"I've always had a really hard time getting along with other girls. Girls are so mean!"
I'm sitting in the lobby of my daughter's gymnastics gym with a group of other mothers when I hear the words float out of the mouth of the woman seated in front of me. Like it does every time I hear this all-too-common phrase, I feel my guard go up. I'm especially disturbed when I realize that she's the mother of one of the girls in my daughter's class.
Because, truly, I think this phrase is one of the worst things women can ever say around little girls.
Sometimes the words sound different. Sometimes it's the mother of another strong-willed girl laughing to me that, "our girls will probably never get along!" Because how could two confident, boss-like women share any space, let alone friendship?
Sometimes it's a well-meaning woman comforting her crying daughter at the park, whispering into her ear that, "it's all right―girls are just mean, it's not your fault!" At its most innocuous, it might sound like, "I've never had a lot of female friends." At its worst, it comes out, "Girls are awful."
But at the end of the day, the message is clear: Women are not to be trusted. And its subtext, almost as clear: You are not to be trusted.
I have three distinct reactions when I hear a woman say those words. First, my hackles immediately rise. No, not in some misogynistic "cat fight" scenario―it's a reaction of self-preservation. This woman has told me she is not my friend in no uncertain terms. She has told me she doesn't trust me, so it becomes incredibly hard to trust her.
Second, I have to work extremely hard to restrain an eye roll. Because really? You can't be friends with more than half of the population of humankind? That seems unlikely, if not a reason for some self-reflection.
Third, I feel a deep sense of sadness for this woman. For all the friendships she will never have because of this decided stance on her own kind. For the nights of shoulder crying she will never experience with someone who can truly and deeply understand and see her. For the belly laughs and celebratory shrieks she will never share with her best girlfriend. For the shared commiseration over everything from menstruation to motherhood that only comes with a female friend.
I am flooded with my own memories of being built up, encouraged and refined―all by my female friends―and I'm sad that she has already decided to forever keep these moments at an arm's length.
I can't decide if women who say this think it's impressive to have lots of male friends. There's a strange irony in this sense of pride, though. Because, if I'm being totally honest, I've never heard a truly, sincerely confident woman say those words.
And I have a theory why: Women who can't get along with other women―who don't like other women―can't really like themselves because they were the first woman they ever met. You can't be a woman who dislikes women and like yourself.
I'm sure there is someone (maybe several someones) who just read that line and felt their own hackles rise. And I don't mean to insult that person.
It's just that this thought―this idea that women can't possibly be amazing in their own right and coexist and collaborate with other amazing women―has been foisted upon women for centuries. We've been told to compete, told there isn't enough to go around, and told that we are the enemy.
And if you could just stop believing that―stop believing that femaleness is the problem―you could let go of that fear. From the fear that every other woman is out to get you just because, deep down, you are competing with every woman you see―so they must feel the same.
The problem is compounded when I hear those words come out of the mouth of another girl mom. Because, at that moment, it's like I'm watching a germ get passed to the next generation.
I picture her daughter internalizing these words for the rest of her life. I picture her spending her youth shying away from other women―perpetually peeking from her peripherals for signs of betrayal and attack from her female peers.
I picture her hitting puberty, that tumultuous time when an empathizing ally is all but crucial to surviving, but instead finds herself on an island. Not friendless, probably, but emotionally isolated and increasingly paranoid as nearly everything around her, from her developing body to her first romances, occurs under a thick veil of competition instead of empowerment and support.
I picture her keeping all those wonderful memories I cherish at an arm's length too.
Even worse, I see her growing up mean. Hating other women with the same vitriol these words imply. Seeing women as snake-like, catty, conniving, backstabbing, gossipy monsters. And, in time, seeing herself the same way. Because you can't be a woman who dislikes women and like yourself.
That's what I want to say to these women, these mothers of daughters who have already renounced their own kind―you are telling your daughter that she is these things. You are telling her she is mean and exclusive and unkind. And the way we talk to and around our children often becomes their inner voice―our children often become what we repeatedly tell them they are.
I am not naive. I've had women be unkind to me. I've been unkind to other women. I know girls and women can be mean. They can be cruel, conniving, backstabbing and gossipy. But I also know that women don't have a monopoly on any of those things. And I don't have to look any farther than the woman next to me to find someone who was also treated unkindly by a male friend.
At times in my life, I've had more male friends than female friends. But I've also had (and have currently) more female friends than male friends. Because I never shut the door. I never decided one way was better than the other―or punished either group as a whole due to one or a handful of bad experiences.
Currently, I'm privileged to work at a company that is 99% female, female-founded and female-led, and it is the single most rewarding career experience of my life. Every single woman I work with is smart, incredible at her job, and also incredibly kind and collaborative.
Currently, I'm the mother of two girls of my own. And I can't imagine surviving in motherhood, let alone thriving, without the supportive village of women friends I've built up around me.
Mamas who get it. Mamas who help me laugh through teething and tantrums, soothe my anxieties about milestones and discipline and celebrate the first steps and first full nights of sleep right along with me. When fellow mothers tell me they have a hard time making female friends, I'm doubly sad for them at the thought of walking this road without a fellow mama at their side.
So, how can we help the problem instead of continuing to spread this anti-female germ?
We can show our daughters another way. We can recognize that breaking the cycle of mean girls begins with throwing out mean girl rhetoric―including the kind we've written for ourselves.
We can stop generalizing our entire sex in a negative light―and show our daughters that they can be the kind women we wish we had encountered every time we made a new female friend. Teach them to look for kindness in other women, instead of focusing on any perceived negativity.
And, most importantly, we can stop saying we have a hard time being friends with other women. We can find and make and work on female friendships. Not everyone is going to be the Laverne to our Shirley. Maybe we won't be willing to drive the proverbial convertible off the proverbial cliff for every woman we meet. But that's okay. The point is, we're keeping the door open.
Because you never know what kind, amazing woman is going to come walking through it to be the friend you never knew you needed.
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