You must have caught yourself at least once staring at another woman. Yes ladies, I am talking to you!
Why do we give every new female acquaintance the eye drop, the near imperceptible once over up and down glance, when we’re being introduced. We crane our necks to watch an immaculately dressed woman climb out of a car, or buy a magazine because we like the look of the cover girl. It’s because women love to look at other women.
This isn’t a sexual thing at all. I prefer to think of it as educational. When men stare at women, it’s purely and simply a question of sex—they normally want to sleep with them. But women look at each other to compare and to learn from what the other woman is doing and wearing.
We’re always asking ourselves vital questions like would that skirt look good on me? would she benefit from a couple of sessions at the gym? Her hair looks fabulous, I wonder who cuts it? Where on earth did she get those shoes? We absorb every detail, from the millimeters of re-growth on her highlights to spotting the evidence her Gucci bag is fake. Yet despite the firm male belief to the contrary, we don’t just look at women to be bitchy. Often, our stares betray nothing less than slack-jawed admiration. We don’t just want to look like the women we admire, we want to be like them.
But according to experts, it’s not that simple. Some claim this STARING is part of our sexual evolution. Cosmopolitan magazine quoted Dr. Lance Workman, psychologist on the subject: “I believe it’s Darwinian”, he said “in most species of mammal, women don’t have to compete for male attention, they just have to sit and look decorative in order to mate. But with humans there’s a more subtle dynamic. Women are in fact as competitive as men are, they’re just more skilful about it. And human females tend to compete more among themselves than other animals, they look at successful and beautiful women to see how to do it”
Straight men are baffled by this objective appraisal of our own sex. “Isn’t she gorgeous” I mouthed at my fiancée, indicating woman sitting next to us. He blinked at me not quite understanding how to react. “Do you think her husband’s handsome?” I asked. He stuttered, frowned and secretly wondered why I was casting aspersions about his sexuality.
Dr Workman believes men don’t appraise each other because they’re hunters, not brought up to appreciate aesthetic detail. Me? I think the reasons are far more basic. Man-watching is dull compared with scrutinizing other women. At a black tie ball, there’s little in a sea of penguin suits to ignite interest, but oh, the joy of pink chiffon, silver sandals, hair piled precariously high and shoes patently designed never to be walked in.
Women are good at absorbing details. Some anthropologists say its’ because, as mothers, we have to discern our offspring’s every change of expression and mood. We use those skills in other ways, too.
We compare ourselves because we’re constantly trying to assess where we stand in society. In the same way as troupes of animals have a pecking order that tells them how to behave, we conform because we don’t want to be expelled from the group. On the other hand, we want to stand out, but not so much that we seem odd. As we get older, we look around us more, to see how we’re doing, whereas a 15 year old is so self obsessed she tends to be far less interested in her peers.
But is this obsession healthy? Recent research showed women felt more depressed and dissatisfied after looking at pictures of models. And yes, I confess there are times when looking at a lean thighed, 6ft beauty causes me stabs of envy and disappointment. But those times are outnumbered by the pleasure my own sex, in all its diversity provides. By staring at other women in the gym and changing room we learn our cellulite isn’t so terrible, other women have stretchmarks too. We learn compassion for ourselves and our bodies.
And while there will always be women I can never hope to resemble, I take comfort in knowing, somewhere out there, there’s always someone having a worse bad hair day than me!