Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The girlfriend instinct - a story of female love

Once upon a time, there were two young girls. They would see each other every morning waiting at the bus stop, only to be whisked away to a day of books, chalkboards and tuckshop ques at different schools. Both dressed in crisply ironed school uniforms, one in maroon and the other in blue.

They waited in the cold, rain, wind or heat, the taller and fuller-figured of the two would watch in awe as the other, more lithe and stylish, would open her neatly packed school bag, take out her pink tub of hand cream and lather her perfectly manicured hands, oblivious to the jealous eyes that were watching her.

As days, weeks and school terms went on, no words were exchanged, just knowing glances that neither had missed the bus if the other was still waiting.

Until one day, something extraordinary happened. For the first time they were both on the same bus home. A friendly smile was shared. Thirty minutes later both girls gathered their belongings and prepared to hop off the bus, but something had changed. They were both getting off at a new stop - the same stop. Polite greetings and names were exchanged and for the next fifteen minutes the girls shared a pleasant walk home, realising they had just moved into new homes only metres from each other. A friendship was sowed.

This story began more than thirteen years ago and Lisa and I are still the best of friends. As life has unfolded we have been there for each other through thick and thin. The first loves, the celebrity crushes, the first kisses, school formals, dances, the first alcohol-fuelled parties, our first days at uni, new jobs, new cars, summer holidays... all wonderful memories. While over the years our own circles of friends have expanded, our enduring friendship has been one that has stood the test of time.

She left her high school sweetheart whom she’d spent nearly 10 years with on the weekend. We’re now in our late 20s, so that’s a significant change in her life and I didn’t realise the emotional toll it would also have on me.

After getting off the emotional rollercoaster, I found myself asking: How, as a girlfriend, do I help her through this? What do I do to support her? Where do I look for answers to questions I don’t even understand about relationships?

I remember the moments of each of the (three) significant break ups in my life as though they unfolded last week. I wanted to talk with my female friends. I wanted their advice, their hugs, their sincere listening while I asked “Why?” and generally vented about all the things that had gone wrong and played the “What if…?” games. I wanted to be around the women who understood how I felt and who, I hoped, would help me through what felt like the worst moments of my life.

So, why are girlfriends so important? I dug in and studied my own need for female friendship and what pulled me toward my friendships as a primary support system in a time of emotional stress.

According to Shelley E. Taylor’s ‘The Tending Instinct’ that unlocks some of the mysteries of "women, men, and the biology of our relationships", this need for community with other women is biological; it is part of our DNA. Taylor's book consolidated a variety of studies covering cultural factors, decades of research, anecdotal references – even the biological ties to the girlfriend concept in the animal kingdom. An unending stream of fascinating facts helped define why we as women are more social, more community-focused, collaborative, less competitive (than men) and, above all, why we need our girlfriends.

Consider these findings:

Longevity – Married men live longer than single men, yet women who marry have the same life expectancy as those who don't. However, women with strong female social ties (girlfriends) live longer than those without them.

Stress – For decades, stress tests focused solely on male participants, believing that all humans would respond in the same manner. When these same stress tests were finally conducted on females it was discovered that women don't have the same, classic 'fight or flight' response to stress men do. According to the research presented in The Tending Instinct, women under stress have the need to 'tend and befriend.' We want to tend to our young and be with our friends. Time with our friends actually reduces our stress levels.

More Stress - A study conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine found that when we're with our girlfriends, our bodies emit the "feel good" hormone oxytocin, helping us reduce everyday stress. By prioritising our female friendships and spending time with these friends, we take advantage of a very simple, natural way to reduce our stress.

Even more stress - Prairie voles, a monogamous rodent, have a similar response to stress. When a male vole is put in a stressful situation, he runs to his female partner. Female voles, when stressed, immediately run to the females they were raised with.

Self-esteem - A recent study by Dove indicated that 70% of women feel prettier because of their relationships with female friends. It's no surprise that our self-esteem is highly influenced by our girlfriends; this is important to understand for girls as well as women.

The Health Factor – Women without strong social ties risk health issues equivalent to being overweight or a smoker. That’s serious.

With all I've discovered that is good about female friendships, I was disappointed to come across a national survey from 2006 that found a sharp decline in friendships. According to the American Sociological Review, we are thought to be suffering a loss in the quality and quantity of close friendships since at least 1985. The study found 25% of participants have no close friends, and the average total number of friends per citizen has dropped from four to two. You'd be forgiven for thinking Facebook has changed all this.

As women, we sometimes need to be reminded what being a girlfriend means. Too often it takes something horrible in our lives to hit us with reality, realisation, and appreciation of friendship. That reminder can also be as simple as a caring card, a hug or an e-mailed photo. Once in a while we simply need to take the time to think about our friends, stop and live in the moment, and if at all possible, celebrate that moment.

Hear some bad news? Call a girlfriend. Have something great to celebrate? Share that celebration with a friend. Want to feel prettier, be less stressed, healthier and happier? Spend some time with your BFFs.

Last year Lisa and I saw Bride Wars together, staring Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson. While as people we couldn’t be more different than their characters, our friendship has been as strong. I love this quote from the movie:

"Sometimes in life there really are bonds formed that can never be broken. Sometimes you really can find that one person who will stand by you no matter what. Maybe you'll find it in a spouse and celebrate it with your dream wedding, but there's also the chance that the one person you can count on for a lifetime, the one person who knows you sometimes better than you know yourself is the same person who's been standing beside you all along."

Life is better together – with your girlfriends.

The Ugly Truth

If there's one thing Hollywood-style romcoms have in common, it's their ability to leave you feeling optimistic, hopeful and just down-right giddy with whimsical notions of the possibility of happy endings (of the fairytale kind). I love them.

Last night I took a group of friends off to a preview screening of The Ugly Truth, starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler.

Here's how imdb.com describes the plot: A romantically challenged morning show producer (Heigl) is reluctantly embroiled in a series of outrageous tests by her chauvinistic correspondent (Butler) to prove his theories on relationships and help her find love. His clever ploys, however, lead to an unexpected result.

I'm not sure if whoever wrote the above actually saw the movie. For starters, there was nothing unexpected about the result. I mean, c'mon - how do all romcoms end? And that's exactly what I love about them. No hidden surprises, no plot twists. Instead, there's lots of longing, lingering looks by smouldering lead characters, witty one-liners, cliched support cast, and the token exposed bit of flesh to get the women in the audience all hot and bothered.

I'm a big fan of Heigl (27 Dresses and Knocked Up are two of my favourites) and I have a teeny tiny crush on Butler (PS I Love You and Rock'n'Rolla are also on my favourites list), so it would be fair to say I was just a little excited to see The Ugly Truth. I expected a witty battle of the sexes and I wasn't disappointed. Butler's chauvinistic, sexist, yet brutally honest delivery of his character, Mike, was as tacky as it was sexy (we all like a bad guy); while Heigl's portrayal of Abby left me cringing in points and wanting to slap her (and breathing a sigh of relief that I'm not as cynical and jaded as her... yet), but I couldn't help but celebrate her little romantic triumphs along the way.

A little quirky fact I came across was that when the movie was distributed to cinemas, it was labelled under the code name "Helpful Advice". Very cute.

The great thing about The Ugly Truth is that girls finally have a romcom they can drag the boys along to, and they are likely to equally enjoy it. If only for the eternally memorable and deliciously hilarious restaurant scene that outdoes Meg Ryan's infamous scene in When Harry Met Sally.

So, if I'm evaluating this movie based on what I think makes a great romcom - then it's a hit. It's going on the favourites list. I loved it.