We got talking, my friends and I, about jeans. Buying ones that fitted. I told my friends that I’d bought a couple of pairs, at huge expense, because they were designed for, let’s say, the more mature woman. Being four women, we then discussed price and reductions and sizes … and I said that the jeans I eventually bought had a ridiculous sizing system because I’d been encouraged to try, and then buy, a size 8 (US 4) and there was no way that I was anywhere near a size 8 and that the sizing was a such a fraud that I could not even take any pleasure in it. It was a story told against me, if you like. And the others are thinner (and younger) than I am.
I bumped into one of those friends a few days later and she told me she’d gone to the same shop and bought a pair of jeans in size 6 (US 2) and that her husband wondered whether she could breathe in them. I smiled. I did not mind, but I did notice. The odds of her telling me that she’d bought a size 10 were about the same as the proportionate parts of a homeopathic remedy, one in a million.
I shy away from competition, but, like it or not, it infuses female friendships and often, at the root of the competitive urge, are sibling positions in our family of origin. I often find myself returning to the chronicle of the highs and lows of female friendship, written by two friends: “Between Women: Love, Envy and Competition in Women’s Friendships” by Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum. It is a very sobering but accurate (in my view) account of the reality of many friendships between females and sufficient explanation for the joy that women often find in their much less competitive friendships with men. How many times have I been tempted to send a copy to someone as a sort of literary passive-aggressive F**k off! And I sometimes find myself an amused observer of subtle indirect catfighting between two of my more competitive friends, happy that their aggression is not turned on me but on each other, even if I might be the prize they both want and are subconsciously fighting over.
I’ve been enjoying learning to play tennis for nearly a year and look forward to my weekly coaching session enormously. It has been a revelation to me, the enjoyment that the game gives me and the progress that slowly but surely I have made in my strokes. Now I can confidently hit a good, strong forehand, breaking my wrist, following through to put spin on the ball, standing square on, and placing the ball mostly in the half of the court that I’ve chosen. I am happy with my progress in learning to play (in two senses of the word).
But I have only played one competitive game and lost badly, and I notice that my game falls off even when my coaching hour ends with a few points. I begin to hear an old injunction “Do not win!”, and need to keep repeating to myself “It is OK to win”. Of course, it is easier to find this new affirmation when I am playing with my coach because he enjoys reminding me every now and again, with a faster-than-the-speed-of-sound smash down the line, that he could win every point if he wanted to …
It is not so much the fear of failure that keeps me fleeing competition, but the fear that I might win. To my mind, it is easier to deal with my own disappointment (at losing) than it is to deal with the Other’s aggression (at losing), an aggression played out over subsequent weeks in small manipulations that are noticed only by a growing sense of unease. Writing this, I realise that there is no necessary connection between my opponent losing and this long tail of aggressive behaviour. A game of tennis can be just that – a game of tennis – with defeats felt only slightly and used only to spur the loser to want to win more next time. It no longer has to be a fight for survival, for resources so scarce and play so dirty that I gave up and took myself out of the game, refusing to play, wanting only to be left alone. Learning to play – at my age.
Almost ten years ago I found myself seated next to a much older woman on a plane. She was an American, a psychotherapist and artist, on a plane to the South of France where she lived. Then I really hated flying and had begun to sit separately from my family so as not to infect my daughters with my fear. We got chatting and at the end of the flight she told me that she felt as if she had fallen in love with me, and that I must keep in touch especially since we shared the same skin tone, thanks to the ginger gene. Bizarre, but I did phone her and she asked me a few questions about my background, and then told me that my mother had been emotionally abusive and that I needed to learn to play and that if I wanted to talk to her again I would have to pay for a 50 minute therapy session. To say that I felt violated is an understatement. I felt angry with her suggesting that my mother had been anything less than perfect, and I felt angry that she had represented our relationship as one of friendship when she now seemed only to be looking for a new client. But, a decade later, I know she was right, even if the problems were ones of omission rather than commission, but I wasn’t ready to see it then. I had an email from her not long ago, saying that she had been thinking about me, reminded of our encounter by seeing an old friend, my doppelganger. I did not reply.