London - Show me a woman who claims not to check out other women’s appearance at every opportunity and I guarantee she’s either carrying a white stick or she’s a fibber.
It’s precisely the way I met my best friend. I was 23 and this amazing creature waltzed into my open plan office for a job interview as a designer on the magazine on which I worked.
Even now, 37 years on, I can remember every item of what she was wearing: a Forties-style dog-tooth check suit with a nipped-in at the waist jacket (I’d never seen such a tiny waist) and a skin-tight skirt to the knee. She wore black fishnets, ankle boots, fingerless finely-crocheted white gloves, ruby red lipstick and her mass of curls piled up on her head.
I gawped. I stared. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Except for a rather prominent nose, which I noticed as well (and which caused me to sigh with a certain sense of relief), she was perfect. She got the job.
I’d sized her up long before we spoke but when we finally exchanged words some time later, she said she could sense my eyes following her about the room that day. Our friendship has never faltered.
A new survey confirms what most women already know - we spend far more time checking out our own sex than lusting after passing hunks. Half of the 2,000 women polled confessed they enjoyed comparing themselves with women at work, their friends and women they pass in the street. Men barely got a look-in.
It’s not just fashion details we’re looking for, but everything from breast size and body shape to hair roots that are over-ripe for retouching.
One remarkably honest pal of mine who has great personal style but very little body confidence provided me with her personal checklist: “Definitely bums, as mine is so horrible. Flabby arms are very prominent on my radar. Lower legs with decent ankles, because mine are more like cankles. Scraggy necks and bunions, both of which I have. The thing I like best about Victoria Beckham? Her bunions. But as for other women’s clothes, I’m probably not that interested.”
In other words, she scrutinises all the things that she finds imperfect in herself, but because she is a fashion designer and knows exactly how to dress she doesn’t need to look at other women for fashion know-how.
For my own part, the two things for which my antennae are on full alert are cellulite and wrinkles, probably because they are my personal bugbears. I’ve exercised, dieted, and tried various painful treatments to rid me of my orange-peel skin, all to no avail.
But the more cellulite I spy on the beach, the less bad I feel about my own. As far as fillers, Botox and facelifts are concerned, I can spot them at a hundred paces. I know all three might make me look better, but instead - whenever I see anyone looking suspiciously good for their age - I console myself with the fact that at least I’m the real deal.
As countless songs, from Music To Watch Girls By to The Girl From Ipanema attest, men could happily stand on the corner all day gazing at girls. But it doesn’t work when it comes to the same sex. Men watching men - unless you are gay - is strictly taboo.
The male standpoint was succinctly summed up by my sociologist pal Rob. ‘It used to be said that men think about sex every seven seconds, but a recent report suggests it’s a mere 18 times a day.
“Whenever an attractive girl hoves into view, a man, not necessarily even consciously, is sizing her up sexually. In talking to women I find that they don’t respond in this way to every good-looking guy that passes. As for whether a bloke wears brogues or boots, men don’t give a damn. The only things men want to compare with other men are their tackle and their bank balances.”
Rob says he’s got used to his wife saying “Well, Jenny/Jane/Jackie thinks I look good in this even if you don’t” whenever he demonstrates the slightest doubt about one of her new purchases. “If I said well Bill/Ben/Burt thinks I look the biz in this, she’d be seriously worried.”
“As women we are socialised into believing our value lies in our appearance,” says psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos. “And at the same time, unlike men, we’re taught to compete covertly rather than openly. So we end up looking at other women - and comparing ourselves - in order to see how we measure up.”
I get a sense that part of my obsession with the way other women look has been passed on by my mother, for whom appearances mattered so much. Even in the care home, where I now visit her twice a week, and where she slips in and out of confusion, she always comments on something to do with my appearance. Last time she told me my hair was “odd”, the time before that I’d lost weight and that it wasn’t good for me, and the time before that the sweater I was wearing was lovely and that my cheeks were flushed. In a way I’m glad she still notices, but on another level it makes me uncomfortable. But then I find myself commenting back on her appearance - complimenting her new haircut or her polished nails.
Evidence of this scrutiny of our female peers is everywhere. Studying part-time for a degree two evenings a week, I’d always assumed that my fellow students paid scant attention to one another’s appearance in class, being concerned with loftier matters than how we all look.
It came as a complete surprise to me that after our first lecture of the new academic year in October, two acquaintances came up to me separately and asked if I’d got married over the summer holidays. “Why on earth would you think that?” I asked each in turn, and both replied that they’d spotted a ring on the fourth finger of my left hand. Well I hadn’t got married, but I had taken to wearing what I call my “commitment ring”, a gift from my partner.
Bodies and clothes I always notice, but whether a woman has a ring on her finger or not, never. Yet according to the survey it’s the third thing we check out, after her height and her handbag, when we pass a woman in the street.
Dr Papadopoulos believes that even in today’s society, just as beauty gives you status so does being married. “And if you see another woman with a ring on her finger it makes it easier to decide whether or not she’s competition.”
Scanning how other women dress also provides us with a free styling service. We can gauge how - and how not - to put together the latest trends, looks that are age-appropriate (you may just fancy a leopard-print dress until you spot someone of similar age wearing what you had in mind and it looks awful), and colour combos we’d never think of.
One friend of mine is shameless about accosting women in the street and asking, “Where did you get that amazing handbag/coat/pair of boots” and demanding to know how much it cost.
Bonding over clothes and make-up and general appearance with our friends is a way of forging intimacy. What kind of girlfriend would be the one who didn’t notice the new dress you’re so pleased with? I’d be far more forgiving of my partner for not noticing than if a good friend failed to comment.
Given that there comes an inevitable moment when you start to feel invisible and maybe even mourn the fact that men no longer give you the once over in the street when you walk by, there is solace in the fact that women are still checking you out.
After a bit you get used to no longer being noticed by men. But what I’ve discovered is that women - or at least the middle-aged and older ones - are as busy peering at me as ever. And to be frank, I’m happy to get the attention. I may not turn men’s heads any more but I’m already advance-rueing the day when women give up on me as well.
At a recent 40th anniversary celebration, at least four women came up to me and told me I looked fabulous. The men were silent on the matter, but I felt really buoyed up by the women’s flattering comments. It’s little wonder then that 42 percent of women polled say they dress to impress female peers rather than the opposite sex.
All in all, I feel a bit sorry for men in all of this. While a handsome guy is strutting down the street in his tight jeans, imagining the girls behind him thrilling to his cute bottom, little does he know that those same girls are more interested in the pert derriere of the girl sashaying alongside him. - Daily Mail