Before I’d had a chance to ask a single question of Lara, a 28-year-old Virginian I was interviewing about her attitudes toward beauty, she let me know what we wouldn’t be talking about. “I’m probably not like other women you’re talking to,” she said. “Beauty isn’t about rivalry for me.” I was conducting interviews for a book about how appearance shapes women’s lives—our romances, our language, the way we take in media—and this interview in particular was about how beauty affected female friendships.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this sentiment from Lara; in our earlier emails, she’d made a point of mentioning that she was a feminist, a group of people hardly known for sending poison apples to women just because of their great hair. But I was a little surprised when it happened again with my next interview: “I might be different from other women you’re interviewing—I don’t see beauty as a competition,” said the 36-year-old homemaker I was talking with. And then again, with a woman who lived in a commune. She pointed out that most of the women she lived with were of her mind-set, refusing to use beauty as a tool of competition—unlike the “other women” she fingered, who didn’t have the benefit of communal living.
So we’ve got some good news here: By and large, women aren’t treating beauty as a competitive arena, flying in the face of reality TV stereotypes about how women secretly (or not-secretly) hate each other and are eager to tear down the prettiest girl in the room. The trouble is that we still assume “other women” are doing exactly that. And until we stop thinking of ourselves as outliers for not participating in beauty rivalry, we subtly perpetuate the cattiness myth, building up an imagined barrier separating us from “other women.”
The cattiness myth has existed for centuries, whether we’re talking about Aphrodite ordering her son to put a spell on the gorgeous Psyche so men would stop being so enamoured with her, or the slew of European fairy tales that tether women’s rivalry to their looks. (Disney may have distorted many an original tale, but this sort of competition shows up in the old-school stories too.) It’s not hard to see why it comes in handy for supporting traditional power structures: Divide-and-conquer is a classic strategy that’s served the patriarchy well. What better way to divide than to tease out envy—a perfectly normal human attribute—and pin it to beauty, which women have long been told is a measure of their worth?
It’s a little more difficult to look at why the myth has stuck around: We know it’s not entirely a myth. Nearly all the women who claimed not to treat beauty as a jousting match also acknowledged that they had done so when they were younger, meaning in high school and perhaps their early twenties. They’d grown out of it, that’s all. But so much of the experience of beauty rivalry is internal, meaning that we’re never quite sure whether other women’s experiences match our own. If you’ve ever felt the sting of beauty competition yourself—and most of us have at some point—why wouldn’t we assume other women’s competitive streak is alive and well? We keep the myth alive by assuming other women haven’t had the same subtle transformation we ourselves have undergone. But they—we—have.
The ability to share our stories is thriving. Fifteen years ago, the term “impostor syndrome” was rarely spoken outside of academia or high-level executive circles; today, women of all ages and occupations are fluent enough in the term to not only use it but dismantle it. Beauty, though, has always suffered from a lack of truly candid discourse. We talk about how to achieve it—and, more thoughtfully, about how the beauty imperative has made us suffer. But we’re still not allowed to openly claim it as our own, lest we commit the cardinal sin of seeming arrogant. This compounds the cattiness myth: We’ve long had cultural permission to put down other women’s looks. We still don’t have full permission to admit when we like our own just fine. Couple that with female competition—another topic that’s loaded for women, particularly feminists who have an investment in sisterhood—and it’s easy to see where our wires get crossed enough to the point where we believe it’s “other women” who are catty...just not ourselves.
We’re making some slow progress on this front. A generation ago, women were being sold shampoo with “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful—you can be beautiful too.” Today, the last three cultural references I saw to the idea that women hate beautiful women each brought up the concept in order to demolish it by immediately saying that the woman in question was just too darn likable to hate. “She’s the hot girl you want to hate for being so hot, but ultimately can’t in the slightest because she’s so nice,” writes Amy Odell of Adriana Lima in her hilarious Tales From the Back Row. Rivalry is still the base assumption here, but each small narrative that counteracts that assumption adds heft to the true story about women and beauty: that we’re far likelier to use beauty to connect with one another than to compete.
Competition and rivalry around beauty do exist—I’ve felt that twitch myself, the desire to “show up” someone I dislike by looking ravishing, or to simply look my best when I’m meeting with a group of formidable women in order to feel like I’m keeping up with them. And some scholarly studies support aspects of competitive beauty. Women are likelier to use indirect aggression toward conventionally beautiful women, for example. In looking at those studies, though, they’re more often performed in collegiate settings—meaning that their subjects are young women who might not yet have grown out of adolescent rivalry. We don’t need to pretend that beauty contests don’t exist, but our responsibility as feminists doesn’t stop with simply dismantling that rivalry when we see it pop up. Our responsibility includes questioning the assumption that competitive beauty is women’s default, and that means questioning that assumption when we spot it in ourselves. If we’re all walking around thinking it’s “other women” who are keeping beauty cattiness alive, we are keeping it alive. Which means we can smother it too.
“Sometimes women do like women,” Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own. She was partly writing of coding same-sex romance into one’s work, but also of the rarity of female friendship in the male canon—and of how beauty is used as a lever to excuse that rarity. “Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! ... Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated.” How interesting indeed.
Top image: Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra
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Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives. Her first feminist act was dressing as a miniature suffragette for an Equal Rights Amendment March in 1981. (Thirty-five years later, the act still hasn't passed.)