what they think of me. I have been bullied by another woman – once by a friend – who wrongly thought I was trying to steal another woman’s husband and then her own. She even got other women to shun me. We have to start taking a deep look at why we reject other women, why we slut-shame, and why we ostracize and bully each other.
I learned at a young age what it’s like to be shamed by another woman. I did not understand – and still don’t – why I had to change what I thought had simply been a “cute” skirt in 5th grade. My mom wouldn’t let her 11-year-old girl out of the house in something sexually inappropriate. Perhaps she unconsciously placed too much emphasis on fashion to see that my skirt was problematic. Or perhaps my teacher’s own internalized misogyny made her see a problem where there was none. A core belief of feminism that I subscribe to is that if a woman likes clothes and feels good about what she’s wearing, so be it.
We should accept other women who are different from us and question our judgment and lack of trust of each other. From politics to our personal lives, it’s clear that comparing ourselves to each other and slut shaming is on the rise in our culture. So, like my sister, let’s try to support each other and stop the scrutiny and criticism.