Woman-on-woman jealousy: worst motivator ever, or worst motivator ever?

A few weeks ago, I picked up a book by a fairly well-known trainer with the intention of following the four-month weight training plan laid out in the book.  As I read through the book, I often found myself rolling my eyes at some of the ways the trainer framed the benefits of following her plan: lots of talk about wearing smaller jeans and tighter clothes, about being hotter and sexier, lots of “you go girl!” type stuff, which quite frankly makes me want to turn in my Vagina Card whenever I encounter it.  (Too much?  Maybe, but that’s how much I hate that kind of stuff.)

I was willing to overlook all of that, because the substance of her book – eat clean, train hard, fuck the pink Barbie weights, and fuck “girl” push-ups while you’re at it – really appealed to me.  In fact, I like the substance of her book so much and have enjoyed her workouts so tremendously that I’m not even going to use her name and book title in this post because I don’t want this to seem like I’m hating on her, as I’m not.  But there was one thing I was almost unable to deal with, one thing that almost caused me to put down the book and walk away from it forever, and that was the way the trainer used the prospect of inspiring envy in other women as a motivator to work out and get fit.

At first when I read that, I was like, “What is this, junior high school?”  I mean, that was about the last time I can remember seriously thinking about how great it would be to be the kind of girl who inspired feelings of envy in other girls.  Back then, I couldn’t look at a girl who I thought was prettier or better dressed without feeling achingly jealous of her.  I didn’t understand the destructive nature of cultivating envy and jealous toward other girls and women until I was older and two things happened.  First, I found myself on the other side of this equation for the first time and I learned it wasn’t quite the glorious ego-boost I’d thought it would be.  Instead, I felt alienated from the other girls, and sad at the knowledge that I could inadvertently inspire such bad feelings in another person.

The second thing that happened is that I became involved in girl-zine culture, which pushed back against girl-on-girl competition and instead wanted girls and women to foster strong, genuine relationships with one another.  “Jealousy kills girl love.”  “We vow to struggle against the “j” word (jealousy) the killer of GIRL LOVE.”  “ENCOURAGEMENT IN THE FACE OF INSECURITY is a slogan of the revolution.”  It was the first time I had ever explicitly heard someone say that women and girls didn’t have to be in competition with each other.  I mean, what were we competing for?  Attention from guys?  Like that was some kind of super-rare commodity, like we all are living on Mars and male attention is oxygen, and the only way we could survive is if a guy wanted to have sex with us?   It sounds stupid, but I realized that was basically the paradigm under which I was operating.  What’s more, I realized that this wasn’t just unique to me, that it was girl-on-girl competition was fostered all over our culture, that it was pretty much a given that women were going to be jealous.  As Jay-Z put it, “Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.”

The whole notion of jealousy arises from this idea of scarcity, that there’s only so many crumbs of attention and power and sex to go around, and so we should do what we can to get as much of it as possible lest we get screwed out of getting any at all.  In the process, we end up screwed anyway, because we get so wrapped up in trying to get one over each other that we fail to notice that we are in fact fighting over crumbs.

I had done a pretty thorough job of banishing girl-on-girl jealousy from my way of thinking about the world, which made reading those words all the more jarring.  It was a reminder that, yep, there are women – actual grown-up women, not just teenage girls – who still regard other women through the lens of envy and jealousy.  What was even worse was after reading that, I started to see the sentiment show up everywhere – in infomercials, in fitness media, all over the fucking place.  I wasn’t sure how I had missed it before but once I realized that this was a common trope in fitness writing, I couldn’t unsee it.  It was everywhere.  It was even in the book aisles at Target:

More like “Six Seconds to WTF?”

The information in the book could be totally legitimate, but the title and subtitle are so gross that I can’t even with it.  It makes me want to scream with frustration.  Yes, it’s a gimmicky diet book, but it’s one that plays into the worst stereotypes of women as diet-obsessed bitches who really hate their so-called friends, and I want to wipe my butt with it every time I come across it in bookstores.  It’s not unique, though.  It just happens to be the most egregious perpetrator of a sad, contradictory way of thinking, which is that we can find the motivation to make positive changes in our lives by inspiring negative feelings in other people.

Why fall into that way of thinking?  It’s such a cold-hearted way to go through the world, which is the only way I can think to describe a mindset in which everyone – even your friends – are competition.  Instead, why not try to be a source of positivity?  Why not admire other women you find beautiful or accomplished?  Why not be genuinely supportive of other women – or really, of other people in general?  You don’t have to be best friends with every woman you meet – you don’t even have to like them – but you don’t have to actively try to tear them down, either.

There are so many excellent, positive reasons to embrace a life of fitness and athletics: because you want to be healthier, because it’s fun, because muscles look cool, because it feels great to be able to do challenging things with your body, because you feel more confident in yourself.  The prospect of tearing down other women and making them feel insecure does not need to be one of those reasons.  It’s challenging enough to be a woman in this world.  Let’s stop making it harder for each other than it already is.

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50 responses to “Woman-on-woman jealousy: worst motivator ever, or worst motivator ever?

  1. Thank you for this! Jeez. I’m a Pilates instructor & personal trainer and I’m so glad to read this. It’s right in line with my way of training & teaching. Let’s all “go girl”s!!!

  2. Oh goody! I’m first today. Maybe

    Anyway, this isn’t necessarily a female thing but a human thing. I see a lot of people out there that don’t seem to be able to be happy unless others are miserable. They see life as a zero sum game. There is a limited amount of happiness and if you’re happy you’re probably stealing from me. So, why not exploit this for financial gain.

    • I agree that it’s not something that is exclusive to women, but for some reason – and I don’t think I’m capable of articulating exactly why, so maybe someone else can step up on this – there’s something about the way many women compete with one another that feels particularly brutal and underhanded. You know how people say that women are often each other’s worst enemies? Sometimes I think it’s true.

      • This is a bit of an oversimplification, but when a group of people are deprived of agency and power, it breeds cattiness. Gossip and back-stabbing are tools for the powerless to get power.

        I really like Yoshinaga Fumi’s manga Ooku for the treatment of this–the setting is a gender-swapped Edo-period Japan, and the Shogun, who is a woman, has a harem of men. The men concern themselves with gossip and fashion and compete like this because they have literally nothing else to do and their entire worth is based on appearance and breeding potential.

        Great post!

    • OMG you found the exact quote that made me want to stab myself:

      You know the girl…the one at the last party you went to who walked in the room feeling sexy and confident in her flirty black dress without a roll or a bulge in sight and worked the room with her confidence, looking fabulous! At the time, you may have referred to her as “that bitch who walked in the room thinking she is somebody,” and you might have wondered who she thought she was. But deep down we all know she has what all of us want

      Reading that seriously hurt my soul.

      • Ha! I knew which book you were referencing right away! I loved her book for the workouts and I really appreciated that she said to ditch the pink Barbie weights but I remember telling my husband while I read it that I’d like it more if it were less “become a sexy bitch.”

    • Yep, I recognized it, too. That was the first weight-lifting program I worked through and, while I liked the program, the tone of the book made me want to scream. I’ve gone on to do several other plans since then, including her hub’s New Rules series, and am not even planning on buying her new one because I was so aggravated by the tone of TFBB.

      • So it sounds like this is a pretty common response to her book? Is there anyone to whom the tone actually appealed?

        The New Rules of Lifting for Women is next on my list of programs to work through. What did you think about it? I’ve heard great things about that one but I am a little apprehensive because of the way his wife’s book was put together.

      • Sorry it took me so long to respond! I like the entire New Rules series (I’ve done the original New Rules, for Women, & for Abs). The plans seem solid, and Lou Schuler is a great writer. NROL4W has a much, much different tone than TFBB. It’s rather low-key and funny in a dry way. If you’re plan-shopping, I can also vouch for Eric Cressey’s Maximum Strength. I didn’t like Todd Durkin’s Impact Plan too much, but it is a good program. I’m now doing 5/3/1 and love it. I like the plan a lot, and the tone of the book is almost the opposite of TFBB-very funny in a very dry, crass way.

        Happy lifting!

  3. What’s most insulting – beyond the girl hate – is that the writer of the above quote presumes to know what the woman in the “flirty black dress” is feeling. Just because she looks confident, doesn’t mean she is. Everyone has problems. Maybe she couldn’t pass her SATs. Maybe her father is a felon and she has to deal with family shame. Maybe she is a cancer survivor with a prosthetic. None of us would know. The book was written by a man:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/books/review/inside-the-list.html?_r=0

    • Yeah, the “OMG!” book isn’t the one I was referring to – or the one referenced in that excerpt – but I brought it up because it was just so blatant in the way it perpetuates some really gross ideas about being a woman.

      Also, good point about how no one knows what the hypothetical woman in the black dress is thinking. Also, I would argue that it’s bullshit to think that a woman is a “bitch” because she thinks she looks good and “is somebody.” Like, god forbid a woman like the way she look and carry herself with confidence! *eye roll*

      • I agree. There is nothing wrong with being confident and there are times when all a person has is the appearance of confidence. Punishing women for being “beautiful” or “confident” is no better than punishing women for being “unattractive” or “self-loathing”. We are not entitled to ascribe thoughts or feelings to other people or to assume that someone is arrogant simply because she is “attractive”. Just because we feel insecure doesn’t mean that the other person did something wrong to make us feel that way. My experience is that women who allow their unchecked and uncensored envy to grow often do / say terrible things to completely innocent people. They make accusations of illicit affairs and flirtations, ruin workplace relationships, and generally act in a sociopathic way to “even the score” as though the object of their behavior has no feelings just because she is “attractive”. Targeting any woman / girl for hateful behavior is bullying, and it is up to grown women to set the standard for our younger peers.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too with all the crazy hate towards Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift and Sheryl Sandberg. I feel like the hate towards them is totally out of proportion (I get it if they might not be your thing, but none of them have done anything awful). But I think it is related to power. Women with power still frighten a lot of people. I think playing to jealousy is another way to keep it so that only a few women have power.

    • Most definitely. You can dislike a person – or in the case of celebrities, their personae – but the kind of rabid hatred inspired by a lot of these women is really sad.

      I think playing to jealousy is another way to keep it so that only a few women have power.

      YES! How much more could we accomplish if we genuinely supported each other rather trying to knife each other in the back every time we think someone is getting a little too successful/beautiful/fit/whatever?

  5. Fantastic post! I always feel like there is so much tearing down of women by women; driven by some fear that we cannot ALL be successful, like there is a limited amount available. I think competition/jealousy is found in men too, but there is something underhanded and really harmful about it with women.
    PS currently doing the New Rules… I like it. It is tough and chalkenging but in a goid way.

  6. Ahhhh! Thank YOU for this post. I am a fitness fanatic and so often am wrongly judged for it. Women assume I do it to compete with them. Couldn’t be further from the truth. I hope to inspire others. Encourage my friends. Will we ever go away with the Women vs. Women society that we live in?

    • Hmm…I would say that I agree with about 80% of your post. I agree that women can be really terrible when it comes to policing the behavior and appearances of other women, and in fact I see it all the time – and not just when body image stuff, but with sexual behavior and such. In that regard, I agree with your post in that women can be a major driver behind a lot of this.

      However, I think you have a really rosy perspective on the way many guys regard women’s bodies. I don’t think I’m the only woman who has had the experience of having a man in her life make some sort of negative comment about her body. In my case, the comments have been that I needed to lose weight because I was getting chubby, that my boobs were too small for me to be sexually attractive and that I had hair in weird spots that I needed to “take care of” (i.e. have ripped out by the roots so I looked more porn-y). It’s excellent that the men you associate with are all about strong female bodies, but there are a lot of guys out there who are really into feeling like the strong, powerful protector in the relationship and want a woman whose body contributes to that dynamic by being small and tiny. Basically, guys can be really shitty about enforcing fucked-up standards about women’s bodies, too.

      I don’t think it’s as simple as “it’s men’s fault” or “it’s women’s fault” though. I think there’s a really toxic cultural ocean we all swim in that supports these weird attitudes in a billion different ways, and that we all resist or embrace it in varying degrees. Laying the blame at the feet of one gender for a problem that is pretty much society-wide is way too reductive for my thinking.

      Of course, all that said, I do think that at some point we all have to take responsibility for the way we feel/think about our bodies, just out of sheer necessity and survival. There are always going to be shitty, shallow people in the world. The mass media doesn’t seem to be getting any less stupid. If we wait for other people to get their shit together before giving ourselves permission to feel like we are worthy of respect, then it’s never going to happen, so I’ve found it’s easier to work on just not giving a fuck what other people thin.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing the link to your post. Gave me a lot to think about, and for what it’s worth, I like that we are on the same side of things, even if we came at it from different angles.

  7. I think this has a lot to to with tokenism – we’re inundated with the idea that there can only be one token woman. You better be catty and compete with the other women to get the coveted position, because there will only be one of you! Hollywood says so!

  8. Man, that’s annoying! Even more annoying if the book is generally full of good advice otherwise.

    That, too — plus the tendency to not be written for people who are 1) already quite strong and 2) looking to get even stronger, especially upper-body — is probably one of the main reasons I never read exercise advice that’s aimed at women. Some of it might have to do with my background — I was taught by all male coaches, with almost all-male gym-mates (my school’s weights and conditioning program was pretty heavily geared toward football players), so I soon got used to working out in that environment, and to thinking of men as my natural peers, competitors etc. But who knows, maybe if the culture around women and exercise got less patronizing and appearance-focused, I’d feel as at home there as I do on the guys’ side.

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  11. Excellent post. Any goal that is predicated on creating jealousy and tearing down connections with other people is doomed to fail. It might not fail today, it might not fail tomorrow, but it will fail. We need love and support, and if we don’t keep that in mind as we craft our goals, we are building our houses on shaky foundation indeed.

  12. Great post! One of my friends has lost around 30 pounds over the past couple of years. (She isn’t keeping track). Whenever I notice new muscle tone or something on her, I think….I need to get my workouts in. I don’t know why we can’t all on everyone accomplishing more. Instead of stepping on everyone else on your way up.

  13. I’d much rather exercise to inspire people to be active themselves rather than to make them envious. Every time I see someone jogging or doing yoga in the park, it makes me want to join them. :)

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  15. I’m a little late to the party but as someone with a… complex history regarding health/fitness I’ve experienced everything from jealousy and other nasty things to super special new agey joyous loving grrl power of positivity and sunshine. And guess what? If you want to feel beautiful and strong and attractive and all those things that apparently make other people jealous of you, I’ve found if I GIVE those things to others then I feel those things in myself. And just generally make the world a better place and shit. Allowing myself to feel happy that someone else is beautiful and strong and attractive and maybe even complimenting them on it and letting them know (in a truly positive way) creates even more of that positive energy for myself, for them and for all women. Encouragement breeds abundance. Which is literally the OPPOSITE attitude of what the women you mention above are promoting.

    Sorry to get woo woo! Love you forever!

  16. I admire your attitude. I wish it were the norm. It should be, ’cause it’s the healthy one but our society has such deeply-embedded toxic ideas. They work to the disadvantage of women and permeate every area, even fitness. That sucks. Your post is a good antidote.

  17. LOVE THIS POST! I’ve seen that book around and can’t bring myself to read it even for research purposes.

    While you may not think I’m a woman supporter after my post today, I can assure you that I definitely wish women would commit fewer crimes against women and instead build each other up and promote strength and confidence.

    • Oh girl, I do not think that you are not a supporter of women! I just think we have a difference of opinion is all, which last I checked is not only allowed but is actually a good thing.

      • Haha that was meant to be at least slightly humorous…although potentially not well delivered :-)

        And yes…it is a good thing!

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  19. I knew right away which book you were talking about too. I had exactly the same issue with the book myself. It makes me sad and annoyed that she included this kind of negative content because otherwise it seems like a solid workout plan with good information. A related thing that annoyed me no end was that she seemed to constantly state that prior to losing weight, the reader would feel poorly about herself. Now I may have many reasons to want to get fit and eat healthily, but it really gets my dander up to be told that I should feel bad, ashamed or not proud and confident in my current appearance. I think it kind of promotes low self-esteem, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a healthy place from which to approach trying to improve your fitness level. I find I am most motivated to do so when I feel good about myself and that I am a person worth taking the time and effort to live healthily. Being told to feel unattractive until I become “hot and confident” runs exactly counter to that.

    • I hear you on all of this. I’m very similar in that I cannot be motivated to make positive changes in my life by focusing on how much I suck. I suppose there are people out there for whom that works but I am not one of them.

      I actually loaned this book to my sister because I liked the workouts and I thought she would like them, too, but I did so with like twenty minutes of caveats about the tone and the way everything was framed. I’m hoping she’ll listen, but she’s also pretty new to the world of fitness and health so I’m also worried that maybe I made a mistake.

    • “Being told to feel unattractive until I become “hot and confident” runs exactly counter to that.”

      I totally missed that layer of it, but you are exactly right. Not to mention that conventionally attractive/thin does not necessarily equal hot does not necessarily equal confident. Those are three distinct separate qualities.

  20. Hi Caitlin. I’m a 32 year old woman with one 10 year old daughter and two step-sons, 17 and 21. About five years ago I was 215 pounds and I spent a year working in myself to lose 60 pounds. Once the weight was gone, I underwent a breast lift and a tummy tuck. I felt great about myself, but still knew I had a lot if work. I was married for 11 years and I never once felt insecure about myself, but with my husband now, who I love deeper than anyone other than my child, I feel an enormous amount if jealousy to other women who are in better shape. I have been slaving at the gym and I am a muscular chick but my body fat is around 26%. I am a pretty woman but I still feel inadequate. You would think having a husband tell you, “You are the most beautiful woman I know,” would be enough, but it isn’t. I can’t get past women who are exceptionally fit. I am past the age where the beer girls in bathing suits are and I can’t help but feel jealousy and the need to put someone down who may have a better ass than I do. Now I can recognize a fit and beautiful woman but when you see a woman as described and they are taking pictures of their ass and selves in front of a huge group of people, how do you not say something negative. I don’t know if its my own insecurity coupled with pure annoyance of cocky women or what. I am still working out and I am stuck at my current weight. I had a breast augmentation because I lost a lot of volume after running, lifting and doing pole and aerial silks for fitness. We were in Vegas three days ago and the Dos Equis girls were there, literally standing with their butt floss right in front of my husband and I. It was nearly five minutes before they moved. One if them was just an average chick in a suit, but the other was a fitness model or just blessed. I couldn’t help but feel like the bitches were standing there on purpose to fuel my insecurity. I read this blog and thought, “I need this book!” Maybe it will help me to understand why I now have a hatred towards women who are more fit than I am. It didn’t start till I got into a new relationship two years ago. I have always been confident and comfortable until I realized I’m getting older and missed out on my prime 20’s. I spent seven years fat, so I feel I am forever the fat girl and I’m forever imperfect. I know this is long-winded but I gave never vented my thoughts about my jealousy towards other women. I know I am a receiver of dirty looks and I know how it feels to be on the other side, but I don’t seem to care because I still am nasty to others when I’m with my husband. I will say, wow she is really pretty but she has a fat ass,” or “she has a great rack, but a huge overbite.” My husband says why can’t you say something nice a d just leave it at that? I don’t know. Maybe I search to point out other women’s flaws because I am imperfect. With all I have said here, I would like to know the book you read from this blog. I need to start loving myself and appreciating others. I know this is a late response, but i have been searching through blogs and articles to try and find reasons for my insecurities. Thank you.

    • Hey Melissa, I apologize for taking a few days to respond, but I wanted to think carefully about your comment and how to respond to it.

      First of all, the book is The Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove. By all means, pick it up and read it. I do have to say that I don’t think you’ll find what you are looking for in this book, though. My reasoning behind this thought is two fold:

      1. Cosgrove doesn’t really talk about extricating yourself from the cycle of woman-on-woman jealousy as much as she talks about moving from one side of the equation (being the one experiencing jealousy) to the other side (being one inspiring it). In my personal opinion, the ideal to strive for is to break out of the cycle of jealousy, because jealousy is a really negative, destructive emotion, and lord knows we have enough of those in the world as it is. I don’t mean being falsely cheery and fake, but I do mean trying to what you can to tip the global karmic balances toward compassion and empathy.

      2. The problem you are talking about won’t really go away just by lifting weights or getting fit. As you said in your comment, you’re already very fit and you’ve had some work done. You’ve made a lot of changes to your exterior, yet it hasn’t had an impact on the way you feel inside. And that’s really what you are describing here: a problem with the way you feel and the way you regard the world. For instance, when you write about other women who you perceive as being very fit and attractive, you say you feel like they are “cocky women” who presenting themselves in ways that are meant to “fuel your insecurity.” The reality is that they most likely are not thinking about you at all, especially if they were working at jobs that required them to be “hot girls.” They might be thinking about how their feet hurt, or some annoying guy who grabbed their butt, or what they want to do when their shift ends. So I guess the question you have to ask yourself is why you feel as though their existence is a personal affront to you.

      About the comments you make when you are with your husband: something I wondered is, what is it about the other women that makes you feel threatened? Like, what is the worst possible scenario that you envision? And do you think it’s realistic? I mean this seriously, and not that you have to answer me, but just something for you to think about. I think that when you can name the things that make you afraid, it takes away some of their power, you know?

      Self-love and self-respect isn’t an easy thing – I know I have to work at it all the time, and that I am constantly vigilant for the kind of sneaky thoughts that make their way into my brain – but I do think they are worthy goals to pursue. And the interesting thing has been that as I have grown to have respect and confidence in myself, I have found it a lot easier to respect and appreciate the good things in other people. When I didn’t like myself at all, I picked apart other women in an attempt to make myself feel better about myself (which never worked) but when I started to like myself and appreciate good things about myself, it became a lot easier to look at other women and go, “Wow, she’s beautiful” or “Damn, she rocks those jeans” or “She’s so cool, I should be friends with her” and to really mean it.

      But again, this is all work I had to do in my heart and mind. Lifting weights helped with my confidence but it wasn’t the whole story.

      I hope this helps even a tiny bit. And also, *hugs* to you.

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  22. I never noticed female jealousy until I went to Saudi Arabia. I think having always gelled best with men and had mainly male friends, I never gave female jealousy a thought. When I was forced to work and socialize only with Women because of Saudi Arabia’s gender-segregated society, I was forced to see it. I lived with vicious female jealousy for one year and now after returning to the West I see it everywhere. It is really sad that so many Women live their lives in this way. The reality of female jealousy just cemented my break with feminism and underscored my commitment to building relationships with Men.

    • I have to say that you totally lost me with the last sentence of your comment. My experience with feminism and feminists have been that they actively try to dismantle woman-on-woman jealousy by deconstructing the idea that we have to compete with each other. In fact, the most supportive women I’ve known have all been feminists. It doesn’t mean that feminists are somehow immune to wider social pressures and that you won’t sometimes see that kind of cattiness showing up, but I do think that you’re less likely to find it among a group of feminist-minded women than you are among women who don’t identify that way. So I guess I have to say I don’t follow your leap from “vicious female jealousy” to “breaking with feminism.”

    • Well, I have never been so Saudi Arabia, so I can’t say for sure, but my impression is that is quite strongly the opposite of a feminist society. I think women are taught to compete with each other and feel jealous by a society that still has some strong misogynistic tendencies. It is true we have made some great changes compared to 50 or 100 years ago (being able to vote, reproductive choice being legal, being able to pursue careers, etc.) However there are still big areas where I think feminism is needed, etc. the still shockingly high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence, many women having conflict between pursuing their career and raising families due to lack of childcare options, women still earning less money than men, etc.

      More specifically on the topic of female jealousy, I think society teaches women that a big part of our value is determined by whether men find us sexually attractive, and whether we are in a relationship with a man or not. Older single men are “bachelors”, and older single women, no matter how fabulous, accomplished, educated or powerful, are still thought of by many as “spinsters” to some degree. Within this context, it makes sense that women view each other as competition for resources, including the all-important attention from men. I think one of the great things about feminism is that it promotes women as fully independent and important people in their own right, regardless of their reproductive or relationship status, and thus can reduce female competition and jealousy. I am not saying there is anything wrong with relationships or having a family, they are wonderful things, just that I wish society didn’t define us so much by those attributes. I don’t think they do this to men to the same degree. Also, there are lots of great feminist guys out there, so I don’t think it’s a binary choice between either being a feminist or building relationships with men. You can do both! Feminism recognizes that women often have an uneven playing feel, and promotes equality and fair treatment and human rights for all people regardless of gender, not mistreating males.

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