We can't understand female rivalry without understanding the pressure to conceal it. Although the women I interviewed spoke readily of competing with mothers, sisters, coworkers, and friends, many of them also seemed to buy into the myth of female solidarity, lamenting their own isolation from what they saw as a world of camaraderie and support. Women also described feeling betrayed when they realized that an apparently close friend was also a rival, a theme that was taken up by Mary Duenwald in a September 10, 2002, New York Times article entitled "Some Friends, Indeed, Do More Harm Than Good." Duenwald cites research showing that "the ill effects of friendship are more devastating than experts thought." Although previous studies had suggested that friendship -- male and female -- could be a powerful antidote to stress, more recent research indicates that broken promises, dashed expectations, and other side effects of friendship gone wrong can actually raise the level of stress in our lives, often to disastrous effect. In light of this new perspective, understanding why female friendships go wrong -- and how to put them right -- seemed more urgent than ever.
So I went on to design my research study, which covered five hundred heterosexual women of all ages, races, and backgrounds. My first step was placing the following ad in flyers for YWCAs and health clubs:
Writer in search of tales of female envy, jealousy, and friendship. Anonymity guaranteed. Call collect.
When women responded, I asked them if they could recommend friends, relatives, or coworkers who might also have interesting stories to tell. Because such a wide range of women answered my ad, I had access to a diverse group of subjects. I also conducted interviews and research with psychotherapists, scholars, divorce lawyers, and even with plastic surgeons, who were surprisingly insightful about the ways that women's rivalry over appearance affects us all.
I found the whole process fascinating, and surprisingly frustrating. To a much greater extent than in my other books, my interviewees often began by glossing over their deeper feelings, trying to portray themselves as "good girls" rather than admitting to the envy, jealousy, and anger that they actually felt. Frequently, the women were guarded and measured, so that I had to dig deeper than usual to get at their true feelings. As a result, I spent considerably longer conducting most of these interviews than I had for the ones in my previous books.
Although I've empathized with many of my interview subjects over the years, I felt a sense of kinship with these women that was more intense than usual. In some cases, I identified so profoundly with a woman's story that I found myself wanting to speak to her as a friend, wishing I could share my own history with her and hear her perspective on my own friends and rivals. At other times, I was appalled at the degree of bitterness, anger, and resentment my subjects expressed, and saddened by how difficult some women found it to overcome their early rivalries. Many women made such statements as, "Since high school, beautiful women have made me feel insecure," or "My friend and I have been competing for the past thirty years," or "Even though I'm happily married today, I find myself consumed with bitterness whenever I remember how my best friend stole my boyfriend in junior high."