Why Do Women Compliment Each Other By Disparaging Themselves?

The Frisky staff recently had some professional photographs taken for PR purposes and we just got the contact sheets in. The second we all started looking at our own pictures — and then each other’s — something very … typical … set in. What I call the “I Look So Ugly, You Look So Pretty” game began.

“Ugh,” I groaned, scrolling through my headshots. “I look like my grandfather in drag.”

“Oh no you don’t!” Wendy assured me (even though she has never seen my grandfather). “There are some great pictures of you. I only like one of mine.”

“Whatever,” I brushed off. “Your skin looks amazing. So does Kate’s. I look hideous.”

“My arms look fat,” Annika chimed in.

Why the hell do women always do this?I met my oldest (and best) friend, Melanie*, in the first grade and we were inseparable for most of our adolescent lives. My mom says that she would drop me off at Melanie’s house for the day looking like Amelia, but when she would pick me up, I would look like Melanie. We always played hairdresser, so I would end up heading home with huge ’80s-style bangs, just like Melanie’s. I thought she was beautiful and I wanted to look just like her. Melanie was outgoing and spunky and she seemed to have a confidence I lacked. I craved that and thought looking like her would do it.

Melanie and I went through a period of not being friends in high school and then lost touch when we both headed off to college. Years later (about five years ago or so), we got in touch again via MySpace and decided to meet up when we were both in Washington, D.C. for an event. I was so excited to see her again, after all these years. Would we have lots of talk about? Or would things be kind of awkward?

It turned out to be a mixture of both. When Melanie came up to me, a huge smile on her face, I did not recognize her. Her whole life she had been a dancer — tall (about 5’9″) and strong; her body had been able to do things mine couldn’t, like splits and complicated routines. When I saw her now, however, she was a shadow of her former self. I could see that her facial features were the same, but they were attached to the body of a woman who was severely anorexic.

That day we talked about everything but the very thin elephant in the room. It was as if no time had passed and it was so wonderful to hear everything she had been up to over the last few years. Everything but, it seemed, losing an unconscionable amount of weight. We kept in touch off and on, but because I felt like I couldn’t ask her what the hell was wrong (was it my business?), I didn’t feel like I could let my guard down with her completely either.

A couple years later, after my big breakup, Melanie invited me to visit her for the weekend, to relax and get away from things. I was nervous about seeing her again, unsure if she’d still be as thin, if we still wouldn’t talk about it, and whether talking about it would continue to make me feel on guard. I was relieved to see she looked a bit healthier than the last time and that she did, indeed, eat when we went out for lunch.

Eventually, after hinting at it a few times, she finally told me what I already knew. She had been suffering from an eating disorder for years, following years of low self-esteem. As a kid and teen, while I had been trying to emulate her, her own father had been telling her she was fat and ugly, among other things. The focus on body image in the dance world made things worse, and in high school she started restricting her food intake. At her very thinnest — around the time I saw her five years ago — she weighed 85 pounds. Eventually, she made the decision to go to an eating disorder clinic where the doctors deemed her condition so threatening they placed her on a feeding tube.

These days she is doing much better and has put on a little more weight — though I would love to see another 10 pounds — but her eating disorder is something that she has to fight against every single day of her life. I saw her last weekend and when I went to hug her I almost cried because she felt less frail than before. I told her how lovely she is inside and out.

The point is that how we view ourselves is so different than how others view us. I don’t understand how Melanie can’t see how beautiful she is, but she also wouldn’t be able to understand how I don’t see myself as beautiful either. Women seem to have this knee-jerk reaction not just to compare themselves to other women, but to vocalize that feeling of ugliness alongside a compliment, as if being “prettier than” is the ultimate praise, the best feeling a woman can have. And it’s not. So let’s stop it.

* Name has been changed.

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