By Debby Pete • December 14, 2007•Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
No one really talks about it, but one of the main issues preventing women from getting along with other women is jealousy. In the professional world, it breaks down to one of two things: jealousy over how good you are at what you do or jealousy over how good you look doing what you do. These related but distinct problems each deserve their own post, so I’ll start with Green Monster #1: when you’re prettier than the average woman. Many of you reading this are probably already feeling an aversion to the topic—none of us likes to admit that other people are better looking than we are or, even worse, that we resent them for it. In fact, many of us don’t admit it, not even to ourselves. Instead, we channel the jealousy into resentment and let it lurk inside of us until the object of it does something that we can interpret maliciously—and then we hate them for that reason. I was inspired to write this post when I got a tearful phone call from a law school friend about how women at her new job don’t like her. Having gone to law school with her, where women had a hard time with her even then, I wasn’t surprised (though of course I couldn’t tell her that—part of the beauty of anonymous blogging is that I now get to tell you). What I wish I could tell her is that being hated for being attractive isn’t necessarily about what you look like. A lot of it is about what you do with what you look like. The most sought after person may not be the most beautiful one but rather the one who puts herself out there. Yes, I’m talking about flirting. So, while I would never suggest that an attractive woman should slum herself up so her co-workers won’t be jealous of her, I would suggest that there are things that can be done to avoid being eaten by other women by Green Monster #1, especially since, as I detail below, while in my experience women might be jealous of any attractive woman, they only actively hate those who inappropriately use their sexual appeal to get ahead.
In thinking about writing this post, there are three main questions with which I struggled. The first is: why are women jealous in the first place? I don’t have the answer, though perhaps women are still socialized to think that their primary task in life is to get a mate, and the main thing that mates are looking for (so it may seem) is the most attractive woman around. Other women are therefore competition, even if logically a woman can recognize that she’s in a relationship or not actually interested in dating people at the office herself or that there’s actually not a cash prize for being the best looking person in the office. Still, perhaps it’s experienced as a subtle insult to not receive attention directed at someone else, and the hurt of not being singled out finds an outlet in jealousy at the person who is singled out.
Question two: what can we, as women, do to stop the vicious cycle of women hating women? Again, I don’t know. We can all do our part by recognizing feelings of jealousy when we have them and working through our own issues instead of taking them out on other people. Though, as I discuss below, sometimes we actually aren’t jealous of the pretty girl and are rightfully pissed that flirting and sex appeal are being harnessed as professional tools to advance.
Question three: what can my friend do now that she’s found herself the object of office jealousy (and jealousy’s BFFs, resentment and hatred)? Many of you will likely argue (with good reason) that it isn’t my friend’s responsibility to change anything—that the jealousy is about other people’s issues and not her fault. True, but . . . like many things in life, you can be in the right and still be professionally damaged from your moral high horse. Every person has to decide what price they’re willing to pay for any one of a million different behaviors, and using your physical assets in a professional context is no different. My friend tells me (and this echoes what I’ve had other friends tell me, and what I’ve told myself on occasion) is a variant of “but I don’t do anything” (subtext: I was born this way. Men just can’t keep their eyes off me. I basically shower myself in shit every morning, but I am still so attractive that I can’t repel them). If you are someone who tells yourself stories like these, it wouldn’t hurt to explore whether it’s actually true that you do absolutely nothing. From what I’ve seen, more often than not if people at work dislike someone for no other reason than because that person is attractive, it’s not only because they are jealous of how pretty that person is. Why do I think that? Because there are plenty of very attractive women I’ve worked with or gone to school with who other women don’t hate. Is it that the ones who are hated are just that beautiful? No. Well, is it that the ones who are hated are just that much bitchier? No. So what is it? I’ve thought about this issue a lot, and my best analysis is that women hate women who use their physical attractiveness to their professional advantage. No one hates the Angelina Jolie twin hard at work at her desk in a turtleneck and flats (or even a professional suit like the rest of us mortals wear). Women tend to hate the Angelina Jolie twin who wears a short skirt and a low-cut blouse and smiles suggestively at the partner while asking about assignments. So, if women hate you and inside you tell yourself that it’s because they are jealous, but you actually want to get along with other women professionally, here are my suggestions:
- Know that you rarely if ever make friends by talking about how pretty you are
It may depend on your audience, but I feel comfortable saying that 99% of the time, you don’t engender positive opinion about yourself when you 1) talk about an issue with another woman and attribute the conflict to the other woman being jealous of you; 2) talk about how many men are after you, the compliments you receive on how beautiful you are, how some guy crashed his car while staring at you walk down the street, how it’s so hard to be you because of all the attention, etc.; 3) talk about how guys in the office stare at you, hit on you, etc. (unless of course it’s a sexual harassment issue, and then you absolutely should talk about it, probably to your boss in the form of a formal complaint). Just remember, no one likes a braggart, and when you draw attention to an aspect of yourself repeatedly, people notice and tend to draw conclusions about you that may not be favorable.
- Recognize your own self-worth
My assumption about many women who spend a lot of time flirting or talking about the items listed above is that their main source of self-esteem is their appearance. Regardless of whether or not I’m right, I view these women as less complicated and competent than they actually are because their own internalized belief that their looks are the best thing they have to offer comes across loud and clear, and I believe it because they believe it. A lot of us have been rewarded in life for how we look, and it’s natural that a certain amount of self-esteem has become attached to our pride in our appearance. However, we’re not in high school anymore. I maintain that it’s actually professionally damaging to project ourselves as pretty faces. Why? Because we’re so much more than that. We’re smart and ambitious and competent. If we still derive pleasure and self-esteem from being physically desired, then it’s important to leave that aspect of ourselves at home because people pick up on what we project, and if you spend a lot of time priding yourself on your looks and drawing attention to your physical attractiveness and flirting at the office, then a lot of your colleagues will view you in a one-dimensional way, and you will never be truly valued for what lies under the surface. You are more than a pretty face. Step forward and embrace that truth.
- Understand the broader consequences of sexualizing yourself as a professional woman
I firmly believe that it is damaging to all professional women when any professional woman chooses to use her looks to get ahead. Why do I say “chooses”? Because I do think that it is a choice. True, none of us chose how God made us, but we all make choices about what to wear to work and how to interact with our clients and colleagues. Am I… gasp…saying that women can’t wear whatever they want to? I am absolutely saying that. Am I…gasp…saying that women have to take responsibility for how people respond to their natural state of being? Yes. Why? Because our “natural states of being” are socialized. Many women get positive responses to their looks and learn (from an early age) how to keep getting those responses through subtle things like eye contact, body language, etc. Do you do things of which you’re not aware that others perceive as flirting? Why don’t you ask someone you think would be honest with you because you might be surprised by the answer you get. I truly believe that my friend doesn’t realize that she flirts all the time. After writing this post, I think I’ve convinced myself that I should tell her. Her flirting looks like this: low cut tops and high heels that she uses as props to accentuate her body in how she moves, a different smile for men than for women, brief touches on men’s arms or hands while she talks to them, standing closer to men than strictly necessary, complimenting men, laughing differently with men than with women, using different tones of voice when speaking to men than with women, making statements like “This judge likes a pretty face, so I should be able to get a good outcome for my client,” etc. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I have no idea if my friend knows that she behaves differently with men than she does with women, but I guarantee that the women in her office notice, and if they dislike her, it may not be because they are jealous but rather because they are disgusted by the behavior.
In conclusion, if you’re a pretty girl, please think about this: As much as you may enjoy getting attention for being pretty, the cost is high. When you draw attention to your looks for professional benefit, even if subconsciously, you are reduced to a lowest common denominator, you damage your relationships with other women, and you create an expectation that all women who could flirt to get ahead should, which continues a scheme of rewards for behavior that we as professional women want to leave behind us. We no longer need to battle it out to be the fairest of them all. We have a seat at the table now. We can get ahead on our own merits. We aren’t reliant on men to take care of us. Ladies, I beg you to be more than just your pretty face, and I think you’ll find that in the process, you’ll be more respected by women and men alike.