It wasn’t my idea. I wish I could say that it was, but like so many other things, it came from someone smarter, better and kinder than me.
My friend from university, whom I shall call Ally, because that is her name, and I, loved to people-watch together. I say “loved” regretfully but truthfully, since I live in London and she lives in Australia and neither of us have any imminent plans to meet in the middle with any permanence any time soon.
But many mutual hours of ours were spent in our early twenties, huddled in the best window table we could find on the main street of Wellington, eating fondue and drinking white wine and just watching. Watching and talking and commenting – and oh man, you would be amazed by the things you can see if you just sit and wait for them to come by you. Like the old man who squatted by a bin and proceeded to shampoo and rinse his hair in the middle of the street. Like the dude who attempted to hop casually astride his bad-ass parked motorcycle while eating ice-cream and knocked it, I can only assume devastatingly, against his testicles. Like the awkward first dates and the beautifully-dressed teenagers and the goths and the geeks and the goddesses.
I can’t remember what I’m said but I’m sure it was mean. Something along the lines of, “That doesn’t fit her very well” or “I don’t like that haircut on her”. Something I had no right to say as a people-watcher, as someone who has worn badly-fitting clothes and had haircuts that made her cry.
She didn’t scold me, she just schooled me, quietly and with her third glass of wine in hand.
“I’m making an effort not to make negative comments about other women’s appearances”.
Just that – no instruction or condemnation. Not even a suggestion, really, just a statement of her own unwillingness to engage with on that.
Which is the mark of someone who should probably be Queen one day, because of course, that comment changed me – because she was my friend and because of the immediate feelings of guilt and shame and also because she was right.
Why was I even doing it?
I love women. I also hate women.
But largely, as one half of a really very fallible species, I think we’re beautiful and smart and wonderful and doing all kinds of things to overcome all kinds of obstacles. We’re creatures of the moon. We’re the mystical people-makers. We paint ourselves daily; our own perfect canvas. And while I’m capable – oh so, so capable – of feeling jealous and angry and pissed-off but mostly just jealous of, about and at other women, my first position will always be defence. Just because. Just because we need it, and just because I can.
And yet – that tendency to attack.
Not to the face, because that would be brave. Not to attack anything truly wrong, or ignorant, or awful, because that would be meaningful. But to go behind the back of someone, anyone, whether it be someone I know and like, or know and don’t like, or merely a stranger on the street whom I feel I have some right to make a comment about, and say something nasty.
We call it gossip. We call it “catty”. We’ve turned it into some essential part of being a woman, that legitimised form of undermining that just keeps us digging the same hole we’re standing all in.
For years I thought it was fine. I did it to, and about, my friends as well as strangers. And I never thought of myself as cruel or malicious, but clever. Observant. Witty.
And then I stopped, because I realized what I was doing, even if I still can’t really put my finger on the why of it.
It doesn’t make me an angel and it certainly doesn’t stop me from gossiping and I still comment on action and behavior in a way that I’m not proud of. But commenting negatively about another woman’s looks, just because I can? No – not anymore, and hopefully never again. Because we should have each other’s backs. Because judging on appearances is idiotic. Because we’re not in competition with each other.
And, if I’m completely honest, my main motivation is this, and it’s not even slightly honourable: because if I knew other women were sitting at a table in a restaurant spooning up fondue and commenting through the glass on how awful I looked? I’d fucking fall apart.