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When Women Bully Women

Female body hatred, a precursor to female bullying

Women who project body hatred onto other women unknowingly encourage girls and women who bully one another. Several examples of women against women played out recently in the national media.

During the NBA playoffs, Claire Crawford, a pen name for a CBS blogger, called out a NBA cheerleader as being too “chunky” to fit the bill of an Oklahoma City Thunder Cheerleader. She also asked her readers to complete a poll and rate whether the cheerleader had “the perfect look to be a NBA cheerleader,” “could use some tightening up in her midsection” or “has no business wearing that outfit in front of people.” Similarly, last February former Green Bay Packers cheerleader Kaitlyn Collins was called “ugly” on a Chicago Bears fan page. Both of these women have spoken openly about the pain and humiliation such public ridicule incited.

Also recently, a University of Maryland Delta Gamma sorority girl’s acid-pen email went viral. Using a blizzard of expletives, she calls out her sisters for not being good enough hosts to sustain fraternity attention. Reading this email is a memorable experience, even momentarily energizing to hear a stereotypical image of a sorority girl—social, nice, fun, full of sisterly love—debunked with such passion as the writer systematically knocks her sisters to the floor. But as is unfortunately true for women in our culture today, for some the only truly satisfying way to debunk is by going to the extreme and adopting the same language some men have been known to use to keep women feeling powerless and insecure.

The young author employs these words to crack the whip and force Delta Gamma to be better representatives at social functions with the local Sigma Nu fraternity. On one hand this is a tempest in a teapot, but on the other it is a stark example of a kind of female bulling that is common but usually takes place out of public sight.

Body hatred and women verbally bullying one another are tied together. Culture stigmatizes women who do not meet traditional standards of beauty and, too often, women use this unforgiving reality to harshly judge one another as a means to gain leverage and power. As a result of being treated as if something essential is missing from their nature, many operate with the belief that other women must also be deficient.

Early in puberty, girls may begin to look at one another in an acutely competitive and judgmental manner. In a world that feels as if others could turn on you at any time, taking a judgmental stance toward other women is a way to feel a modicum of control. The cost of this tactic is high because harsh judgment and cruelty toward other women is inherently linked to relentless self-scrutiny and panic should one's own flaws be attacked. Many girls see one another as scary, untrustworthy, ruthless and cruel.

When some girls and women feel they have been publicly attacked for a perceived flaw they form their own sort of closure by developing an internal, self-critical monologue. This type of response depletes self-esteem, in some cases to the point of depression. The 2010 Massachusetts case involving the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince was linked to a three month campaign of emotional and physical bullying on the part of nine of her peers, seven of whom were girls. It is believed this unrelenting torture was inflicted on Phoebe because of upset over her dating relationships with popular male peers. In a more recent example, Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old Canadian high school student, committed suicide after enduring a year of public ridicule and bullying after making an accusation that she was raped. Photos of the incident were circulated by her alleged attackers through social media. As Rehtaeh’s best friend, Jenna Campbell, told the Daily Beast on April 27th “Everyone assumed she was being a slut. That she wanted it. She was telling people ‘I got raped,’ and they said she was a slut and decided not to believe her.”

Thankfully, the result of abusive behavior by peers usually falls short of suicide, but the many who suffer its consequences feel intense emotional pain. Why do girls do this to one another? Too often girls, and many women, are taught and come to believe that they must conform to a rigid mold of femininity lest they will be excluded and not garner male attention.

By judging, fearing and by turning on their own sex, women effectively self-sabotage their opportunity for strong female relationships and greater empowerment. A self-fulfilling prophecy manifests whereby a woman may begin to believe that most other women are untrustworthy. These women tend to catalogue this phenomena as more evidence to the nature of women and fail to consider the impact of their own actions. How women can protect themselves and their daughters from bulling, male and female, is a subject I explore in my book Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.

The more girls and women can stay connected with their actual experiences and less with the rigid expectations of others, the greater their empathy and compassion for other women who may be bound by these same rigid expectations.

Research suggests there is one clearly protective element in female development and that is the power of strong female relationships. Girls who are fearful of one another have fewer intimate female relationships—the very thing that can help them the most.

Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber