By Michelle Riddell
A woman’s primary nemesis is a scale—not the bathroom variety, though its adversarial powers are fierce—I am talking about a balance scale, the kind whose likeness is etched in bronze outside a courthouse. The kind of scale that compares the weight of one thing to another and registers the slightest sliver of inequity by dramatically tipping its arm. A woman imagines herself standing alone in the little gold dish on one side of the scale. She is weighted, grounded, secure. She wins if she is more, and she is more only if the other side is less. Like a zero-sum game, the outcome is distributive, never integrative, never shared.
In the second gold dish, on the opposite side of the balance arm, stand other women. Women she knows, women she loves, women she has never met yet knows intimate details about. Women who hurt her feelings back in high school, women who pretend to be interested when she talks, yet can’t bring themselves to ask her about her life. Women who begrudge her success in whatever realm it may be: another pregnancy, weight loss, a promotion, a good manicure. Women who complain about her behind her back, or don’t invite her, or don’t bother to learn her name. Women she is “friends” with but who won’t “like” the pictures she posts of her daughter’s first tooth or her tenth anniversary.
These other women, they weigh against her, weaken her, upset her advantage. Standing alone in her little gold dish, she worries their gain will be her loss. She becomes suspicious, reading maltreatment into motives and assuming the worst. She grows wary and defensive and, by turns, isolated and disconnected. She has invested so much time and effort into this notion of measuring herself against another—surely, it means something. It has to mean something. Only one woman can be the best mom, the most organized, the fittest, can have the cleanest house or the smartest kids. Only one woman can tip the scale.
She retaliates in the interest of self-preservation, scrutinizing her competition, always looking for a crack. She judges, she’s sarcastic, she’s critical. She withholds compliments lest they detract from her own appearance and give the other side an edge. If there’s a finite amount of admiration or approval in the world, she’s not going to waste it on others. Classic strategy of a zero-sum game, remember?
She plays like she’s been taught, mimicking the catty, spiteful maneuvers of effective women everywhere. She grows a second face to wear, like her mother and her mother’s friends. If she wants to win favor—men’s favor, in particular—this is how she must act. Girls compete for self-worth, right? That’s just what they do. That’s what the beauty industry, soap operas, Real Housewives, pageants, Angelina vs Jen, and every season of The Bachelor tell her: The only way to win is by making them lose.
She wants to win, and let’s say she does. She tips the scale, and finally, after all that fighting, she can rest on her laurels and await her prize. She waits in her little gold dish, tired and depleted, thinking what on earth could be worth all this conflict. She waits, rehearsing a gracious acceptance, and she wishes she had someone to share it with. She can hear the others from across the long arm of the balance scale, laughing and talking as if nothing were lost. While she’s waiting, she begins to question the very worth of this victory; if she’s so triumphant why is she alone? She wonders how winning at the other’s expense could be considered a victory at all.
Still no one comes, and she sears with the growing realization she’s been played. Life just isn’t a zero-sum game. There is not a limited supply of goodness and beauty, success or happiness. The other women grew as they gave, their strength increasing with every share; competing with them only kept her apart. This scale—this rudimentary, archaic device—this scale is her opponent, not the creatures on it. She climbs out of the dish, jumps off the balance arm, and runs over to join them.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michelle Riddell now lives with her family in rural mid-Michigan where she happily braves her husband’s penchant for DIY projects and her daughter’s passion for wildlife-as-indoor-pets. Her publishing credits include Sammiches and Psych Meds, Mamalode, The Good Mother Project, and Club Mid. In addition to being a reviewing editor at Mothers Always Write, Michelle is a substitute teacher at her daughter’s elementary school where she tries very hard not to embarrass her. Find her on Twitter @MLRiddell.