I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the stereotype of the ‘bitchy girl’, and its origin. I’m guilty of perpetuating it myself - a number of times in the past I’ve made the observation that I have more male friends than female friends (which is for the most part still true, but I'm working on it), and said things like ‘I just get along better with guys’, ‘guys are just easier to be around’ or even ‘I just don’t like bitchy girl drama’.
But why is this something which I associate with my gender? I can’t deny that I have encountered women who seem to me to fit this stereotype throughout my life, or at least indulge in it every once in a while, myself included. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I had growing up in which I’d gossip about another girl’s love life, or call her a ‘slag’ (I hate my past self for feeling that it was acceptable to use that word), shaming her for being sexually liberated, or the way she dressed, or her new haircut, or the amount of weight she’d gained. I thought nothing of it. But where does this instinct to tear each other down come from?
If my little sister comes home from school upset about something another girl has said to her, my automatic response is to reassure her by telling her that the negative behaviour is probably coming from a place of low self esteem. I make the connection between a young woman having a low opinion of herself, and tearing another female down to make herself feel better. Obviously it doesn’t justify her behaviour, but, as someone who thinks about other peoples’ intentions a lot, I generally find it reassuring to understand that the negative behaviour is explainable. And so does my sister. But why do I make this connection? And why is making another female feel inferior an immediate and acceptable reaction to having low self esteem? And where does this low self esteem come from in the first place?
So far we have three factors to this equation - low self esteem leads to tearing other girls down leads to the stereotype of the ‘bitchy girl’ being formed. Obviously this is vastly simplified, but for the sake of forming my theory let it be so.
It is my opinion and theory that the media which young women are exposed to, including social media, as they are navigating puberty, carries a huge amount of responsibility for this problem. Now I am not claiming that the stereotype of women being gossipy or bitchy did not exist before social media, or films, or magazines, or television. I am merely connecting my observations of female behaviour in the modern world that I live in with the media which I, and girls younger than me, have been exposed to.
So let’s get back to my equation, starting with the low self esteem. One of my most vivid memories as a 13-year-old girl is of myself, alone in my room, looking at a picture of Miley Cyrus - who at that point was rail-thin - and crying because I did not look like her. I was on the large side as a young girl, and from about the age of 8 or 9 I was obsessed with magazines. I would leaf through page after page of pictures of models and celebrities who were half my size, staring at clothes I couldn’t wear because they wouldn’t fit me or suit me, wishing and hoping that I could just cut myself in half, that I could just look like the girls in these magazines. I thought that was all that mattered. And actually today I still have the same problem, it’s just been transferred to social media. My instagram feed is full of models in bikinis. I say that it’s for ‘inspiration’ for me to eat healthier and get fitter. But I already eat healthily. I am already (fairly) physically fit. Every time I see one of these pictures of a woman who is thinner, prettier, more tanned and toned than me, there is an element of myself at 13 years old, staring at that picture of Miley Cyrus.
And young girls go through this EVERY DAY. The media for the most part isn't telling them that they shouldn’t have to conform to what society thinks they should look like. It isn't telling them that following their passions, and finding self worth in areas other than their appearance, is more important. Or at least if we are, we aren’t doing it loud enough to drown out the thousands upon thousands of pictures they see of rail-thin models, and articles they read about how to lose weight, how to get ‘bikini ready’, how to change yourself to ‘be the best you’ when the ‘best you’ is actually not you at all, but what society thinks you should be. How can we expect these young girls to have a high opinion of themselves when they are constantly being told how to change themselves, how to be thinner, prettier, better dressed? The underlying implication is always ‘YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH’. And that’s certainly what I felt when I was growing up.
So here’s the first problem created my the media: an unrealistic ideal set for the appearance of women, which women, especially young women, feel unable to meet, which results in a loss of self-esteem.
The second problem caused is the escape route to low self esteem that these magazines provide: you might not be as thin as these models, but let’s show you some pictures of celebrities who have gained weight because they are probably bigger than you, and further away from the ideal, and that will make you feel better. ‘OMG [inset name here] piles on the pounds’, ‘BIKINI BODY NIGHTMARES’, ‘Between 2006 and 2012 this female celebrity appears to have put on around a stone of weight, let’s overanalyse why that’s happened’ (okay that last one’s not real but it might as well be).
Aside from the body shaming, we’re faced with feuds between female celebrities (usually about men), women being labelled as ‘crazy’ and ‘jealous’, and ‘struggling with heartbreak’. It has been normalised that the way to comfort yourself when your self esteem is low is to read about another woman who’s being shamed for being sad or for gaining weight or for having an argument, or for ending a relationship with a man (which is often described as them being DUMPED). Aside from giving us a warped view of our gender as a whole, these tabloids are literally teaching us to take comfort from participating in the shaming of other women. They take away our self esteem and give us the tools to build it back up by shaming others.
And this extends further than the passive participation of reading tabloids, or articles on the internet. Because it's normal, and acceptable, for tabloids to criticise female celebrities for gaining weight, it follows that it's normal, and acceptable, for me to see a woman walking on the other side of the street from me and call her fat, right? Is it then normal, and acceptable, for me to whisper to my friend that another girl we know, who is in the same room, looks overweight in her crop top? Is it normal, and acceptable, for me to walk up to that girl and tell her I think she looks overweight?
It damn well shouldn't be. It shouldn't be acceptable for me to criticise another woman's appearance, or clothes, or love life, or sex life in pursuit of boosting my own self esteem. But it does happen. In spite of my efforts not to, I still do it in my head sometimes - I'll see a woman who I think is unattractive or overweight, and my instinctive reaction is occasionally not very nice.
Now I'm not saying all women participate in this behaviour. But I cannot ignore the fact that other girls criticised me both to my face and behind my back as a small, plump 13 year old. I cannot ignore the fact that my sister is criticised by her female peers at school, and her peers are criticised by other peers. I cannot ignore the fact that I hear women older than me talking about how much weight their friends have gained, or talking about how to lose weight, or laughing at someone's dress at a party, or gossiping that another woman brought her divorce upon herself. These kinds of instances are happening all the time, and it's partly because this critical behaviour is normalised by the media.
So there it is. That’s my hypothesis. The media’s influence on young women aids, abets and perpetuates this stereotype of the 'bitchy girl'. It might not be the only cause, but if women want to make progress towards gender equality, a part of which should be dissociating this negative stereotype from our gender, tackling the way in which the media presents us, and the negative effect its influence has on young women is, in my opinion, an important step.