Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Why I love talking about cellulite

A very good girlfriend of mine tells me that when I look ugly, I look really ugly.  

If my husband told me that I was extremely ugly one morning I would feel very hurt. I would immediately take care not to let him see me in that state again, and add to the cycle of un-feminist primping I already undertake.

So how come I positively like the fact that my girlfriend calls me ugly? More generally, why are women, when they talk, so keen to convince each other of their hidden weaknesses? A routine conversation between women may well proceed as follows:

Woman A: Wow you look fantastic!
Woman B: God no I put on 5 pounds in the last week!
            Woman A: Really? I can’t see it!
Woman B: I’ve got stomach-holding-in underwear on.
              Woman A: Well no one would know; you look great.
Woman B: Thanks but I must go on a diet.
Both women walk away from this conversation feeling better.

I made a new acquaintance in the gym last weekend. Within 5 minutes, she had told me she didn’t like her thighs but thought her bingo wings were under control. This didn’t feel merely like an exchange of information, it was a friendly overture.

Why do we do this? Do men routinely immediately share their deepest and hidden flaws? I don’t think so. And yet I don’t feel a woman is being friendly / genuine until she does. Someone who talks about her ‘cellulite’ (i.e. insecurities/mistakes/weaknesses) on day 1 is therefore someone I like.

A lot of common wisdom claims that in general women see each other as competitors; that living in a man’s world as we do, we compete for the scarce resources of good men, power or career status. Much as I love my girlfriends and wish them only success and happiness, I will admit that this is partially true although it is not competition as a man would recognise it.

Man’s ‘compete’ thought process

Woman’s ‘compete’ thought process
a. What game or competition is on?

b. I want to compete to determine whether or not I am better than you

c. Now that we’ve competed I know whether or not I am better than you.
a. What are you most outstandingly good at?

b. I feel rubbish because you are better than me at the thing you are best at.

c. Now that I feel rubbish, I need to invent something I am better than you at to cheer myself up.

d. I have now added to my feelings of worthlessness by competing with the sisterhood.

e. Moreoever, I still feel rubbish because even though I’m better than you at making cupcakes, Kate Hudson’s thighs are thinner than mine.

And so, I’m not really competing with my girlfriends, I am competing with the best aspects of every other woman in the world simultaneously. It isn’t a competition, it is a voluntary thrashing. Whatever I get from this futile exercise, it certainly isn’t a feeling of superiority.

I think it is true that I do this because I cannot help myself; that we are more critical of ourselves than we need to be and/or that we are well aware that women who are perceived as ‘perfect’ elicit eye-rolling from both genders, whereas the same league of guy would not. But this is not a post about why women are down on themselves; this is a post about how in spite of suffering along with millions of other women from this incurable disease of self-depreciation, how in spite of demonstrating its nastier side effects of judging other women, though not as harshly as I judge myself, how in spite of all this, girlfriends are of incredible and growing importance to me:

1. They let me know it’s OK: They reflect me back to me in a more truthful way than I can obtain from a (heterosexual) man. Many men, after all, do not consider me ugly. Magically, in spite of seeing me as I am, in spite of the ‘judging’ (let’s be nice and call it ‘assessing’) which women do to each other, some of them still like me. They think I am ugly yet talk to me anyway. Their good opinion is more difficult to get and is greatly prized.

2. They show me how to be better: Grateful for some of their imperfections though I am, I admire their talents and can learn from or emulate them. This makes me better at things; from tips on how to apply mascara to disciplining my child.
Girlfriends are the exact opposite of how many of us feel we have to act at work or in relationships; from the first scary job interview or date onwards, we try to portray ourselves as our best. If we falter, we get told to act more confident and quite rightly so; out there it’s a man’s world and we act ‘up’ or fail.

But with our girlfriends, with my old and honest friends or new and forthright ones, we can relax. We may wish we didn’t worry about ourselves as much; we may wish we were less judgemental. Maybe it’s our fault, or the fault of men or society. Whatever the truth of it, like getting older, it may be something we cannot help. But by acknowledging that many of us feel the same, and by letting others see our fears, it is so much more comfortable a world! Comparing cellulite may be as good a way as any to signal our oneness.