Let’s say you’re a college-aged woman, somewhere from 19 to 23, and you’re sitting in a university lab with a friend, where you’re both about to participate in a psychological study that you’ve been told is about how women handle conflict. You’re waiting for the experiment to start when in bursts a young woman in a bright pink top, black boots, and the tiniest miniskirt you’ve ever seen. She wants to know where the professor is. You stare at her. When she leaves, you probably turn to your friend and—if you’re like most women—say something about her terrible, inappropriate outfit. Her “boobs were about to pop out” of her shirt, you say. Or maybe she’s dressed like that cause she’s secretly sleeping with her professor.
These comments were made in a genuine psychological study conducted by McMaster University psychology professor Tracy Vaillancourt, who studies what she calls female “indirect aggression,” which is usually shorthanded as bitchiness. It’s the old arms-crossed, eyelids-lowered, I’m-bored-by-your-existence expression of hostility that women exude when they’re sizing each other up. It starts in elementary school and is perfected in junior high and high school. Unlike other social habits such as severe celebrity crushes and going to the bathroom in groups women never quite grow out of this one. The aggression persists through college and sometimes, even at work. You can find it oozing from dagger-eyed women at parties and seething from other people’s girlfriends. If you’re honest, you’ll probably admit you’ve done it, too.
Vaillancourt has studied women’s aggression techniques for several years; in a 2011 study hilariously titled “Intolerance of Sexy Peers,” she and her research partner Anachal Sharma recorded college-aged women’s reactions when they unexpectedly encountered a thin, blond woman in khakis and a plain t-shirt and then again when the same woman wore a mini-skirt, low-cut top, and tall black boots. Then they showed the footage to a group of other women and asked them to rate the level of “bitchiness” in each reaction. (The term “bitchy” is used in the study.) As Vaillancourt explains, “when we called it ‘indirect aggression,’ none of our subjects knew what we were talking about. With ‘bitchy,’ we didn’t even have to explain it.”
The women did not like their sexy peers. Eighty-five percent of them gave her “a critical once-over,” as Vaillancourt puts it, “and then when she left the room, they made derogative comments about her outfit. One woman looked her up and down and said— right to her face—”What the f––– is that?”
Vaillancourt recently summarized these findings in a paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B that also referenced similar studies such as one finding that young women who exhibit indirect aggression tend to date and have sex earlier; that women use it to discriminate against each other at work; and that when women are on the receiving end of this type of behavior, their heart rates increase and they became upset.
“Nothing about this really surprised me, it just validated my hypotheses,” Vaillancourt says of her research, which is basically the scientific explanation for Tina Fey’s movie Mean Girls. Vaillancourt’s work has since been covered by CBS This Morning, the New York Times and—not surprisingly—has earned her considerable backlash.
“I had one woman in England write this long rant about me in which she assumed I was a Southern, conservative white man,” Vallaincourt says, pointing out that she’s Canadian and definitely not conservative, “and, uh, let’s just say I’m young-ish.” Vallaincourt says she’s also received complaints about the way her test subjects were dressed. “One woman e-mailed me to say she didn’t think the girl in the short skirt looked sexy, she looked like a tart. Does she not see the irony in that statement?”
It’s hard to study something like this, even as a youngish female scientist, because questions of sexism arise before you can even conduct the research. Should you use the word “bitchy” in a scientific study, even if it’s the colloquially preferred term? How do you define what “sexy” is? (The answer: Describe the subject as having “qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective.”) In one part of Vallaincourt’s 2011 study, subjects were shown a picture of the sexy model that had been digitally altered so that she looked overweight. They felt less threatened by her when she was overweight and said they’d choose her as a friend over the thin version, which implies that thin women encounter more of this “indirect aggression” than overweight women do.
Vaillancourt says she’s sensitive to these issues but she does not accept that female aggression shouldn’t be studied or criticized. “Some people have written to me, worried that I’m perpetuating the stereotype that women are mean to each other. Well, they are,” she says. “All women act this way. I mean, if I were 20 years old and encountered that girl in a sexy outfit, I’d probably do the same thing.”
This doesn’t mean that women are crueler than men are. Men exhibit the same type of behavior. (What do you think Jerry Seinfeld was accomplishing with all that “Hello Newman?“) They’re also more likely to use physical aggression such as hazing or getting into fist fights, which makes criticizing someone’s outfit almost civil in comparison. Basically, every member of both genders is a complete jerk.
Vaillancourt belives that studying women’s behavior, especially its seedier side, is important because it forces the scientific community to look at female evolutionary traits as seriously as it considers men’s. “Early on, Darwin highlighted the fact that males compete among each other for mates; it wasn’t even on people’s radar that females do the same thing,” she says, “We’re changing how we study and think about women.” Women compete this way for male attention (and vice-versa), but they also compete in situations where they’re actually doing each other harm. Being catty to someone at work isn’t accomplishing anything; it’s just earning you an enemy. One day that enemy might bad-talk you, too.