Every day—as parents, partners, students, professionals and simply as humans—women are being judged.
The size of our bodies. The clothes we wear. The choices we make. The children we birth, or don't. The relationships we have. The thoughts we think.
Old, young. Fat, thin. Tough, weak. Sexy, plain. Loud, quiet. Ambitious, lazy. Confident, shy. Natural, enhanced. Supermom, slacker mom.
We are too much or not enough.
Who decides what's just right?
As women, we all seem to strive for perfection. We have our ideas of what that means for ourselves, yet we also assign those standards to other women. When they don't measure up to our expectations? We whisper. We cluck our tongues. We roll our eyes. We troll.
The tendency to shame is so ingrained, we may not even realize we're doing it. Or why.
At least some of our behavior could be explained by conditioning, especially for the Boomer and X generations. The remnants of "a woman's place" are still present in our memories. For more than a century, we've struggled to break free of a position defined for us by the patriarchy; to come out of the kitchen, the nursery, the corset. But exactly how much is still in contention. There's pressure to be society's ideal—an ideal that is constantly changing and depends on who you ask.
Privilege, or lack of, is also at play. The inability to relate to another person's life experience creates room for judgment. If we can't fit the shoes we're supposed to walk a mile in, how can we take the first step?
Then consider the one reason we all seem to understand but have yet to conquer: our own insecurity. When we shame another woman, we might do so to bring her down to our perceived level—or lower, preferably—so we can be comforted by knowing at least we aren't (fill in the blank).
There is damage in shaming that goes beyond hurt feelings and betrayed trust.
Shaming hurts women as individuals and as a collective. It prevents growth and progress. It denies us the happiness to be who we are, as we are. Most important, it keeps us down and tears us apart. If we're busy quibbling over each other's real or imagined shortcomings, how can we ever rally for the revolution?
Nicole Lintemuth, a member of the body positivity and female empowerment group #squadbettie, phrases it this way: "Together women are unstoppable, which is why we scare the hell out of men when we build each other up. So, instead of judging another woman for her looks or her choices, I choose to support the hell out of her."
While some find gratification in shaming, there is more satisfaction in empowering. It elevates the giver as much as the receiver. It can even be a little addicting: The more you lift, the higher you feel.
Yet changing to a mindset of not just acceptance, but encouragement doesn't happen without work. Even the best cheerleader could be sideswiped by sneaky, negative thoughts. Shaming—whether spoken aloud or in your head—is a habit.
You can break the pattern by acknowledging your behavior, then digging deep to understand what's driving it. Is it learned? Rooted in your own hang-ups? Driven by social codes?
Identify it. Actively choose to fight it. When the urge to shame or judge arises, stop. Replace the thought or words with a compliment or simply resist altogether.
Surround yourself with people who boost others instead of belittling them. They could be your greatest influence.
Be honest and willing to share your struggles. This can promote empathy and help others better understand how alike we all really are.
"When it comes to prejudiced or judgmental thinking," Lintemuth said, "I remember that the first thought in my head was what was conditioned into me.
"My second thought—and my actions—are the person I WANT to be."
At an International Women's Day event in Grand Rapids, Ingham County 30th Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced former sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar and provided a platform for 156 women and girls who were abused by him, addressed a snide remark women have heard for decades:
"She must have PMS." Her response?
"Hell yes, I have PMS! But in my world—in the women's world—PMS means to PROMOTE, MENTOR and SUPPORT women. Period!"
Allison Kay Bannister, a West Michigan resident since 1987, professional writer since 2002 and GVSU alumna, recently launched her own freelance writing business. Allison enjoys travel, art, dance, food and exploring world cultures—and, of course, writing about all these and more.
This article originally appeared in West Michigan Woman.