Girls are often told they are different or “not like other girls” as a compliment to make us feel special and sometimes women proudly describe ourselves as such, but when we do that, what is it that we are saying about the concept of being woman?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
He was a funny, tall and young man. I was an overweight, intelligent and romantically-inexperienced girl. We sat in a coffee shop and talked about a book I was reading about the global counterfeit clothing industry.
“I like you,” he said to me, “You’re not like other girls.”
I didn’t ask, but I knew what he meant because I had heard that a few times before, and I liked it. He meant that I wasn’t airheaded and obsessed with fashion. He meant that I was good and smart enough to be socially-regarded as one of the guys. He meant that he liked me so it immediately made me better than the other girls. It meant that I was unique, and while I didn’t realise it then, it also meant that other women weren’t. I only thought of what it said about me to be not like other girls, I didn’t think about the statement it made on women in general. The teenaged-version of me just ate it up, because it meant I was special. It meant I was not like other girls.
Of course, that isn’t true.
We live in a country of over a billion people and what that means is that no one is special here. I don’t mean that as a negative thing or as an attack on individuality, it’s more a statement on our population. There are so many of us, that the chance of being truly unique or fundamentally different or singularly brilliant is negligible. On some level every socioeconomic condition in our country is rooted in the size of our population. There are more graduates, postgraduates and artistically-inclined people in our country in sheer numbers than anywhere in the world which means the competition for a limited number of jobs that require that level of education or skill is more fierce than anywhere else, and even if you are brilliant, there are a million other brilliant people who can do exactly what you can do. While we emotionally hang on to an idea of individualized identity, and that is good for our mental health, on paper a lot of us are replaceable with one another in the workforce. The experience of population is culturally reinforced in India, the need to compete is tied with survival and taught to us right when we are children. It’s a part of our daily lives. Add to that the fact that women are afforded fewer opportunities and positions than men and it makes an environment that is rife for socially-encouraged toxic competition. When you throw misogyny and organised patriarchy into that, we lay the groundwork for a woman-eat-woman world.
From a very young age women are taught that they can either be beautiful and popular or they can be intelligent and plain. Both sets of girls are encouraged to see their shortcomings in the other group and condemn them in the interest of self-esteem. If you are a girl who likes pop rock and pink T-shirts, girl-world will naturally designate you as an enemy to the girl who likes Pablo Neruda and can’t quite figure out lipstick. If you are a girl who sleeps around, you naturally hate any prudish woman. This is reinforced by pop-culture more than anything else when it melodically blares in your ear that if she wears short-skirts and you wear T-shirts, you might as well be hateful aliens to each other. As you get older these differences become more vast. Working women are encouraged to hate on homemakers. More progressive women are encouraged to hate on conservative women. Homemakers are encouraged to see working women as alien creatures who have abandoned their families and biological destinies, while working women are told to think that homemakers have no lives of their own and no personality. The reasons for the divide grow more vast as you grow older, and it gets to a place where we cannot enjoy our choices until they denigrate the choices of another.
That’s why these words are so satisfying to hear.
“You are not like other girls.“
But if we stopped thinking about it from an individual perspective for a moment, and consider what it means when someone says “other girls” we might be more offended when someone makes that statement to us. Other girls is in reference to the stereotype of women and that stereotype is that women gossip a lot, shop a lot, have a lot of unnecessary emotions, like pretty things, don’t work as well and are on some level, weak. This is the stereotype and when we are flattered because we don’t fit the stereotype, we become party to the oppressive force because as long as that force keeps praising us, it’s okay that it is also insulting the concept of our gender. Instead we should be taking offense at this stereotype of our gender because while some factions of society might be loath to admit it, women know this stereotype is bogus. Women know that we don’t gossip a lot, everyone does. We don’t necessarily shop a lot but keeping that myth going helps manufacturers target more products at us and keep the cycle of sales going. Emotions are necessary and not having them is far more damaging than being expressive. Pretty things bring everyone joy. Women can handle having literally any job and we can do push-ups just fine, thank you.
This stereotype of “other women” doesn’t actually describe any real woman. It’s a convenience that the patriarchy uses to apply the most successful tool of oppression ever discovered: Division. This elevated stature that women are ascribed usually by men and sometimes by other women that makes us “not like other women” makes it possible to alienate us from one another and a divided people are more likely to lose sight of a common enemy (or goal) when they are too busy hating on each other. Breaking it down like that makes it sound like the most obvious thing in the world but I realise in reality this issue is more complex. Women are taught to view each other’s success as a zero-sum-game because we are not taught that we are competing in the open market, we are told that we are competing with other women. This is reinforced by the limited number of positions that are offered to women and the slower professional growth that is afforded to us, and the ultimate message that is sent is that there is only room for one woman at every table. Instead of teaching women to expand the table and make more room on the top, we teach them to tear each other down to get there first because there is only one seat available. Just look at the US supreme court, it took the death of a female justice to consider appointing another female justice even though two other seats have been filled in the past four years. Women are most likely to be hired in positions that were held previously by women, that way we don’t have to make more space and we can just keep having the women scramble for the same limited positions.
The spirit of competition is also engendered by the search for mates. Women must compete with one another by being more beautiful, thinner, attractive, better-dressed than one another (and yes, guys have a similiar limitation on this market and you might feel the need to point that out, but if we could just have this space designated for women’s issues to discuss a women’s issue?). Women also have to compete to be more moral than each other when it comes to the desirability as a mate. The thing that suffers most in all of this is women’s identities. We’re all trying so hard not to be something else we’re defining ourselves by the lack of what we see as what we see as flaws in other women.
Yet as women we do understand that just because I like to express my individuality with clothing or make-up doesn’t mean I am any less capable of analysing an annual report. If I choose to dedicate my life to raising children doesn’t mean I am lacking in intelligence or I am not contributing to society. These things have nothing to do with each other and our alienation with one another is only a symptom of being taught to secure specialness by fearing the uniqueness of one another. That is why when society tries to put us in a box, it is more rewarding to step out of the box and point at those inside it as condemnable, but it is only rewarding for one moment. What’s truly rewarding is wholehearted support.
After I realised in myself the tendency to say “I am not like other women” fixing it was easy. Now, each time I encounter a woman, I ignore my first reaction whether that is judgement, threat or intimidation, and I focus on complimenting her on her uniqueness instead. I focus on asking questions until I learn enough about the other woman to realise that we are not that different, because, I am, I am like other girls, and that doesn’t mean I like shopping. No. It means we’re all part of the same struggle, and that’s what matters more than a moment of feeling special.