A Cold War Fought by Women


evidence shows that female aggression helps explain peer pressure
to meet standards of physical appearance and sexual

How aggressive
is the human female? When the anthropologist Sarah B. Hrdy surveyed
the research literature
three decades ago, she concluded
that “the competitive component in the nature of women remains
anecdotal, intuitively sensed, but not confirmed by

Science has come a long way since then,
as Dr. Hrdy notes in her introduction to a recent issue of Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society
devoted entirely to the
topic of female aggression. She credits the “stunning” amount of
new evidence partly to better research techniques and partly to the
entry of so many women into scientific fields once dominated by

The existence of female competition may
seem obvious to anyone who has been in a high-school cafeteria or a
singles bar, but analyzing it has been difficult because it tends
be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male
variety. Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they
say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important
factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet
standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.

The old doubts about female
competitiveness derived partly from an evolutionary analysis of the
reproductive odds in ancient polygynous
societies in which some men were left single because dominant males
had multiple wives. So men had to compete to have a chance of
reproducing, whereas virtually all women were assured of it.

But even in those societies, women were
not passive trophies for victorious males. They had their own
incentives to compete with one another for more desirable partners
and more resources for their children. And now that most people
live in monogamous societies, most women face the same odds as men.
In fact, they face tougher odds in some places, like the many
college campuses with more women than men.

To see how female students react to a
rival, researchers brought pairs of them into a laboratory at
McMaster University for what was ostensibly a discussion about
female friendships. But the real experiment began when another
young woman entered the room asking where to find one of the

This woman had been chosen by the
researchers, Tracy
and Aanchal Sharma, because she “embodied
qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,”
meaning a “low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts.”
Sometimes, she wore a T-shirt and jeans, other times a
tightfitting, low-cut blouse and short skirt.

In jeans, she attracted
little notice and no negative comments from the students
whose reactions were being secretly recorded during the encounter
and after the woman left the room. But when she wore the other
outfit, virtually all the students reacted with

They stared at her, looked her up and
down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. One
asked her in disgust, “What the [expletive] is that?”

Most of the aggression, though,
happened after she left the room. Then the students laughed about
her and impugned her motives. One student suggested that she
dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor. Another
said that her breasts “were about to pop out.”

The results of the experiment jibe with
evidence that this “mean girl” form of indirect aggression is used
more by adolescents and young women than by older women, who have
less incentive to handicap rivals once they marry. Other studies
have shown that the more attractive an adolescent girl or woman is,
the more likely she is to become a
target for indirect aggression from her female

“Women are
indeed very capable of aggressing against others, especially women
they perceive as rivals,” said Dr. Vaillancourt, now a psychologist
at the University of Ottawa. “The research also shows that
suppression of female sexuality is by women, not necessarily by

Stigmatizing female promiscuity —
a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a
Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But
they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be
promiscuous. Dr. Vaillancourt said the experiment and other
research suggest the stigma
is enforced mainly by

“Sex is coveted
by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of
maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women
who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding
position of the group, which is why many women are particularly
intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”

Indirect aggression can take a
psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to
meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies in many
modern societies. Studies have shown that women’s ideal body shape
is to be thinner than average — and thinner than what men consider
the ideal shape to be. This pressure is frequently blamed on the
ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on
television, but Christopher J. Ferguson and other researchers say
that it’s mainly the
result of competition with their peers, not media images

“To a large degree the media reflects
trends that are going on in society, not creates them,” said Dr.
, a psychologist at Stetson University. He found
that women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies did
not correlate with what they watched on television
home. Nor were they influenced by TV programs shown in laboratory
experiments: Watching the svelte actresses on “Scrubs” induced no
more feelings of inferiority than watching the not-so-svelte star
of “Roseanne.” 

But he found
that women were more likely to feel worse when they compared
themselves with peers in their own social circles, or even if they
were in a room with a thin stranger, like the assistant to Dr.
Ferguson who ran an
with female college students. When she wore
makeup and sleek business attire, the students were less satisfied
with their own bodies than when she wore baggy sweats and no
makeup. And they felt still worse when there was an attractive man
in the room with her.  

competition among females seems to increase due to circumstances
that tend to be particularly common in affluent societies,” Dr.
Ferguson said.  

In traditional
villages, people married at an early age to someone nearby, but
young men and women in modern societies are free to postpone
marriage as they search long and far for better options. The result
is more competition because there are so many more rivals — and
there’s no longer any scientific doubt that both sexes are in to
win it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.