Rant: The female once-over

It was so brazen, it was almost dissociative – did that really just happen to me? Yeah, unfortunately it did. The female once-over – the up and down, head to toe and back again, passing judgement and mean appraisal.

And in this case, it was done with such bravado  – an ocular flash, a purse of red lips. Does it matter where and in what context? It happened on a first meeting in a business setting in the Inner West.

Cue rolling eyes from the menfolk reading this: ‘Women, you’re your own worst enemy’.

Well, yeah, I agree… sometimes. We all check out other women. There’s the discreet look, the envious glance, the long, luxurious stare behind the blessed anonymity of sunglasses. It comes in so many forms and not all of them are aggressive, many are just day-dreamy and others are desperately curious. Sometimes it can turn into a friendly conversation and the exchange of details about hair stylists or clothes shops. I’ve seen little girls as young as two do it, assessing each other before deciding to play alongside one another.

In this case it was an alpha-female moment: on a par with a female horned dung beetle fighting with a much smaller rival over a ball of nutritional goodness, and expecting to come out on top*. It was about female rivalry and how I looked: a blow of the most intimate kind from a stranger.

And you know what I did? I politely smiled and ignored her grotesque rudeness. I refused to internalise her female once-over.

Instead, I stopped myself from laughing out loud, and I felt sorry for her. That she had such a small soul and such a large horn – both dung-beetle-sized. That this queen of her little dung kingdom felt that she needed to protect it from me, to clearly state that she was a superior rival.

But what startled me as well – because, of course, I’ve experienced the female once-over many times before to much lesser degrees (I have four sisters for God’s sake) – was that it happened in the Inner West. Isn’t avoiding that behaviour why we choose to live here? Because let’s face it, people, there are plenty of other places to live! (Try the Northern Beaches or the Blue Mountains for starters.) But we live here because we hope we’re living among like-minded people who embrace diversity and difference. More to the point, we hope we’re among like-minded women, all with similar-sized horns – and I don’t want to have to grow a bigger horn!

*Researchers Nicola Watson and Leigh Simmons of the University of Western Australia, squared off female dung beetles (Onthophagus sagittarius) in a race for dung – a resource that provides nutrients for their eggs. Females with bigger horns but of similar body size were more productive; hence the evolution of the horn.

(From the New Scientist, March 2010, ‘Females wear the horns in the battle for dung’ by Wendy Zukerman)

• Words: Kate Daly