Friday, October 28, 2011

The Space Between Friends and Enemies

Through my 6+ years working with girls and young women, I've learned a lot about the messages society sends us. One that I talk about frequently in both my direct service work and here, is female relationships.

There are two prevalent themes of female-to-female relationships:

1) Close friendships: I think (and have seen both first hand personally and anecdotal through my work) that girls are encouraged to have very close friendships. Because stereotypes associate women more closely with emotions, it's usually totally fine for girls to have best friends they spend a lot of time with (and they're not bullied to the same level for being "gay" like boys are.) Girls are socially encouraged to grow very close to one another.

2) Girl hate: I've written a LOT about this. Women are encouraged to:
-Put down ALL other women in general.
-Put down "girliness" and femininity.
-Hate on each other's bodies.
-Compete with one another.
-Get into girl fights (because they're hot, you know!)
-Exclude, ostracize, and gossip about girls that they don't like.

The problem, as I see it is that there are ONLY these two options promoted to girls. And they get confused, because real relationships can't be captured in a dichotomy like this. When I was in charge of a group of 60 girls ages 6-14 spending 50 hours a week together, for 8 weeks every summer, this confusion manifested negatively on a daily basis.

Girls would form extremely intense friendships. Something would go awry (like a rumor, talking behind someone's back, another girl coming in to the mix, and/or simply just growing and changing) and then they would immediately transfer each other from "friend" to "enemy" category. This of course, exacerbated the problems, because when people are labeled an enemy--all bets are off. You can say what you what.

Time and time again, I had to teach them that there IS a space between friend and enemy. And time and time again I could see the light bulb turn on. No one had ever put it like that before. The truth is: Not everyone can be or should be friends. People can't be friends for a variety of perfectly legitimate reasons. Some examples off the top of my head include personality conflicts, vastly different value systems, one person wanting more from the relationship than the other, past conflicts or experiences which create distrust. Anything really. And it's perfectly ok to just not like someone.

But it's not ok to treat them like crap and put them in the enemy zone just because they rub you the wrong way. Or just because things didn't work out as friends.

Unfortunately, this lesson is not limited to girls. Women also can fail to utilize the space between friends and enemies in their lives as well. But really, there is no reason that we must have strong emotions, either negatively and positively, toward everyone. Some things can just be.

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