The other day, I overheard a conversation between a group of women having lunch on a patio overlooking a golf course. They were eyeing another foursome teeing off when one of them said, "Sheila doesn't look on top of her game." Another chimed in, "Yea, but Laurie looks great. I heard she went on a 'golf getaway' and returned a changed woman -- totally refreshed, if you know what I mean." Only then did I realize it wasn't athletic prowess that they were critiquing, but the faces and bodies of their fellow female club members.
Why are women's looks so often a topic of fascination -- and criticism -- even among women themselves? We seem so ready to judge the choices our fellow sisters make, from how we handle our relationships, children and careers, to how we deal with our aging appearance. Remember when we used to question, "Does She or Doesn't She?" Now we wonder, "Has She or Hasn't She?" You would think we would tire of all the scrutiny, maybe even try to stop it, rather than continue the cycle.
I plead guilty at times, too. I watched Jane Fonda in the new HBO series Newsroom. In her role as the CEO of a broadcasting company, we first see her quietly observing a boardroom of men who are engaged in a heated conversation. Fonda appears strong in her silence and delivers a powerful speech, but it wasn't her acting that drew my attention. Strangely, I found myself thinking, "Wow, her cosmetic work looks pretty good!" While Fonda herself has been very vocal about her past procedures -- and her ambivalence about them -- it troubled me that I was focused on her appearance instead of her performance.
It reminded me of Ashley Judd's interview on NBC's Rock Center, when she poignantly spoke about the onslaught of criticism she received for her 'puffy' appearance. She was reacting to the brutal accusations -- mostly by other women -- that she had done cosmetic work and was hiding it. Claiming her bloated face was the result of a medical condition, she pleaded for an end to the negative comments flooding the blogosphere. Like other female public figures who are constantly judged for their aging appearance, Judd said it's a no-win situation. Resist anti-aging pressures and people say you look old. Give in to the pressure and it's viewed as an act of betrayal or weakness. And what's worse, added Judd, is that women themselves reinforce this double bind -- a cultural phenomenon I describe as the "Beauty Paradox."
What's going on in the minds of women? Have we become so vigilant about how we look in general -- and our aging appearance specifically -- that we've lost sight of the fact that we're all in this together? Do we question and critique others because of our own fears and ambivalence about how we will deal as our looks change? Remember, by comparing, competing and then devaluing others in order to boost our own shaky sense of self, we join forces with the very culture that has created the need to do just that!
And this isn't just an aging woman's issue. Young adults and teens are feeling the weight of their peers' scrutiny as well. Over 80,000 young girls supported Julia Bluhm, the 16-year-old who petitioned against the overuse of photoshop in teen magazines. She used the petition to bring attention to the pressure created by flawless, airbrushed models presented in the media, a standard too many young people aspire toward. It highlighted the fact that the media is contributing to an epidemic of eating disorders and low self-esteem among teens. According to the latest body-image statistics, by the time girls are 10 years old, more than 50% "wish they were thinner." And 8 out of 10 women in general "don't like what they see in the mirror."
While Judd brought attention to the unfair scrutiny faced by celebs and Bluhm shone a light on the unrealistic photosin teen magazines, what I find most troubling is the competitiveness and cruelty perpetuated by women towards other women.
About 15 years ago, Nora Ephron gave a commencement speech at Wellesley in which she said not to "underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women." She warned the graduates that although women may have broken many barriers, there were still many who would like to turn the clock back. Ephron may have been speaking about one sex against another, but it's not only men that are getting in women's way.
Women today need to be reminded that unless we view one another with greater compassion, empathy and encouragement, we join the insidious atmosphere created by our youth and beauty-obsessed culture. How much healthier would it be if the women at the golf course "oohed" and "ahhed" as their sisters sunk a great putt or drove the ball onto the green, rather than focused on their aging appearance? How about admiring one another for staying vital and engaged in our lives, rather than judging the failure of our bodies and faces to live up to unrealistic standards? Isn't it time to stop -- and yes, look -- but be more supportive of what we see?
Why do you think women are so critical of one another? What can be done about that?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.