Two women

Threatening and non-threatening

Research techniques are turning up interesting answers to age-old questions, such as indirect aggression by women. Researchers say adolescents and young women are meaner to each other than older women, especially married ones. Pressure is frequently blamed on the ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on television, but researchers say it’s mainly the result of competition with their peers, not media images. 

This blog is based on John Tierney’s article in the New York Times, “Why Are Women Aggressive Toward Other Women?” which in turn is based on an issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society devoted to the topic of female aggression.

Female competition tends be more subtle, indirect, and less violent than the male variety. But it “is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.”

Long ago women competed with one another for more desirable partners and for resources for their children. Now most women face the same odds as men, but it’s tougher in college campuses with more women than men. 

“Researchers T. Vaillancourt and A. Sharma brought pairs of female students into a laboratory at McMaster University for what was ostensibly a discussion about female friendships. But the real experiment began when another young woman entered the room asking where to find one of the researchers. She had been chosen for ‘qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,’ meaning a ‘low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts.’ In a T-shirt and jeans, she attracted little notice and no negative comments from the students, whose reactions were being secretly recorded. But when she wore a tight fitting, low-cut blouse and short skirt, virtually all the students reacted with hostility. They stared at her, looked her up and down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. One asked her in disgust, ‘What the [expletive] is that?’”

Most of the aggression happened after she left the room, when students laughed about her and impugned her motives. One suggested she dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor. Another said her breasts “were about to pop out.” 

The research showed that suppression of female sexuality is by women, not necessarily by men. “Stigmatizing female promiscuity—a.k.a. slut-shaming—has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But men also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous. The stigma is enforced mainly by women. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.

“Indirect aggression can take a psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies. Women’s ideal body shape is to be thinner than average—and thinner than what men consider the ideal shape.

“’To a large degree the media reflects trends in society, not creates them,’ said psychologist Dr. Ferguson. Women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies did not correlate with what they watched on television at home. Nor were they influenced by TV programs shown in laboratory experiments: Watching the svelte actresses on “Scrubs” induced no more feelings of inferiority than watching the not-so-svelte star of “Roseanne.” 

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