A few weeks ago, I picked up a book by a fairly well-known trainer with the intention of following the four-month weight training plan laid out in the book. As I read through the book, I often found myself rolling my eyes at some of the ways the trainer framed the benefits of following her plan: lots of talk about wearing smaller jeans and tighter clothes, about being hotter and sexier, lots of “you go girl!” type stuff, which quite frankly makes me want to turn in my Vagina Card whenever I encounter it. (Too much? Maybe, but that’s how much I hate that kind of stuff.)
I was willing to overlook all of that, because the substance of her book – eat clean, train hard, fuck the pink Barbie weights, and fuck “girl” push-ups while you’re at it – really appealed to me. In fact, I like the substance of her book so much and have enjoyed her workouts so tremendously that I’m not even going to use her name and book title in this post because I don’t want this to seem like I’m hating on her, as I’m not. But there was one thing I was almost unable to deal with, one thing that almost caused me to put down the book and walk away from it forever, and that was the way the trainer used the prospect of inspiring envy in other women as a motivator to work out and get fit.
At first when I read that, I was like, “What is this, junior high school?” I mean, that was about the last time I can remember seriously thinking about how great it would be to be the kind of girl who inspired feelings of envy in other girls. Back then, I couldn’t look at a girl who I thought was prettier or better dressed without feeling achingly jealous of her. I didn’t understand the destructive nature of cultivating envy and jealous toward other girls and women until I was older and two things happened. First, I found myself on the other side of this equation for the first time and I learned it wasn’t quite the glorious ego-boost I’d thought it would be. Instead, I felt alienated from the other girls, and sad at the knowledge that I could inadvertently inspire such bad feelings in another person.
The second thing that happened is that I became involved in girl-zine culture, which pushed back against girl-on-girl competition and instead wanted girls and women to foster strong, genuine relationships with one another. “Jealousy kills girl love.” “We vow to struggle against the “j” word (jealousy) the killer of GIRL LOVE.” “ENCOURAGEMENT IN THE FACE OF INSECURITY is a slogan of the revolution.” It was the first time I had ever explicitly heard someone say that women and girls didn’t have to be in competition with each other. I mean, what were we competing for? Attention from guys? Like that was some kind of super-rare commodity, like we all are living on Mars and male attention is oxygen, and the only way we could survive is if a guy wanted to have sex with us? It sounds stupid, but I realized that was basically the paradigm under which I was operating. What’s more, I realized that this wasn’t just unique to me, that it was girl-on-girl competition was fostered all over our culture, that it was pretty much a given that women were going to be jealous. As Jay-Z put it, “Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.”
The whole notion of jealousy arises from this idea of scarcity, that there’s only so many crumbs of attention and power and sex to go around, and so we should do what we can to get as much of it as possible lest we get screwed out of getting any at all. In the process, we end up screwed anyway, because we get so wrapped up in trying to get one over each other that we fail to notice that we are in fact fighting over crumbs.
I had done a pretty thorough job of banishing girl-on-girl jealousy from my way of thinking about the world, which made reading those words all the more jarring. It was a reminder that, yep, there are women – actual grown-up women, not just teenage girls – who still regard other women through the lens of envy and jealousy. What was even worse was after reading that, I started to see the sentiment show up everywhere – in infomercials, in fitness media, all over the fucking place. I wasn’t sure how I had missed it before but once I realized that this was a common trope in fitness writing, I couldn’t unsee it. It was everywhere. It was even in the book aisles at Target:
The information in the book could be totally legitimate, but the title and subtitle are so gross that I can’t even with it. It makes me want to scream with frustration. Yes, it’s a gimmicky diet book, but it’s one that plays into the worst stereotypes of women as diet-obsessed bitches who really hate their so-called friends, and I want to wipe my butt with it every time I come across it in bookstores. It’s not unique, though. It just happens to be the most egregious perpetrator of a sad, contradictory way of thinking, which is that we can find the motivation to make positive changes in our lives by inspiring negative feelings in other people.
Why fall into that way of thinking? It’s such a cold-hearted way to go through the world, which is the only way I can think to describe a mindset in which everyone – even your friends – are competition. Instead, why not try to be a source of positivity? Why not admire other women you find beautiful or accomplished? Why not be genuinely supportive of other women – or really, of other people in general? You don’t have to be best friends with every woman you meet – you don’t even have to like them – but you don’t have to actively try to tear them down, either.
There are so many excellent, positive reasons to embrace a life of fitness and athletics: because you want to be healthier, because it’s fun, because muscles look cool, because it feels great to be able to do challenging things with your body, because you feel more confident in yourself. The prospect of tearing down other women and making them feel insecure does not need to be one of those reasons. It’s challenging enough to be a woman in this world. Let’s stop making it harder for each other than it already is.