Yes, it's women who are eyeing up women
A new survey shows that girls can't stop comparing their looks, figures and clothes.
'Look at me!" This was not an amorous suggestion; rather, a very cross order. My date of the evening (the husband was away on a business trip) was fed up with me looking over his shoulder. I wasn't being so churlish as to scope the party for other men; I was simply studying the other women.
We all do it. Whether we admit to it or not, women spend more time checking out other women than they do checking out men. According to research by a British swimwear company, half of the 2,000 women polled said that they "enjoy" comparing themselves to other women.
I'm not sure I "enjoy" the cut-throat competition that fuels female encounters. But it is undoubtedly a dog-eat-dog spirit that forces me to focus beady eyes on the woman passing me on the street, the cover girl on the glossy magazine, and even – dare I say it – my closest friends. Thank goodness thought bubbles exist only in cartoons; otherwise I'd be cast out as a pariah, with my mean-spirited running commentary. Why is she wearing shorts when cellulite pockmarks her thighs? Why is she showing off her wrinkled cleavage? Who's the butcher who gave her that trout pout? Uncharitable, I know. But there is plenty of self-doubt in other comparisons. She's thinner than me. She's better dressed. She looks 10 years younger.
So why do we do it? Why is watching other women more compulsive than the latest episode of Homeland or even gawping as Nadine Dorries eats lamb's testicles?
I used to think it was all part of the hunt for a suitable man. If "she" looked better than me, she'd nab the only male who didn't sleep with his ex-wife, his four Labradors or a hot water bottle.
Most women will agree that when we look in the mirror, we don't ask ourselves what he sees in us, we ask what she sees. I've never heard a man complain about hairy legs but I wax my pins faithfully, lest other women mock my furry calves. I've never heard a man praise a woman's manicure, yet I regularly shell out £20 to have nails that meet my female friends' approval.
We dress to impress our female peers. Members of the opposite sex, let's face it, couldn't tell Dolce & Gabbana from Ben & Jerry's. Getting dressed for them is as challenging as connect the dots: so long as it's figure-hugging, these simple souls will be happy. It is pointless spending hundreds on a MaxMara shift when the only comment from the man in your life is: "A Carmelite habit would be more of a come-on."
Thank heavens, then, for the girls. They may instantly spot last year's Temperley dress and this year's extra two kilos but when they give you a compliment, you know it's for real.
Pleasing the female judge is a triumph. So it is no wonder that half of the survey's respondents said they get a buzz from it.
But it's a buzz that we feel guilty about. The classic self-help books, from Women Who Love too Much to Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, echo the injunction that we should be happy in our own skin.
Every shrink is clear on the subject: comparisons are not just odious, but destructive. When we study one another with a critical (and competitive) eye we risk denting the self-confidence of the object of our attention – and sometimes our own as well.
One former colleague, good-looking and a stylish dresser, perfected the most intimidating scrutiny of fellow women. Slow, deliberate and calculating, her overt once-over shrank you to quaking insignificance. But thankfully such blatant judgment is rare: most of us try to conceal that we are sizing up the competition (for which sunglasses come in very handy).
Every woman I know has a celebrity template (or two) that she draws inspiration from and obsesses over at every opportunity. For me, the most watchable woman in the world is Victoria Beckham. Posh may glower, but she glows, too. Her chiselled face and sculpted body never fail to look glamorous – whether it's a gamine look she's gone for or a Gothic one.
Obviously, I can't draw any comparisons between myself and such a fashion icon but I like to look none the less. And, crucially, Posh has feet of clay – or at least feet ridden with bunions. It's only a little flaw, but it makes her recognisably human. And all the more watchable as a result.
Likewise, the BBC newsreader Emily Maitlis, another glamour puss with an eye-catching and ever-changing style, came on to my radar when she was mortifyingly caught on camera some years ago at an awards ceremony displaying more than she had intended in a tight designer gown.
Woman-watching, like any entertainment, has to spring some surprises.
So here's looking at you, kid. But only if you're female.