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Why Do Women Trash Other Women's Bodies?

Mean spirited competitiveness?

Why do women trash other women’s bodies?

Body image and body issues continue to be ripe for conversations of all sorts. Finding fault with someone else, particularly criticizing their body size and shape, is sometimes a national pastime; the media i.e. reality TV feeds the frenzy. Sometimes, there is a genuine concern for a loved one, friend, or acquaintance regarding body image or apparent food related issue, like an eating disorder. Sometimes devaluing someone’s body or size is just for sport.

Depending on the cultural dictates of the particular era, women trash other women’s bodies because of factors related, in part, to competition. If athleticism is the look du jour, then those with or without muscle will be targeted for criticism — the point being to find fault. Similarly, if larger butts are in fashion, then those with or without a robust derrière will be potentially subjected to criticism or ridicule. Unfortunately, we cannot change body size and shape as efficiently and regularly as we change our clothing to conform to the latest trend. However, what appears to be competition spurred on by culture or media’s bombardment of how we should look or not look, blaming culture and the media is not correct. Media fuels the competitive juices; however, other causal factors are at play.

So, why criticize?

Criticism’s intent is to reject or outdo someone else — even if the criticism is based merely on a perception of the person.

So, what is gained through criticism? Somehow if someone else is devalued or seen as inferior, then the person spewing the criticism is better or more superior? What is gained? Perhaps an ATTEMPT to feel better about themselves or their situation.

Criticism is different from having an opinion or making a judgment or a decision about what is right or not right. Capricious, mean spirited criticism, which this blog is addressing, purpose is to compete through devaluing or diminishing versus criticism whose intent is to be educative and constructive.

Competition is normal. Cultures value competition. Athletics is a primary example of competition at its best. America, and most developed countries are capitalist driven societies therefore, competition for resources, money, power is its natural goal.

Being competitive, according to psychological theory, is a natural component of the human psyche. Charles Darwin, whose seminal work , “The Origin of the Species,” established the doctrine of natural selection. Darwin’s theory suggests that survival is an inherent human trait which determines a person’s success and that competition is the most successful strategy for survival.

What is the purpose of criticism?

Perhaps one of the most well known theorists when it comes to the development of personality is Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that we develop by passing through psychosexual stages whose successful and sequential completion leads to a healthy personalty. Freud’s concept of competition is most exemplified during the phallic stage (age three to six) better know as the Oedipus Complex when a boy is at risk for “castration,” (brought on by unconscious guilt for sexual fantasies and thoughts of pleasure generally directed toward the parent of the opposite sex). The child thereby becomes a rival with his father over competition for his mother’s affection and thereby risks rejection or anger by his father. (Girls, according to contemporary psychoanalytic theory, experience similar sexual attraction toward their father – Electra Complex.)

Karen Horney, (pronounced Horn-eye) a German psychoanalyst, considered a neo-Freudian, saw competition as normal in any culture and that basic hostility emerges from competition which results in isolation. Isolation leads to a greater need for affection which causes people to overvalue love and see affection as a solution to their problems. So, competition, though creating isolation initially, results in relationships and the quest for attachment. In this sense, competition’s results are relationally oriented, not necessarily fueled by aggression. The aim of the need for ‘relationship,’ however, may be unclear - that is, to avoid isolation or to feel close.

Cultural teachings of relatedness come in to stark contrast to the innate need for aggression and drive to win. Men and women are both subject to aggression and the desire to win. How men behave toward other men to accomplish this goal may be influenced by genetic factors ( the use or desired use of force or threat of force to dominate) versus by women whose competitive nature tends to emerge verbally or strategically, i.e., “Bad mouthing,” devaluing ,or perhaps criticizing someone’s weight or body image, or surreptitiously or manipulatively undermining someone’s reputation (gossip).

Whether or not competition is genetically endowed or learned at home or in the environment continues to be discussed among various social and biological scientists and researchers. In any case, by the time a child is ten, a sense or state of competition exists within.

If it is correct that men are more action oriented and women more verbal, however this has originated, then does this adage apply to how men versus women compete in a culture that values performance, perfectionism and a body ideal? If so, what are women competing for?

Being desired and wanted enables us to feel purposeful — that we matter. The fear that something, or someone perhaps, will be taken away if we don’t outdo someone else causes us to behave in all kinds of strange and less than desirable ways. It feels as if our emotional or physical survival (a denial of death?) depends upon winning.

The greatest counter to competitiveness… feeling happy in life. Generally, this means finding relationship and job success and fulfillment. Freud believed that the necessary ingredients to a satisfying life is through love and work.

Competitive urges do not disappear when someone pursues authentic happiness and satisfaction, but rather have the opportunity to be transcended and focused on the fulfillment of our own potential, rather than solely the quest to out do or put down someone else.

What is the media’s role in influencing competitiveness in women?

Media teaches us, particularly women, that we never have enough or are enough. The happier and more fulfilled, the less critical and competitive we tend to be. If you are happy then you have won. The need to criticize decreases because we are less envious towards others, or what they have or how they look. If you have joy then wishing joy for others is easy or easier. The media influence then can be marginalized and become (almost) irrelevant; we know better than to be seduced by its hype and manipulation. Having a kinder voice toward other women (sisters) then is a natural result.

And the phrase, “Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” feels like truth.

We are in control of our well being.


Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW