by Amy Alkon
Q: I have a great circle of female friends, but one of “the group” has a way of making backhanded comments about my appearance that make me feel bad about myself. Her latest topic is my breasts and how much smaller they are than hers. Incredibly, she manages to work this into any conversation—exercising, fashion, shopping, camping. If I confronted her, I know she’d act as though she’s been paying me compliments. (“But you’re SO lucky to have small boobs!”) How can I get her to stop?—Annoyed
A: Stopping her would be easier if you two were guys: “I don’t like the way you’re talking about my boobs, Marjorie. Let’s take this outside.”
But while men will sock each other in the bar parking lot (and can sometimes go back in and have a beer), women engage in what anthropologists call “covert aggression”—attacks that are hard to pinpoint as attacks, like gossip, social exclusion and stabbing another woman in the self-worth. (“Stabracadabra!”—you’re bleeding out, but nobody but you can tell!)
Psychologist Anne Campbell, like others who study female competition, explains that women seem to have evolved to avoid physical confrontation, which would endanger their ability to have children or fulfill their role as an infant’s principal caregiver. (Ancestral Daddy couldn’t exactly run up to the store for baby formula.) So while guys will engage in put-down fests as a normal part of guy-ness, even women’s verbal aggression is usually sneaky and often comes Halloween-costumed as compliments or concern: “Ooh, honey, do you need some Clearasil for those bumps on your chest?”
The tarted-up put-down is a form of psychological manipulation—a sly way of making a woman feel bad about herself so she’ll self-locate lower on the totem pole. And because men have visually driven sexuality, women specialize in knocking other women where it really hurts—their looks. Like those supposedly minuscule boobs of yours. (Right … you’ll have a latte, and she’ll just have another mug of your tears.)
The next time that she, say, turns a trip to the mall into a riff—“Har-har … Victoria’s Secret is that they don’t carry your size!—pull her aside. (In a group of women, conflict resolution is most successful when it’s as covert as female aggression—as in, not recognizable as fighting back.) By not letting the others hear, you remove the emotionally radioactive element of shaming. This helps keep your defense from being perceived as an attack on her—yes, making you the bad guy.
Simply tell her—calmly but firmly: “These mentions of my boobs are not working for me. You need to stop.” Be prepared for the antithesis of accountability—a response like, “Gawd … chill” or “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” But she’ll know exactly what you’re talking about, which is that you’ve just become a poor choice of victim. She may float a remark or two to test your resolve, so be prepared to repeat your warning—calmly but firmly—until she starts acting like just one of the girls instead of yet another breast man.
Q: I’m a successful lawyer in my late 40s doing online dating. I’m active in the Republican Party and philanthropic causes, so I often go to benefit dinners, for which I typically buy two tickets in advance. I’ve asked two women I met online to come to these as a first date, but both canceled by text at the last minute. (The dinner yesterday was $1,000 a plate and for a political cause that means a lot to me.) Maybe I’m just attracting rude women, but I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m doing something wrong.—Empty Chairs
A: You can learn a lot about a woman on the first date—like that she still hasn’t worked out her drinking problem and that she doesn’t always like to wear panties. Ideally, you find these things out while seated across from her at Starbucks, and not after she climbs on the table at a benefit and starts doing some sort of fertility dance with the centerpiece.
Sure, it seems convenient when your need for a plus-one coincides with your desire to go on a first date with some online hottie. But you’re better off coming up with a list of attractive female friends you can take or even male friends who share your politics or just enjoy free meals enough to not challenge your tablemates to a duel over theirs. Not taking a woman you barely know is also an important business safeguard—so that when some conservative client of yours turns to your date and asks, “So how do you two know each other?” he won’t hear something like, “We met in the ‘Republicans Who Like Hot Wax Play’ chat room on Christian Mingle.”