Nonvisual accomplishments don’t make us Instagram famous — making the Dean’s List for the third semester in a row, landing that killer internship, moving into your own apartment for the first time. None of these achievements have the visual proof of those sexy “Fitsagrams” with which we are constantly bombarded. It is not unnatural to believe that we are undeserving of rewards or praise.
In a world that fosters this imposter syndrome — or the inability to internalize one’s achievement — women feel that their accomplishments, and those of other women, are not justified. “If I don’t deserve happiness, why does she?”
“Patriarchy has no gender,” a phrase I learned from Ithaca College professor Jess Ross, speaks to the fact that men are not the only gender responsible for our male-dominated society, and males are not the only gender who put women down. Women also contribute to the patriarchy, the societal system that puts males first. This is shown through girl fighting, most often seen in the form of social comparison.
This phenomenon is ever more prevalent in our world because of the rise in social media. What used to be reserved for our Cosmopolitan Magazines is now brought into our home lives. Comparisons of worth have become unavoidable and nearly addictive.
A significant amount of research has been done about the effect of social comparison in mainstream media, like magazines and television, but the concept of social comparison resulting in negative self-esteem issues in social media is a relatively new subject.
According to a study done by Common Sense Media, 27 percent of social-media-using teens reported feeling stressed out about how they look when they post pictures, and 22 percent reported feeling bad about themselves when nobody comments on or “likes” the photos they post. While both boys and girls reported feelings similar to these, the majority was found among girls.
Another study, “Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood,” found that in teen girls, Facebook users were significantly more likely than non-Facebook users to have internalized a pattern of habitually monitoring their body and self-image.
Although these studies are just the beginning of a long future in social comparison research, there is a clear relationship between the use of social media and it’s effect on self-image. It is important to notice this pattern, because it accentuates the dangerous territory in which women live. The obsessive anxiety that results from social media comparison fuels aggressive behaviors between girls.
This issue is bigger than an individual experience. Cara Golden, psychology professor and women’s and gender studies department coordinator at Ithaca College, said that to simply attribute this behavior to “girls being girls” instead of looking into the influence of larger society would be belittling the problem at hand.
“This is what really concerns me,” Golden said. “That if we don’t focus on the system, then we get into ‘girls like to do x,’ ‘girls just like to fight with each other,’ ‘girls just like to pick each other apart,’ but there’s a reason why girls pick each other apart. It’s not because they like to do it or genetically they’re predisposed to do it.”
The psychology between individuals almost exclusively works within their larger systems. In the case of girls and women, the direct influence of our actions is evident if we investigate the social structure in which we are situated. In each system, whether it is educational, professional or social, there is a power structure. Shown mostly through media images, our power structure places men at the top of the societal hierarchy. As a result, women are considered inferior.
“In a system that essentially subordinates women, views women as less than and views femininity as less than, that’s the essence of patriarchy,” Golden said. “Girls and women simply aren’t recognized. They’re not seen. They’re not valued the way that boys and men are.”
Compare the two classic gender roles: men bring home the bacon and women cook it, men dirty their clothes and women clean them. Although there are exceptions to this, we can conclude that women are mostly seen as subservient to the larger patriarchal system. This message is seen in the media, explicitly and implicitly. Consequently, women are trained to fight to be seen, to be liked, to be taken seriously. This need to be valued and respected is not specific to women, but it is more difficult for women to obtain this recognition than it is for men.
There are two primary ways in which girls can gain recognition: by being liked by boys and by being like boys. The first way enhances your femininity by being chosen by masculinity, while the second way speaks to the disposal and rejection of femininity in favor of masculinity. These only begin to perpetuate the system in which femininity is unfavorable.
Whether aggression is inward or outward, both are forms of internalized misogyny. Intense fear of being different in adolescence coupled with the need to be recognized leads to “girl fighting.” Outward girl fighting can be shown through bullying or passive aggressive exclusion, while inward girl fighting focuses on negative self-esteem. These two work hand-in-hand and are exacerbated by social media.
In order to make ourselves feel better, it’s almost natural to degrade other women. Not holding an envious position doesn’t feel as bad when you convince yourself that she got the job because she’s good looking. Girl-on-girl hate thrives in the environment in which we are situated.
In this same environment, misogyny has become increasingly internalized. Although involuntary, the messages the media has ingrained in our minds reincarnate themselves into insults against other women. Think of all the misogynistic language that is available to us. Golden pointed out the plethora of words we could think of to use to degrade women: bitch, hoe, slut, ugly, ditzy, superficial, petty, catty, back stabbing, manipulative, untrustworthy — and the list goes on. There simply is not the same range of derogatory language for men.
Having such an accessible and negative vocabulary makes it too easy to engage in girl fighting. Regarding social media, jealousy or the fight to be noticed may pit one female against another female as well as provide them both with the exact language needed to tear the other down. If she’s a slut or a whore, then it wouldn’t be difficult to feel superior.
I’ve noticed this pattern in my own past. I used to have issues with a past girlfriend of my ex-boyfriend. I didn’t like her being in his life. I didn’t like the fact that she was pretty. I didn’t like her as a person. Not for reasons having to do with her personality, because frankly, I didn’t know her, but for the sole reason that it felt better to hate on her than to recognize that I was insecure and anxious about myself and my own appearance. This self-esteem issue, or inward aggression, manifested as competitiveness against her.
I cared too much about what she posted on social media. I constantly thought that her life was better than mine, that I needed to be better. I would often start feuds with her, and ultimately, I survived off of the drama. I knew what I was doing was obsessive and wrong, but I could not stop.
Social media made this obsessive feud far too easy. I was given the ammunition to ultimately hurt myself. With every post I looked at, with every minute I wasted, I was falling into the exact message I had been absorbing all my life: you are not good enough. That’s what this patriarchal system encourages. It gives girls and women copious amounts of unavoidable content to use against themselves while enforcing the message that they need to create this competition in order to have a good life.
I felt that I thrived off this competition. It gave me purpose, but it also made me feel incredibly anxious. I was motivated to be a better person, but looking back, my definition of better and the way I was motivating myself were crooked. Better to me meant prettier, more successful, cooler, and the thing is, engaging in this obsessive, competitive behavior brought me no closer to my goals. I began to see my posts as fake and started to question my identity. Did I really enjoy that band, or was I doing it to impress someone else? Was I trying to be cool? Did I really want to buy that jacket, or was I doing it to fit a certain image? I had lost track of the answers. I was posting certain things to Instagram and Facebook that were no longer my own thoughts or feelings; they were an attempt to win the fight to be noticed.
I used social media to fictionalize myself, because in reality, I felt inferior. I needed to overcompensate. This is what made me realize that social media is not real life. This is a message we’ve heard from our parents at one point or another, but it is something that is still hard for many girls and women to grasp. A 2010 Girl Scout Research Initiative Study found that 74 percent of girls said they believed most girls used social media to make themselves look cool. Of that same population, 41 percent admitted that they engage in this behavior as well. When every girl is posting about the best version of herself, and you have to live with yourself even in the worst of times, you begin to wonder if you’re falling behind, if you’re ultimately not good enough.
This is a common fear that is often expressed in a negative way: turning in on ourselves and hurting other women in order to succeed. We cannot let this fear get in the way of female advancement, especially in future generations. A more productive lifestyle would be for us to consciously and actively notice these faults in the larger system and turn our aggression toward the issue at hand. Girls and women need to be valued, recognized and supported in our culture, and that begins with us. Instead of seeing that hot girl on Instagram and instantly comparing yourself, remind yourself that while she is great, you are also great. You can be great together.