Shine Theory: Why Powerful Women Make the Greatest Friends

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Photo: David Becker/Getty and Johnny Nunez/Getty

Kelly Rowland has done okay for herself since her days with Destiny’s Child. More than okay, really. She’s had a handful of solo hits, is embarking on a short tour this summer, and has just signed on to be a judge on The X Factor. But all of this only looks good until you compare Rowland to her former bandmate Beyoncé — which, apparently, Rowland has been doing for quite awhile. Rowland’s new single, “Dirty Laundry,” is about how she was resentful of Beyoncé's success in the wake of Destiny’s Child. “When my sister was onstage killin' it like a motherfucker,” Rowland sings, “I was enraged, feelin' it like a motherfucker.” She recently had an emotional breakdown onstage in D.C. when she performed the song.

Few women are unlucky enough to have their successes measured against Beyoncé's. But that feeling of resentment rather than joy at the personal and professional achievements of another woman is something most of us can relate to. The economy sucks, and awesome jobs are in short supply. In many industries, women are still perceived to be token hires — which means that other women can feel like our chief competition.  “Who wore it best?” isn’t just a trashy tabloid feature, it’s a dynamic that we apply to the sartorial choices of everyone in our similarly dressed friend group. If we’ve read The Atlantic in the past year or so, we’ve probably become convinced that there is a dearth of eligible men, so we’re all competing for them, too. And with the advent of dating apps like Tinder that allow potential suitors to judge women side-by-side, it’s not only women who are comparing and contrasting their bodies. When we meet other women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than we are, it’s all too easy to hate them for it. It means there’s less for us.

But even if it were somehow possible to objectively evaluate all of our female peers against ourselves, it’s worth asking why we’re spending all this time creating a ranking system in our minds. When we hate on women who we perceive to be more “together” than we are, we’re really just expressing the negative feelings we have about our own careers, or bodies, or relationships.

Here’s my solution: When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.

I’m not immune to that icky feeling you can get in the pit of your stomach when you meet a woman who seems so together. But I confess that I was always pretty good at quashing it. Still, I didn’t actively seek out powerful women as friends until many years into my career. “I don’t shine if you don’t shine” is a lesson I learned from my best friend Amina, who is effortlessly stylish (she’s been mixing prints since 2007 — get in line, Jenna Lyons), frighteningly intelligent (she speaks a handful of languages and is adept at cracking wise in all of them), and beautiful, too. We met at a Gossip Girl viewing party in 2009 (hey, it was relevant back then) in Washington, D.C., a city where a lot of people — not all of them women — see other people’s success as cause for insecurity, not celebration.

Approaching and befriending women who I identify as smart and powerful (sometimes actively pursuing them, as with any other crush) has been a major revelation of my adult life. First, there’s the associative property of awesomeness: People know you by the company you keep. I like knowing that my friends are so professionally supportive that when they get a promotion, it’s like a boost for my résumé, too, because we share a network and don’t compete for contacts. Also, it’s just plain tough out there — for all the aforementioned reasons about the economy and the dating scene and body-image pressures. I want the strongest, happiest, smartest women in my corner, pushing me to negotiate for more money, telling me to drop men who make me feel bad about myself, and responding to my outfit selfies from a place of love and stylishness, not competition and body-snarking.

True confidence is infectious. In my experience, if a woman seems confident but mostly has the effect of making others feel bad about themselves, you can rest assured she’s faking it. The most toxic female relationships of my life have been with women who were deeply unhappy with their lives, and frequently compared them to mine. Contrary to deep-seated theories of female competition, I don’t think that competition made either of us any better or happier.

Whereas with male peers we can use sexism or other factors to explain why they’ve found success in ways we haven’t, other women present a more direct comparison. Powerful women have long held the belief, if only at a subconscious level, that there are a limited number of spaces for them at the top. Have you ever seen a campaign ticket or a boardroom that’s more than 50 percent female? There’s a deep-seated belief that there can be only one — or two, or three at max. I’ve confessed that I’ve occasionally enjoyed being the token woman in the room.

This isn’t just something that afflicts insecure sorority girls. Feminists, ostensibly united by their shared desire to advance gender equality, should be those who are most supportive of their peers’ successes. But as long as there’s been a women’s movement, there’s been a tendency to tear down its most prominent figures. In a 1976 essay on “trashing” among feminists, Jo Freeman quotes her fellow feminist Anselma Dell'Olio as saying that "Achievement or accomplishment of any kind would seem to be the worst crime ... You are immediately labeled a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune over the dead bodies of selfless sisters who have buried their abilities and sacrificed their ambitions for the greater glory of Feminism."

But in reality, we’ve all been both of the women in this scenario, the idealizer and the idealized, often simultaneously.  Foregoing the internal ranking system in favor of being your best self and helping your girlfriends do the same was a revelation to me. And also, apparently, to Rowland. Beyoncé listened to  “Dirty Laundry” and, Rowland says, “She heard how real I was and was like 'I'm so proud of you.'" If Kelly Rowland can come around to the idea that she shines more (not less) because of her proximity to Beyoncé, there's hope for the rest of us.