A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend with my best girlfriends at the Algonquin EcoLodge in Algonquin Park, near where I was raised. We were celebrating two birthdays and a bachelorette. As a lady without sisters, I know to be good to my girlfriends. I get so much from my relationships with each of them, and we are all weird in our own way. Somehow, through elementary and high school, degrees upon degrees, marriage and babies, breakups and trophies, we avoided the treachery of female adolescent relationships. We were competitive, academically and in sports, but we were kind and supportive above all else. There were rocky times in the evolution of our friendships but those times more closely reflected the time of life than the relationship itself. And I’ve been so fortunate to pick up new friendships with amazing women as I have aged. The beautiful thing about encountering people later in life when you’re a little bit more together is that they don’t necessarily remember your most awkward moments or bad calls, even though we have all punctuated our adult lives with less-than-dignified moments. With friends, it’s ok.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without my girlfriends. I cherish them. I had ten bridesmaids in my wedding last year. I love them all and I wanted them beside me. My husband thought I was nuts but I knew that they would be organized, helpful and drama-free. And they were.
My friend Angela Morris, has come to chat with me today about sisterhood and female alliances in modern society. Angela is the founder of Freedom Flow Tea and co-founder of The Goddess Rebellion. She’s a massage therapist and health coach by training and she has spent a lot of time thinking about sisterhood as an aspect of wellness. Angela is one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met. She walks her talk.
Angela and I talked about her experience of female friendships as core to her health. We discussed female archetypes, and Angela's most recent reading around the work of UCSF psychiatrist Dr. Jean Bolen, author of Goddesses in Everywoman. We also discuss how friends can help avoid playing small in the world we live in.
Before our chat, I dug into the most recent batch of research on female friendships. The basic consensus is that there isn’t much known about female adult relationships. Many of the studies I will discuss here state some of the obvious but also uncover interesting details. Campbell et al published Friendship chemistry: An examination of underlying factors in February 2015. It was survey based descriptive study that derived five factors from the previously existing literature that contribute to friendship chemistry.
The researchers found that friendship chemistry is more likely to be experienced by participants with agreeable, open and conscientious personalities, which makes sense, but also young, white females. It’s possible that young, white females have an easier time being open, conscientious and agreeable because they embody a commonly accepted female ideal in Western society. It’s hard to be an open and kind person when the world is constantly ignoring you or, even more, actively hostile towards you. So is friendship easier among the privileged? Angela and I discuss this above in our chat.
Over the last five years, a group of experimental psychology researchers from the US, the UK and Finland have been compiling original data from Facebook to explore the theory that women prefer to be in paired friendships with other women and men prefer group friendships. The researchers took samples from every continent and most sub-regions. The recently published results include:
People of the same gender like to associate and bond with other people of the same gender, which is known as gender homophily. Over seven percent of the photos reviewed showed three or more people, and they were statistically more likely to be of the same gender than not.
Men like groups. In pictures with five to 12 people, 40 percent were likely to be men only but only 15 percent were likely to be women only. About another 15 percent were likely to have equal numbers of men and women.
Women like pairs. “There were 50.8 percent more pictures with two female peers than pictures with two male peers”
The authors posit that women favour more “dense” networks and men favour “loose” networks because adolescent females were often uprooted from their ancestral home to move in with their male partner and his family. Men, on the other hand, found loose networks and groups protective in hunting situations.
For women, the flip side, according to the authors, is that the negative tactics seen in female friendships today – like gossiping and cutting-out friends – had survival currency. “If a female’s bonds to friends and her spouse are crucial for accessing resources—from food to information—then breaking these bonds and/or excluding the female all together can radically affect that individual’s fitness, to the benefit of her competitors” (David-Barrett et al). In other settings, argues Taylor et al from UCLA in their 2000 study of female friendships and the stress response, the befriending process is an act of nurturing kindness which blunts the stress response triggered by famine or other modern stressors. A more chill read on this study is here.
In Amanda E. Hebert’s 2013 book, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity and Friendship in Early Modern Britain, she reviews artifacts from the era, including recipe books and household documents. Often recipe books held directions on how to make household cures and women would brag that their cures were better than those of the male doctors. Given what we know about medicine at that time, they were probably right. Hebert writes beautifully:
As recipe books were passed over from owner to owner, women engaged with one another in the margins of the texts. Crammed into the borders of the recipe books, tucked next to and around the edges of the recipes themselves, these comments provide evidence of the opinions and tastes of each successive owner. This practice of commenting directly demonstrates how women internalized idealizations of female cooperation and collaborative domestic labour.
This fits nicely with a study by Cuoto and Henning at the University of Guelph where females completed a survey on friendship, completed a cooperative task with another women they didn’t know and then evaluated the interaction. The researchers found that being interdependent and self-sacrificing led to better evaluation by the other woman but being silent about their own opinions or strategies did not.
That is, the women scrawling all over their cookbooks to share knowledge and working with the other women in the household or community would have been highly regarded by their peers.
There is a dark side. Rancourt et al published a study in Obesity Journal in January 2015. They found overweight and obese young adult females thought more about dieting and exercise when comparing themselves to thinner and heavier peers, but not when comparing themselves to people with the same BMI. In the discussion, the authors posit that this could be a good thing. If the social comparisons encourage diet and exercise, then we should use social comparisons to our advantage. As a former fat kid on the playground who engaged in all sorts of destructive eating and exercise behaviours as a result of those social comparisons, I can’t agree that we should be hacking our sociology this way. Because of these comparisons, it took work to accept myself. I thought that if I was like my thinner peers, then I would be happy. Similarly, when I thought about my heavier peers in a negative way, I was judging them and worsening the personal turmoil of being a fat adolescent. I figured I would diet and exercise my way to self-acceptance. No. Wrong. More on that another day.
Speaking of She-ros, It’s not domestic labour, but it’s definitely collaborative: Everything that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do gives me the feels. I love watching them champion each other and show other women how to treat each other. Yes, they’re rich and white and Western but they both grew up poor and relatively outcasted from the dominant social group in their lives. That’s where the comedy comes from.