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
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.
© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon. Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).