I grew up without the quintessential female friendships – the best friends, the bestie, the BFF – and for the most part it was my choice. To be truthful, from the outside these female teenage attachments always appeared wrought with drama. There was the gossip, the backstabbing, and the constant competition. Being gifted a friendship bracelet or borrowings clothes to me seemed little consolation to the constant angst these estrogen fuelled friendships brought on. Through the formative school years I always found it easier to relate to the opposite sex; the boys didn’t care what clothes I wore, if I wore make-up, or who I liked. They weren’t competing with me for other boys’ attention, and I wasn’t trying to be like them. We were different and that was okay, never something to be teased or feel tormented about. In these friendships I was comfortable.
So it happened that I arrived in my late twenties without a closet full of bridesmaid dresses (I don’t care what anyone says, you will never wear them again anyway), a jewellery box full of half-heart BFF pendants (and here I must point out they are broken), or a all-girl clique of which to be bonafide a member. Inevitably through these years, I found myself at weddings listening to speeches from the brides’ childhood girlfriends that felt so similar in their recounting of mischievous girlhood antics and trips to Vegas – full of inside jokes and knowing winks – that it began to feel scripted. I couldn’t stop myself from occasionally wondering though… Had I missed an integral part of my own personal coming of age story? I knew I loathed all events that called for gender segregation, from stagettes to baby showers, and being most often the friend of the male in the relationship, I would end up in a room full of women with whom I had nothing in common. Not to mention that I was generally annoyed to be missing out on the fun that I knew the guys were having; them out riding bikes or fishing while I had to talk compostable diapers over devilled eggs. I hated that my genitalia dictated my pre-assigned social circle.
When I started riding bikes over a decade ago there were other girls riding, but they were such anomalies it was easy to personally know every one of them. Biking was still very much a male-dominated sport and I enjoyed that aspect of it. I wasn’t trying out for the cheer squad, and their atmosphere was in my comfort zone. But as more women entered the sport, I began to feel the encroachment of what I had so assiduously avoided in high school. There was competitiveness, jealousy, and tears. So I rode kept riding with the guys. Not because I was fast, but because it was simple. Truthfully I was slow and they were fast, but something about our gender difference meant I didn’t feel the need to compare myself to them, nor they to me. But whenever I rode with the girls there was a persistent and unpleasant undertone of competition in their overwhelming girl power support. How well you rode became the thing to talk about, rather than just the shared and innate love of riding. And as much as I would scream in my head ‘bitches be crazy’ I knew it wasn’t their fault, that in fact society has spent centuries conditioning us to behave this way. So much so, that I had to admit that avoiding these relationships was as much about a fear of how I would behave in them, as it was how they would behave toward me.
It turns out my fears were justified. In Rosalind Wiseman’s book, In Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, she declares ‘every girl I know has been hurt by her girlfriends’. She goes on to describe teenage girl cliques as having ‘all the tact, sense of fairness, and social graces of a pack of marauding hyenas’ and discusses the ‘invisible war behind girls’ friendships’. Tellingly, the aim of her book is to help parents navigate the waters of raising a teenage daughter – waters she feels are filled with female friendships that are ‘often intense, confusing, frustrating, and humiliating, the joy and security of “best friends” shattered by devastating breakups and betrayals’. She concludes through her research that ‘girls can be each other’s worst enemies’. Invisible war? Friends as worst enemies? Maybe I had sidestepped something much more insidious than even I originally thought. What Wiseman also points out is that these relationships can have ‘much deeper and farther-reaching implications beyond [our] turbulent teen years’ and in fact they can determine who we become in life: ‘perpetrator, bystander, or victim of violence’.
Over the years I’ve come to better understand how all women are conditioned to compete and how frenemies, while an atrocious addition to the English language, is a relationship that has always existed for women. Skipping the rites of passage that comes with it meant that I have had more time to think about the kind of female friends I want to have in my life. The slow and steady rise of women in mountain biking eventually exposed me to more women in general, and specifically more women like me; our commonalities being a love of nature, finding more comfortable ‘around the guys’, and in that way, of being slightly ‘different.’ The type of ladies who put supporting each other before competing with each other, regardless of society’s attempt to make us to feel like other women are the enemy.
This however is not to say that these strong, kick-ass women are not competitive. Most have competed in sports in one way or another, but our rides are filled with conversation about life, about personal development, and about encouraging each other in our pursuits and dreams. They are not about embellished tales of hitting gaps that no other girls have hit or lording individual successes over one another. Now in my thirties I’ve amassed some really incredible, strong, confident, generous, and talented women as friends. These friendships don’t come with drama or competition – when the conversations inevitably turn to matters of the uterus, it’s not about whose are better, bigger, more hospitable and I feel incredibly fortunate that mountain biking has brought these women into my life.
With the delayed female friendship path that I have chosen I do have to accept that no matter how close my friendships become at this age, when there is a maid of honour or godmother to be chosen there will be a ‘BFF from like grade 3’ who comes out of nowhere to take the cake, but I’m okay with that now. Let them have a closet full of ugly dresses – I have found something better.
Danielle is a writer and photographer who enjoys long walks in the rain, riding her bike, and shots of tequila. Growing up without electricity or running water helped her to find a great appreciation for all things in nature and, eventually, led to her love of mountain biking and fear of whales.