(Sort of a rant today – I tried to edit it, but in the end I decided to leave it as it is)
When I was about fourteen, us girls were separated from boys during PE classes since my school only had one proper outdoor field. Our male classmates had biology while we played football outside. After an hour we switched. I’m not entirely aware of all the planning behind it, but one day this separation inspired our biology teacher to conduct a funny experiment.
‘I’m dividing you into groups,’ she said. ‘You need to prepare questions for the other groups, based on the chapters you had to read for today, and your answers will be graded.’
When the teacher left us alone for a moment, we quickly agreed to make the questions as easy as possible without turning the whole thing into a farce. Predictably, all groups answered correctly and got the highest possible grade.
‘Okay, now tell me,’ said the teacher at the end of the class, ‘did you make the questions so easy on purpose?’ We nodded nervously. ‘No, your grades are valid, you didn’t break any rules. It’s just interesting, because each of the boys’ groups assumed they had to be better than other groups. They prepared difficult questions and most of them got low grades.’
That, apparently, was the famous male competitiveness. We were more or less aware of it; at least I was grateful for being female during PE classes, since while sucking at almost all sports was embarrassing for a girl, it could lead to serious bullying and a low social status for a boy. Fortunately, we were entering the age when most of the girls “forgot their sport clothes” or claimed to suffer from 3-weeks-long periods just to avoid physical activity. We also regularly escaped from the swimming pool trips. Many of us were lazy or just not very enthusiastic about the prospect of cold chlorinated water during the freezing Warsaw winters. Some, however, were ashamed of how they looked in a swimming suit: they thought they were fat. Even though, logically, exercise can help with losing weight, the shame outweighted that logic.
Most of the theory I consciously support now is just explaining stuff I experienced semi-consciously in my life. Thus when many years later I read some radical feminist piece about beauty standards acting as a sort of “divide and rule” tool applied by men on women, I didn’t need much convincing. Of course, there’s no secret conspiracy involving all male people; but the feeling of inferiority most women experience looking at their objectively healthy bodies remains very real. Often it’s not a man who makes a woman feel like shit, but another woman – I know a girl who, after hearing someone complimenting another woman’s looks, will inevitably reply with something like “Oh, but she must be very stupid.” We might not be socialised to compete in class or on the field as much as men, but we are not free from always wanting to be better than others according to arbitrary criteria we rarely question.
I was shocked when a friend told me, with a disillusioned tone implying she’d heard too many secrets, that half of the girls in my high school year had bulimia. I was shocked when one after one of my friends told me they felt stupid, that they were never good enough, that they were depressed because of many reasons, many of them relating to their academic performance, precarious careers, failures of their love lives. But the biggest shock came when I realised I was constantly comparing myself to others – and I was doing stuff I hated, applying for jobs I didn’t want and considering partners I couldn’t connect to just because I didn’t want to be worse than them, in this or another frankly absurd way. I was stressed, sleep deprived and irritated, hating the products of my frantic work and ashamed to celebrate any success, be it learning a new language or graduation, because I didn’t see these successes as successful enough: there were always people speaking the language more fluently or graduating with a higher GPA.
As much as I want to get rid of it, I’m still too competitive and ambitious, which invariably leads to harmful perfectionism and procrastination. Many of my problems stem from the fact that while I consider myself an interesting person according to my own criteria, I have this nagging feeling that I’m boring compared to others, in other people’s eyes. I’m not even sure when, where and why I began being anxious about it. Most importantly, I don’t get why that scale of being interesting, or the scales of being beautiful or successful are ingrained so deeply in my head. Surely I should be able to say ‘I’m done’ when I’m actually done, and start a new life on a sustainable goat squat-farm writing poetry. But I can’t, and my ‘drive’, instead of motivating me to write amazing poetry here and now, just brings this anxiety of not doing well enough which I, and probably many of you, try to silence using the drug of trashy culture as well as actual drugs.
Maybe the pervasiveness of toxic competition can be explained by our individualistic economy and its cultural manifestations. There can’t be one national healthcare system when multiple companies will do better, hundreds of people within these companies taking extra hours to get promoted. At the same time, the popular superhero movies (a trashy cultural distraction I often enjoy) rehash the fantasies about a group of special individuals who can save the world. Despite these illusions, it’s precisely the people with most power standing in the way of world-saving: people who will rather keep their bonuses high than stop polluting the earth or feeding the weapon industry. At least you can make yourself feel better by spending a percentage of these ridiculous sums on charity. But the power will stay in your hands, if you succeed. Whether it’s the power to buy a private jet or afford health insurance doesn’t matter that much, since the same rules apply: you need to perform better than others in order to obtain but a tiniest fracture of power.
Young girls know very well that they’re judged on their appearance, and most of us assume that without certain – what? – qualifications an uncertain future of ‘flexible’ jobs and overpriced necessities awaits us. Of course, many mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but our environment and activities trigger difficult episodes. Even though our brains have remained largely unchanged for centuries, in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60%. Looking around me, I see many people being happy despite rather than because of their studies or work – the main focus of their lives. That biology class was the only time I remember when I was rewarded not for my individual knowledge or achievements, but rather for collaborating with others for the gain of all. Later, I encountered more and more difficult questions and challenges I had to answer alone, knowing very well that if I can’t face them, the next ones will only become more daunting due to the previous failures.
I’m not surprised that I’m happiest doing voluntary work, be it advising people on plant care or political activism. I know people failing their studies who amass a lot of extra (thus, ’useless’) knowledge in their free time, as well as those who anonymously contribute to impressive online projects. A lot of motivation appears once someone isn’t forced to perform in a certain way, and other people are there as collaborators rather than competitors. But these situations are rare exceptions, cool class projects rather than stressful exams. Without changing the way our work and livelihood are determined, we can’t free ourselves from the stress and anxieties of modern life.