It's Not Your Fault You're A Mean Girl

Why can't they be happy for me? That's the question I got from a model named Kaycee*, who has been successful for several years, first as a "straight-size" and now as a plus-size model. She recently got a huge break, landing a major cover shot. But not everyone is equally excited about Kaycee's success. As she told me when we spoke, she's heard from other models that it was "just dumb luck" that she got the job; two even made the unlikely claim (on Facebook, no less) that they'd turned down the gig before Kaycee landed it.

In a highly competitive business like modeling, professional jealousy is a given. "Talent" is always replaceable, the number of paying jobs is finite, and the window of opportunity to "make it" is short. But Kaycee's lament that her (now former) friends seem embittered by her success is not unique to the beauty industry. What's really at work here is an old problem that seems to be getting exponentially worse for women: the scarcity model.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the ways in which college admissions policies that favor men drive the growing problem of perfectionism among young women. As colleges increasingly reject more qualified women in order to maintain "gender balance", girls are forced to push harder than ever before to compete for a diminishing number of places in a first-year class. In the competitive college admissions game, the scarcity is real — and it drives not only perfectionism, but competition with other women. Individual women aren't just being victimized by these preferential admissions policies, but their relationships with their female peers.

Just the title of Kate Bolick's now-viral Atlantic article reinforces a different aspect of the scarcity model: "All the Single Ladies." (Emphasis mine.) You don't have to read one word more to understand the implication for women: There are too many of you. There are not enough good men. To be fair, Bolick ends up celebrating new possibilities for singleness and relationship; she's not just reinforcing Lori Gottlieb's lamentable call for women to marry "good enough." But like so many long Atlantic articles, more people end up discussing it than reading the whole thing. The headline is as influential as what follows. And that headline is all about the paucity of desirable men.

Whether overtly (Gottlieb et al) or inadvertently (Bolick) , the media discourse about the worsening "good man drought" drives two key aspects of the scarcity model: the necessity of compromise with men and of competition with women. The fewer genuinely good men there are, the greater the bargaining power they have in relationship — and the more concessions women (at least those who are eager for marriage) are told they must make. Since so many successful women want to draw from the ever-shrinking pool of genuinely attractive and functional dudes, rivalry (or so we're reminded) must be inevitable.

Endless concessions are a recipe for disappointment; perfectionism a guarantor of exhaustion. Both are consequences of the scarcity model. But perhaps the most painful repercussion is the alienation that comes from competition. For young women in particular — including a great many of my students who have nothing to do with the modeling business — the pressure to compete with other women seems to be worsening. Blame the economy; blame the growing dude deficit on college campuses; blame women for their own success — the side-effect is always that for too many, the real scarcity is of close, uncompetitive female friendship of the sort that can rejoice unequivocally in another's triumph.

At one point in our conversation last week, Kaycee sighed and said, "Maybe this is just how women are with each other." Given the week she'd had, her cynicism was understandable. But this is something we hear over and over again from young (and not so young) women: the assumption that a propensity for jealousy, judgment, and "drama" is part of being female. In Kaycee's mind, the other models reacted to her cover as coldly not because they were models, but because they were young women. Cattiness comes with the ovaries.

(Of course, men can be bitter about other men's good fortune. It was Gore Vidal who famously remarked that "whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." Then again, Vidal is also famously gay — and gay men are both expected and permitted to have "womanly" emotions. Straight guys are expected to be rivals in sport, but loyal "bros" off the field.)

But it's too easy to attribute to nature what's pervasively reinforced by the culture. Good men, good college admission slots, and good jobs may all be genuinely scarce. But that scarcity is manufactured. A society that coddles young men by allowing them to remain emotionally obtuse adolescents for a quarter century (and that admits them to college with lower grades than their sisters') makes mature, responsible men scarce. A beauty culture that sets up the fashion model as the zenith of desirability drives a surplus of young women into the industry. And a media that takes every opportunity to remind women that they're running out of time and about to miss their chance at happiness encourages both perfectionism and hyper-competitiveness.

The scarcity model reinforces two central fears in women's lives. It cautions them against wanting "too much" just as it warns them that there "isn't enough" to go around. Not surprisingly, it's men who benefit from the diminished expectations and anxiety that so often follow. The solution isn't an overly optimistic abundance model. The solution begins in seeing the way women's jealousies are linked to socially constructed fears, fears that encourage diminished expectations, increased anxiety, and suspicion of other women. And the solution also begins with pointing out that the intended beneficiaries are men.

At the end of our conversation, Kaycee sighed. "It's so good to have this cover," she said. "But I never realized success could cost so much."

Too many women know what she meant.

*Name changed.


Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Image via Icons Jewelry/Shutterstock.