by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on June 7, 2010

– why we need women in our lives.

Ring Around the BeachOur girlfriends. What would we do without them? We call them when we are upset, we shop together and ask their advice on everything from how we look to what to do about a  job, a partner, a major life decision…we depend on them to always be there for us and, know that if something happens they are always there to help us pick up the pieces.

It turns out that our relationships to other women are important sources of identity formation. Our girlfriends literally help us grow up and shape our identity as women. They influence everything from our opinions to our sexuality. Our relationships with other girls continue the formation of our female identity which began with our mothers. Our girlfriends help us to elaborate our differences and similarities as women.

What is this thing that women have going on and how is it that it begins so early?

I remember a game that we used to play as little girls: we would flip through fashion magazines together and look for our grown up identities: “I’m the redhead”, or “I’m the blonde”, or in comic books “I’m Veronica” “No I want to be Veronica, you be Betty”. Or in our doll games: “I’ll be the mommy and you be the baby”. What are we playing at here?

We are playing at the kind of girl/woman we want to be. Beginning with our mothers’, and moving on to female friends, female teachers, and other female role models, we are using female images, as concrete bodies to embody and try out. We are rehearsing what it feels like to be this way or that way. We begin to do this quite literally: Blonde or brunette? Bony or curvy? Sexy?  Like mom, or like Suzie’s mom or like Mrs. Fuller the English teacher? Our body image and our experience of ourselves as girls and later on as women is borne out of these experiences. And along the way it is these role plays and rehearsals, and our ability to play with our identities through and with other women that shapes our sense of who we are. Sure many of these images are culturally determined and driven by what our society and culture has determined to be female, feminine, and of women. But not all. Who and what we are as women is also biologically determined. And it is the interaction of biology and culture, and what we do with it that determines our experience of our femaleness. This gets played out and reworked in our daily interactions with other women.

The process of identification begins with the first woman in our lives, our mother, and continues throughout our lives with other women. As women we provide constant validation and a means of comparison to one another. We shape and mold our identities in relationship to each other.

Think of the activities and interactions you have with your girlfriends. Take shopping for instance: the make up, jewelry, clothes – the accoutrements of a female identity. We use these playfully with our girlfriends to try out what we want to look like, and it is in this play, in the simple activity of shopping, that we create and re-create who we are. Listen to a conversation among mothers’, young and old, and what you hear is much advice and questioning, an interplay of teaching, sharing, building of common experience. Experience that we rely on as women, and pass on to other women, in our own revised interpretations.

Our girlfriends are also a source of comparison which can generate jealousy and envy. Much has been written about how little girls establish friendships and attempt to work this out in relation to other girls. It has been noted that girls can be mean in their relationships to other girls and strive for “queen bee” status among their peers by establishing closely knit cliques that are based on adoration and devotion. That they can be devastating in their impact on a girls’ sense of identity by labeling her as ugly or unpopular and by isolating her from her peers. Girlfriends can make our lives a joy and a living hell. One thing is for sure: they provide us with a means for self evaluation and confirmation of everything that is female.

We need our girlfriends, and other women, because they reinforce important aspects of ourselves and our experience. They are like mirrors of ourselves, providing different and similar images of ourselves. You know: How often do you  have to explain how you feel to a girlfriend? She can tell just by looking at you. Granted she knows you and your story, but she is also a girl, and some things (many things in fact) you just know because you are a girl. Despite the fact that we grow up in different environments and households, that we have different families, and genetic codes, we have similar experiences, physical and emotional. Our bodies go through the same physical changes at about the same developmental time. These physical changes affect our psychic structure in a gender specific way. Studies have shown that there are many similarities among women even when we look at other cultures and societies. There is something essential about being female (and male for that matter) and it is physically/biologically driven. Do you ever have to explain what it feels like to have pre-menstrual symptoms to another woman? Of course not.  She knows only too well, even if she does not suffer from it herself. Do you need to explain to a woman the personal loss of infertility and childlessness? Not a chance, it is immediately understood and felt from inside. This is what I mean when I say that our embodied similarities and our biological realities shape our experience of femaleness and create an important identity bond between women. This bond continues throughout our lives.

The men in our lives are important in a different way. Our relationships with men may help us to solidify our sexual identities but not to form them. Take for example our relationship to our fathers. We look to them for masculine validation, initially as the role model for the man we want (i.e., when I grow up I am going to marry daddy) and later  to validate some culturally determined ideals- such as independence, strength, assertiveness, etc. “Masculine” characteristics that have been shaped by our cultural beliefs, just as “feminine” ones have. Our relationship to our fathers and other important men in our lives help us to navigate intimacy with the other sex. This happens in a totally different way than it does with women precisely because we are different in every way, and concretely because we are built differently. No matter how important the men in our lives are, and they are, they cannot replace the role of other women in our lives. Just like we cannot replace the role of other men in the lives of men. It is a biological impossibility.

Men and women are different on all levels. We have different bodies, different hormones, different DNA, and all of these biological differences affect the way we experience and interpret everything.  We need each other because we are different. Men and women bring different experiences and points of view to the table, and what has been termed as the “battle of the sexes” is more akin to an articulation of what we as humankind encompass in relationships to one another. It is this difference that makes the world go around. There really is something to masculine and feminine energy, to the ying and yang of  life. And no matter how we slice it, it is a biologically driven difference. We live in our bodies and they dictate what we can and cannot do. At least until we evolve into something else. Call it a Darwinian truth. Or as Freud put it: biology is destiny. A destiny that is elaborated through our interactions and relationships with others.

So, back to women, and in particular, our girlfriends. It is no coincidence that some of the most popular television shows, movies and books celebrate the connection between women. They make us feel good because they speak to us of a shared experience that highlights our common bond and its importance. The next time you sit with your girlfriends take a look at the sort of women that they are, and what they bring to your life. This is the real meaning of sisterhood – our common, embodied knowledge and experience. Vive le diference!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Milena June 12, 2010 at 9:47 AM

I adore my girlfriends, they are like a safety net for me. They catch me when I fall after I “play” with men and I get hurt!I am 39 this year and more and more I appreciate and I give importance and time to this magic bond I have with my girls. I only wish we could spend more time together.


Anne Conger June 8, 2010 at 7:00 PM

I think our relationships with our girlfriends are valuable also to get what we didn’t from our mothers. For instance, my mother doesn’t wear make-up, so as a teenager I looked to my girlfriends for that sort of thing. My mother never talked to me about boys and dating, so I had no idea what to do or how to act. Once again, my girlfriends came through for me.
It makes sense that our sense of femaleness would be enhanced by our relationships with other women. I am definitely enriched and a happier person because of mine.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: