The only way to create a sisterhood is by becoming a good sister to other women
It is tempting to dismiss that old adage about women being each other’s worst enemies as a cliché. It is easy to see it as the kind of sexist claptrap that gets tossed around to give feminism and feminists a bad name. But take a good look around you? Do you really see a supportive sisterhood at work? Or do you see snarkiness, bitchiness, rivalry, and plain old spite? If you are among the lucky ones, you will experience a mix of both. But speaking for myself, I must confess that I see much more of the latter.
Let’s conduct a little experiment this Sunday. Trawl the Internet and list the first ten stories you find that body-shame, slut-shame or fat-shame women. If nine of these ten stories don’t have a woman’s name on the byline, I will eat my own ‘spare tire’.
For some reason, women seem to take particular pleasure in dissing their own sex. She has fat legs. She shows too much cleavage. She is a slut. She has a muffin top. She slept her way to the top. She has too much cellulite. She is a bad mother. She hates kids because she can’t have any of her own. She is old. She is ugly. It’s all dressed up in pretty words, and sometimes with faux concern, but that’s what it all boils down to.
And then, of course, there are the double standards. George Clooney is the most eligible bachelor at 53. Amal Alammudin, that undeserving wretch of a barrister at law, is lucky to have snared him (how on earth did she manage that?). Jennifer Aniston, at 45, is a washed-up old hag who has been reduced to dating B-list stars like Vince Vaughan and Justin Theroux after she was divorced by Brad Pitt. And do you think the poor thing will ever have a baby? (With those shriveled up ovaries? Are you kidding?)
And that’s just the media. But in real life, too, the ones taking the most pleasure in this sort of stuff will be other women. They will be tut-tutting in fake sympathy when a friend gets dumped by her boyfriend (“Poor thing! I never did think he would marry her!). They will be the ones going nudge-nudge, wink-wink when a colleague gets promoted (“Didn’t I tell you she was sleeping with the boss!”) And they are the ones who will make you feel bad about your body (“Wow! Aren’t you brave to wear that!”)
Kelly Valen wrote about this in her book Twisted Sisterhood: Unravelling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships, which created quite a stir when it came out in 2010. Valen conducted a survey among a random sampling of 3020 women from the ages of 15 to 86, and came up with some startling results: 84 per cent of the respondents felt they had “suffered terribly” at the hands of other women while 88 per cent had felt currents of “meanness and negativity emanating from other women”. But what gave me hope was this: 96 per cent of respondents said they wanted “something better for girls and women”.
But that ‘something better’ can only come if we better ourselves. The only way to create a genuine sisterhood is to be true sisters to one another. If you want to be one of that number, then here’s a ready primer of do’s and don’ts for you (feel free to write in with your own!):
• Don’t treat younger women in the workplace as a threat. If you can’t bring yourself to mentor them, fine. Just treat them the same as you would male co-workers. No special favours, but no snide comments either.
• Do try and create safe spaces where women can share their stories, lean on one another for support, and learn from each other’s experiences. This doesn’t have to be a formal forum; in fact, it could even be a virtual chatroom. But it helps immensely to have a platform where you can speak honestly with one another, even if you do so anonymously.
• Don’t be judgmental. What works for you may not necessarily be the best choice for someone else. Everyone’s life plan does not have to look like yours. Some women will choose to work; others will want to devote themselves to their families; and yet others will try and achieve a mix of both. Some will revel in being career women; others will find their purpose in being earth mothers. Every one of these choices is as valid as the other. Try and respect that.
• Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you feel the urge to say something bitchy, imagine it’s being said about you and the urge will pass. (And if it doesn’t, bite your tongue!)
• Don’t try to be ‘one of the boys’ if it involves the objectification of women colleagues at work. It may be tempting to laugh along, but remember it could (and probably will) be you at the receiving end one day – if it hasn’t happened already behind your back.
• And finally, do try and be kind. Pay a compliment. Praise a colleague. Offer practical help where needed. Be supportive with words if you can’t with deeds. Be there. Be a sister.