During freshman year in college, my closest friends were all males. This wasn’t on purpose, but it just sort of happened. They liked sports and didn’t party, so it was a good match. Looking back, one of my biggest regrets from that first year of school was that I didn’t form any close female friendships. After a year of spending most of my time with boys, I had forgotten how enriching female relationships are.
It’s a common narrative: “I don’t like hanging out with girls. They’re too dramatic. Guys are better.” The notion that spending time with women is unpleasant and having male friends is preferable makes sense on the surface, but the logic is flawed. Women can benefit from female friendships in many ways.
Let’s start with simple psychology: a study from UCLA found that female friendships help women cope with stress. When women experience stress, they release a hormone called oxytocin, which encourages them to “tend and befriend,” or take care of others and be around other women. The study found women who had more female friendships were able to cope with stress more effectively.
This response to stress can also have profound health effects: women with the most female friends lived significantly longer than those without strong female relationships.
Female friendships can also help uplift women in other ways. By spending time with other women, we can create situations in which the male-dominated culture does not affect us. Through female friendships, we can teach ourselves to be skeptical of the messages the media is sending us about how women should look and act.
I learned these lessons by spending time with other girls outdoors. In elementary school, I was a Girl Scout and going camping with my friends was something I looked forward to for months. Being outside, exploring nature and staying up all night playing card games with other girls was powerful. We would roam around the camp, exploring the woods and not worrying about what other people thought. Sure, we spent plenty of time talking about boys (what else is a middle school girl to do?), but it was in the context of our own world.
We were isolated from media messages about how girls should look and act, particularly in the hierarchy of middle school. Our Girl Scout troop was made up of girls from all different social circles. The great equalizer was the campsite: the outdoors broke down barriers between the “popular” girls and the rest of us. When we were camping, everyone was the same. I returned home full of happy memories, unconcerned about the fact that I hadn’t showered in three days.
As I grew older, my cross-country team replaced my Girl Scout troop. Although our practices were co-ed, most of the workouts I did were with the girls’ team. I gained a confidence from that experience that is irreplaceable: I learned how to love my body for all of the wonderful things it can do and I became less concerned with what other people thought.
On the cross-country team, I made a lasting friendship with a girl I would have otherwise never met. If I hadn’t gotten to know her through running, I would have always thought of her as one of the “popular” girls. In fact, it was getting to know her that taught me to look for the good in women before I make assumptions based on stereotypes. The way a woman dresses, does her hair and makeup or talks shouldn’t affect her ability to be a really great friend. Since I’ve made an active effort to look past these things, I’ve made some great female friends that I otherwise would have missed out on.
I lost sight of the importance of my female friendships during my first year in college, but now I look back and remember that many of my most positive memories happened with my girlfriends. My female friendships taught me to be strong and confident. And it’s my female friendships that pushed me to become the feminist that I am today.