When I was growing up, I saw that, if you were female, criticising other women's appearances was a big part of your daily life. My mum would regularly change TV channels just to see what the female TV presenter or weather forecaster was wearing on a particular programme, ITV's This Morning would be watched with a commentary on how Judy Finnegan needed to get her eyes/face done and lose some weight, and Wimbledon season every year entailed a critique of Sue Barker's face/hair/outfit. I'd sit there thinking "Maybe she does look a bit crap, but who cares?" and wondering why the men presenting opposite these women were never singled out for a scathing attack on their appearances. Why was it OK for the men who were visible in the media to be wrinkled, grey-haired, fat, scruffy and never wearing anything more imaginative than a grey suit, yet the women were subject so such scrutiny?
Still, it's hard to shake off such conditioning, especially in a society that pits women against each other so viciously. We are allowed to compliment each other's appearances, but only if we criticise our own. "Oh, your hair looks lovely - I wish mine was like that," is the template for how we, as women, are supposed to address aspects of our appearance. We can't accept a compliment - if someone tells us we look great, we're supposed to reject it and disagree - "What, this old thing? God no..." and highlight something else about our bodies we don't like. And because we're taught to view all other women as competition, we must snark and bitch about and criticise the appearance of any woman we find threatening. Those are the rules of Girl World that Cady discovers in the fantastic film Mean Girls, where she watches Regina George tell a girl her skirt is "adorable" to her face and then turn around and say "That is the ugliest effing skirt I have ever seen" behind her back.
I thought I'd largely got past the compulsion to criticise other women's appearances and outfit choices. I know I'm not entirely there yet - there are still parts of me that apply an appearance hierarchy in my head whenever I feel threatened by another woman (usually, sadly, because I assume someone I want to be attracted to me is more attracted to her) frantically conducting mental maths to see who 'wins' - "Well, she's got bigger boobs, so I lose on that score, but she's bigger all over than me, so I win on that score, and I have a nicer bum, so I win on that one, but she has nicer hair, so I lose on that one..." It's sad and shitty and petty and one feels like an utterly foul human being for even admitting it, but there are no Feminist Awards and even if there were, I wouldn't want to win one by lying about my tendency to still instinctively compete with other women. I recognise it, I know it's not a good thing, and I'm trying to change it, but I have to be honest and admit I still do it.
Still, it pulled me up sharp the other day when I started snarking about what another woman was wearing, and the person I snarked to refused to join in. The item in question was an extremely high pair of spiked platform heels, and were being worn to perform a role that involved a lot of moving around. They struck me as deeply impractical, they hurt my feet to even look at them, and I wondered why the woman didn't just go for comfort and wear flats. When I voiced this to a friend, she didn't join in the snarking. She said she didn't have a problem with heels, and tactfully guided the conversation in another direction. In the nicest way possible, it made me realise exactly how unnecessary my comments and thoughts were. Was I focusing on any of the men in the room, and criticising their outfit choices? Nope. I was honing in on this woman, solely because she was a woman and because we see women's appearances as public property and up for scrutiny. I was tying her up in the impossible double bind of being expected to dress for other people's approval, and then condemned for doing so. Heels are sexy when society wants them to be, but when society wants to have a pop at women, then they're just stupid and impractical and vain and ha ha look at those dumb bitches tottering along how airheaded must you have to be to want to squeeze your feet into those ridiculous contraptions.
Perhaps karma came around quickly, because later that same day I found myself changing from a pair of hotpants into a pair of knee-length shorts, precisely because a group of us were going to a pub known for having sleazy old men hanging around who like to bother groups of young women. I'd seen such men approaching my friends on other occasions, seeming to believe that any group of young women could only be attending the pub for their entertainment, and I just didn't feel like having my mellow harshed by having to have an unpleasant confrontation with a drunk man who saw me as fair game simply because I was wearing short shorts. It made me incredibly angry that I had to resort to changing my outfit just to avoid this, but I just didn't have the mental energy to deal with it. To any man who wonders why women "don't just tell them to fuck off" whenever we're harassed, the answer is pretty simple - if we did this every time we're bothered by a man who thinks we owe him our time/conversation/smiles/body, we'd never get anything else done. And amazingly, we don't all relish the prospect of being forever involved in arguments with hostile sexists who are only going to call you an uptight bitch for confronting them in the first place. It's exhausting, and we'd like to have lives that involved some fun and relaxation, please, if that's not too damn much to ask.
But me changing my shorts and snarking over the woman in heels are linked. They're both a result of a society that makes everything women do about their appearances, and then punishes them for it. Get harassed? Your fault for showing your thighs. Get bitched about by other women? Your fault for wearing those heels. Dare to look casual, even scruffy? You'll be condemned for not making enough effort.
We all should know by now that we can't win, and therefore we need to stop playing the game altogether. Not the one of looking however we wish, because that's a right we should certainly never stop fighting for. But we need to stop thinking that hissing OMG what is she wearing is somehow a chummy act of female bonding, and instead recognise it as collusion with sexism. It's hard to break that conditioning - only last night my mum was criticising the hair of a woman on a property show on TV, and asking me if I agreed. So I can certainly see where I've picked up the habit, but I know that's no excuse. If I want to be free to look however the fuck I want - and I certainly do - then I have to respect other women's choices about their appearances as much as I respect my own. Otherwise I really am no better than a Mean Girl.