Who among us has never sized up another woman and found ourselves lacking?

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This kind of jealousy, of course, is rarely about the other person—she represents an alternate version of ourselves that seems somehow more alluring, and feels maddeningly elusive. So suggests an op-ed in the New York Times by Emily V. Gordon, who begins by tracing her own struggle with jealousy and competitiveness throughout her childhood, marveling at “how other girls could have gone from my closest allies to my scariest foes.”

Research, Gordon notes, tells us that women engage in the more indirect form of aggression that kills two birds with one bitchy method—“a combination of ‘self-promotion,’ making themselves look more attractive, and ‘derogation of rivals,’ being catty about other women.” We’ve all seen Mean Girls.

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In response to this, the author as a young girl tried to live pseudo-above the fray, rejecting a traditional feminine appearance in order to remove herself from the competition, and later, her female friendships in general in favor of guy friends and “guy things.” This strategy didn’t save her. She writes:

Instead of openly hating women, I used hate’s sneaky little sister and told myself that I pitied women who worked hard to be conventionally attractive, who had jobs that utilized their feminine wiles, who were “too girlie.” “Poor her,” I’d cluck at parties, “wanting attention so badly. I wonder who hurt her. Let’s discuss this art rock band I saw last week.” Self-promotion: check. Degradation of rivals: check.

So far, research points to two working theories on this sort of lady posturing. One: women do this because in order to get a good man to make the best baby, we need to make other women look shitty. Two: because the patriarchy says that the brass ring of female existence is being lauded by a man, and each woman ultimately internalizes male standards for being attractive or worthy and then viciously applies them to herself and others. Both theories have us acting as if eternally at war for the prize of male approval.

But since we are more than just hormonal baby-makers, and many women celebrate other women and maintain lifelong, nurturing friendships with them, is competition with and criticism of other women really inevitable? Or is it all just part of making your way through the world as a woman, a tic that you can unpack, outthink, and more importantly, outgrow?

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Gordon suggests that jealousy is really “a fun-house mirror that reflects an inaccurate version of who we are, but we turn on her anyway, because it’s easier”:

We aren’t competing with other women, ultimately, but with ourselves — with how we think of ourselves. For many of us, we look at other women and see, instead, a version of ourselves that is better, prettier, smarter, something more. We don’t see the other woman at all.

I think Gordon is right. As we’ve explored before, part of why women use indirect aggression is because it’s the only culturally acceptable form of aggression at their disposal. If it’s not okay to express anger, what other way can you show disapproval aside from shunning, or backbiting, or gossiping? This peaks during teenage years, when cliques and alliances reconfigure at alarming speeds, when women scarcely understand their own worth outside of sex appeal, when it’s nearly impossible to not feel pitted against each other in pursuit of the stamp of Ultimate Hot Girl.

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As we get older and our confidence thickens—along with our understanding of how fruitless it is to constantly be assessing who is the prettiest person in the room—most of us try to outgrow this behavior. But the world is a shallow place; sexist valuing of the genders persists. It’s worth noting, also, that it’s not just women who are competitive or immune to posturing—men are competitive too, and they also use indirect aggression, particularly in the workplace. Some research says there is “virtually no sex difference” in that arena.

Part of what makes female jealousy in particular so inevitable, though, is that women quickly learn that they will be judged in some way on appearances, much more so than men. Girls learn early on the value of their looks. As certain girls and women are worshipped, celebrated, paraded around as the ideal form, you learn to hold yourself to this standard, and isolate your shortcomings. But then what?

You know what you aren’t, but what are you? Throughout our lives, we look at other women who curry favor with men (or women); we size them up, we wonder if we have such charms. We learn to cultivate whatever charms we do possess, or foster others. As you get older, you realize what you covet in other women is precisely whatever appeal you don’t have; part of self acceptance for many women begins with this unspoken sentence fragment: I may not be_____, but I am_____.

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This is, of course, a real shame. Being appealing is overrated. Some of the happiest times in a woman’s life are the so-called hall passes we issue ourselves from having to care about how we look—for mine, that was pregnancy.

So in a way we cultivate two gardens: one is learning to accept and appreciate ourselves and others outside the beauty olympics; the other is learning to accept and appreciate ourselves and other women without feeling threatened or diminished—just as they might have something you lack, you, too, possess some special thing that other women crave. As Gordon notes, “When we each focus on being the dominant force in our own universe, rather than invading other universes, we all win.”

She’s right. Which is why the moment you can look at another woman and simply say “she’s awesome” for whatever it is that makes her awesome, and not see that as a strike against your own worth, you know you’ve transcended something big.

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Image via USA/My Best Friend’s Wedding.