A McMaster study published in the journal of Aggressive Behaviour suggests that women are more likely to behave aggressively and engage in bullying behaviour when they are interacting with a more provocatively dressed woman.

Researchers Tracy Vaillancourt and Anachal Sharma from McMaster University and the University of Ottawa brought 86 women into a lab to find out how they reacted when another woman interrupted the experiment.

“This research may help explain why popular media, which often portrays females vying for the attention of males, has such a strong female audience base,” explained Aanchal Sharma to The Daily News.

Pairs of women were placed in a room and were interrupted by either a provocatively dressed woman in a mini-skirt and a low cut blouse, or by the same women, but this time she was dressed very conservatively.

The participants were given a “Bitchy Rating” from zero to ten to gauge how negatively they reacted to the woman’s interruption. This scale is based on factors such as how they looked at the woman, their negative verbal comments, and the amount of eye rolling and ridicule.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Vaillancourt explained that they chose the word “bitchy” to use as a measurement on their scale because “bitchiness is the term that people use.” This term is commonly used among the age group of the participants, which ranges from 20 to 25.

The same woman interrupted the two groups, but the way she dressed completely changed how the participants reacted. When presented with the conservatively dressed woman, subjects made no comments, and hardly seemed to notice her. In contrast, when the sexy woman entered the room, the participants reacted in a hostile way, but only after the provocative woman left the room.

When the sexy woman interrupted, the participants made more negative comments, laughed at the woman, examined her more closely, and made more negative facial expressions in comparison to those who were interrupted by the conservative woman. For example, one woman remarked that the sexy woman was “dressed to have sex with one of her professors.” Participants exposed to the provocative woman were rated as being bitchier than the women who met the conservative woman.

The researchers called it a display of indirect aggression, where women are more covertly “bitchy” to other women when they find their sexy appearance threatening. Vaillancourt and Sharma found that the provocative woman was seen as a sexual rival, so the participants shunned her. In general, the women in the study stated they did not want to be friends with the provocative woman.

“Women are indeed very capable of aggressing against others, especially women they perceive as rivals,” said Dr. Vaillancourt, now a psychologist at the University of Ottawa told the New York Times. “The research also shows that suppression of female sexuality is by women, not necessarily by men.”

This research is especially relevant now, with the launch of Prime Minister Steven Harper’s anti-bullying program this year. “Our work provides support for the innate roots of female conflict,” Sharma says, and is “a starting point for recognizing the origins of the behaviours and informing what factors should be considered in the resolution process.”  Understanding research such as Vaillancourt and Sharma’s can assist with planning strategies to reduce bullying among women.

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