"She's just jealous of you." It's a phrase we've all heard before. Whether it's deployed as a defense against a snarky comment on your Instagram, a sarcastic remark from a "friend" about what you're wearing, or a judgmental look as you take a bite into something indulgent―there's always one girlfriend who will assure you that a Mean Girl is being mean because "she's just jealous of you."
I've heard this phrase my whole life: from my Mom when I was 12 and dealing with a bully; from my college besties when a girl attempted to corral a group of my once-friends against me; from my best friend when Internet commenters on my articles resorted to personal attacks. At first, believing that jealousy motivated any antagonizing helped me brush it off. It made me feel better. Bigger.
Then it didn't.
"She's just jealous of you" used to sound reasonable to me, but has now become unsettling. Jealousy is not exclusive to female relationships, but it's pervasively described as a woman-to-woman phenomenon. Tabloids are quick to promote (probably totally made-up) feuds (see: Adele and Beyoncé or Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift and Katy Perry) or have their headlines blow them out of proportion (see: Kelly Rowland on Beyoncé, Demi Lovato on Miley). Never mind that Kelly's "jealousy" song was more about her experience in an abusive relationship, or that Demi was talking about dealing with a history of drugs and alcohol addiction–the jealous label is all they get. Evolutionary psychologists have informed us that natural selection has made women predisposed to battle other women for a mate with the best genetic material, but haven't we moved beyond that by now?
And, increasingly, the phrase has begun to seem lazy. Too often, I've heard girlfriends resort to "she's just jealous" mindlessly, almost as a cop out. I get it: It immediately makes me feel better when I'm down. But I've come to realize I don't want a hype man or a cheerleader to encourage self-aggrandizing. A good friend should push me under a harsh light and stick a mirror in front of me when I need it. If "she's just jealous" were the satisfactory explanation for all criticism, you'd stand still. You wouldn't grow.
Should we stop using the phrase entirely? I sought answers from psychotherapist Dr. Stephanie King, who specializes in helping women resolve issues related to personal relationships, body image, and parenting; and psychoanalyst Dr. Claudia Luiz, author of Where's My Sanity?, a book analyzing emotional experiences of anxiety, depression, and life changes. Here, a breakdown of three major effects of the phrase, based on what I learned:
1. It promotes competition
As I suspected, both psychology experts agreed that attributing hostility to jealousy is a surefire way to pit women against one another. "To say 'she's jealous' reflects how common it is for women to want to put other women down when they feel competitive or lesser-than," Luiz says. "A lot of times women don't want to admit to the fact that they bring other women down."
King explains that the phrase shows the way women fall into competitive behaviors. Many of her teenage patients are weary of other girls: "I think jealousy is one of the things that comes up a lot. If I'm the object of someone's jealousy, then they might want to take something from me. So that can create this environment, I think, of competition and mistrust of other women," she says
2. It shuts down necessary dialogue
"Are you supposed to ignore how you were treated just because the other person was jealous?" Luiz says. "Are you supposed to surrender to that and be okay with it? If that's the assumption, then I think there's a problem."
The phrase, Luiz argues, prevents you from taking a deeper look at the criticisms being leveled against you. King adds that "she's just jealous" sweeps conflict under the rug, the same way that "let's agree to disagree" does. Using it as a first line of defense is a lost opportunity. "If you're really shirking your ability to look a little bit deeper, then I think that it is problematic," she says.
3. It protects you
Both conclude that the phrase is used as a security blanket of sorts. "It's like a phrase of comfort," King says. Luiz further explains that the phrase could protect the ego. Curious about whether my self-image and the way I related to other women was affected by constantly hearing "she's just jealous" from my mom growing up, I ask Luiz if saying it to young girls was problematic. She says it helps, in a way, to build someone up. "What your mother tried to do was dismiss any critique or attack and helped you to dismiss it. Now that you're more mature, you are reluctant to dismiss [it]. ... You evaluate why people are treating you a certain way so that you might come up with some answers that will help you grow," Luiz explains.
"The more women are helped to be okay with the fact that we have these impulses to put other women down, to feel jealous, to find the narrative that demeans them and to feel entitled to act on that narrative," Luiz says, the more we "have to become aware of it so that we can stop doing it because otherwise we feel justified in hurting people."
Originally written by Kristina Rodulfo for ELLE.com