I am a woman who has a hard time making female friends.
I'm not saying this in a humble-braggy way to imply other women are just oh-so-intimidated by me, or as a way to flaunt my chillness by differentiating myself from "catty" women. (I possess absolutely zero chill.) I have a hard time making female friends simply because I have had a lot of negative experiences being friends with women.
Historically, most of my relationships with women have culminated in a melange of spilled tequila and 3 a.m. text messages and hurt feelings and, in one incident in high school, me cleaning up feces in a tub at a house party. This dynamic has changed since I've reached adulthood, and I can now count a number of women as among my closest friends. But I still find it more difficult to interact with women on a daily basis than I do men.
In my experience, talking to a man you've just met feels very much like taking a pass/fail course in college: For better or worse, you're often being judged on basically one criterion (i.e. whether they'd fuck you). Talking to a woman you've just met, however, feels like you're being vetted for a spot on the Supreme Court. Within five seconds of your first conversation, you'll be assessed according to a million factors: the bag you're holding, the shoes you're wearing, the school you went to. If you fall short of any of these measures, then too bad! It's back to a 4th District Court judgeship for you.
Intellectually, I know female friendships can be fulfilling and soul-uplifting and transformative and all those other adjectives that people typically use to describe Oprah books or high-end spin classes. I also know that thanks to the rise of power BFF squads like that of Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence, the empowering nature of female friendships is having something of a moment right now. It's just that sadly, in my experience, having a large group of women around isn't a recipe for empowerment so much as a recipe for psychic turmoil.
For this reason, I've always been somewhat envious of women who navigate female-dominated social circles with ease, who regularly attend Galentine's Day brunches and movie nights and lectures at the Y with their smart and sassy girlfriends.
Olivia Poole, the founder of Hey! Vina, was inspired to develop the app after moving from Newport Beach, California, to San Francisco after college. A former marketing consultant, she told Mic she started to use online sites for making friends, including OkCupid. "I found that OkCupid and dating sites were a good way of gauging compatibility," she said. So she started reaching out to women on OkCupid with similar interests.
While some of them were creeped out, many were thrilled to make a platonic friend on the dating website. "There was a lot of 'Omigosh, I've done the same thing,'" she said. The experience inspired Poole to create weekly meetups in the Bay Area for women interested in making friends. ("Vina" is Scottish for "friend" or "beloved.") These meetups led to Hey! Vina, an app that's essentially a platonic version of Tinder: You're asked to fill out six basic personality questions — are you an introvert or extrovert? Do you prefer wine or coffee dates? — and then you swipe through a series of profiles and wait for a match.
To hear Poole tell it, the app fulfills a legitimate need among urban 20-somethings who might be looking to expand their social horizons but aren't sure how to go through that process without seeming thirsty or desperate. The fact that Hey! Vina focuses specifically on women speaks to the enormous value women place on their platonic same-sex relationships, running counter to the stereotype that female friendships are inherently competitive or toxic.
"Historically, we've been forced to compete with each other," Poole told me. "Hopefully this encourages women to support each other rather than compete with each other."
For my own purposes, I envisioned using Hey! Vina to amass a power squad of strong, smart women in their late 20s. We'd go to boozy brunches and talk frankly about anal sex and take a lot of selfies and dance to Wiz Khalifa. It would be like Sex and the City, except younger and poorer and more ethnically diverse.
But I would need some help. "I'll be honest — I've historically had some difficulty making female friends," I told Poole. "Do you have any tips for me for making female friends on the app?"
"Compliments are the secret weapon of friendship," Poole said. "You can always open a convo by saying, 'I love your haircut. Where do you get your hair done?' It doesn't have to be super deep. Flattery always works."
"Uh-huh, compliments," I said. "What else?" Asking Poole for advice on how to make friends made me feel unspeakably lame, like an anthropologist observing youth culture in a 1960s beach movie.
"Don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Be honest. Say, 'This is hard for me,'" Poole said. "Women respond well to emotional honesty." It was a weird feeling, to be womansplained about making female friends by another woman, but I appreciated her willingness to help me out regardless.
When I finally downloaded the app and swiped through the profiles, it seemed like women had a wide range of reasons for using it. Some had just moved to a new city and wanted to make new friends, while others were new moms who were specifically looking to befriend other moms. A few said they had lost their existing friends in a breakup and were looking to make new ones. There were more than a few references to Sex and the City.
After days of swiping through and getting few matches, it was difficult to avoid the distinct feeling that I'd so often gotten at lady brunches and parties and work events: that I was being judged. I had thought my profile pic — a photo of me sipping Buddha punch at Benihana — was funny, as was my bio, which made reference to my love of poop jokes and my hatred of Instagram moms and Kristen Wiig. But in a sea of profiles where women extolled their love of Bikram yoga and iced coffee and going on ambiguously phrased "adventures," it was clear that I was coming off as a little cynical.
Eventually, I matched with Suzannah*, a woman who lived in my neighborhood who shared my passion for musical theater. After exchanging a few messages about the Spring Awakening revival, we decided to meet at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side.
Over espressos, Suzannah said she had moved to New York City last year to start a new job. While she initially seemed fairly reserved, we quickly warmed up to each other and started talking about musicals. Suzannah said she saw shows nearly every week, but she still hadn't seen Les Miserables.
"That is shocking that you haven't seen it yet," I said. "I'll be totally honest with you."
"I know what it's about, though," she said. "It's about poverty and rebellion in France."
"That's like saying Mary Poppins is about the Edwardian-era banking system," I said. She chortled politely. I did too. I was having a good time.
Suzannah and I chatted for more than an hour about pretty much everything: cats versus dogs, the deliciousness of bacon, the enduring sex appeal of Craig from Degrassi: The Next Generation. I was having a good time, and it seemed like she was too.
At a certain point, I got to thinking about what Poole had told me, when I admitted that I had trouble with female friendships: "Don't be afraid to be vulnerable.'" So that's what I did.
"I have to be honest," I told Suzannah. "I downloaded the app because I have a hard time making and keeping female friendships."
"Why do you think that is?" she asked. For a moment, she looked unnerved, as if I had just announced my intentions to give birth and eat my own placenta off the floor.
"I don't know," I said. "It's hard to explain. I think there's something with women, where you have conversations on multiple different levels at once, that you don't experience with men. They're always judging you — what you look like, what you wear, what bag you're carrying."
"I don't think that's true," Suzannah said. "I don't think about that stuff. And I don't think most women do, either."
It was at that point that I realized: Suzannah wasn't judging me. She thought I was judging her. And she was right — the second after I walked in, I did judge her. I judged the outfit she was wearing. I judged the school she went to. I even judged her coffee order. Even though I did not find fault with any of these choices, I still formed my opinion of her based on these external factors — aka, I'd done exactly what I had been afraid of women doing to me my whole life.
Maybe women didn't have a problem with me, I thought. Maybe they didn't think I was too weird or uncouth or unattractive, and they didn't have a problem with the fact that I like poop jokes and hate Bikram yoga. But I had a problem with them.
Women didn't have a problem with me. I had a problem with them.
After Suzannah and I hugged and parted ways — in fact, we made a date for the following week — I started taking inventory of the female friendships I'd had, and why they'd crashed and burned in the first place. Nearly every instance had to do with a shitty thing I'd said or a flagrant betrayal on my part. Even in the bathtub poop incident, I had clearly been at fault. My friendship with that girl ended because I'd told someone else she'd drunkenly pooped in the tub, even though she had explicitly told me not to.
As I ticked through the laundry list of all of my female friendships that had ended disastrously, it became clear there was nothing unique or specific about me that made it difficult for me to be friends with women, other than the fact that I was kind of an asshole. Like many other women who claim they don't have female friends because they want to avoid drama, I had been the driving force behind that drama.
In retrospect, it's clear to me why I did this, time and again. I had been so anxious about being judged by other women that I systematically loosened the bonds that held us together, then blamed them when they inevitably unraveled. In a culture that pits women against each other and forces them to scramble over every available resource — men, jobs, money — it makes sense why I felt this way, why I felt I had to bruise someone else before they had the chance to bruise me. But now that I am in my late 20s, a time when the bonds of friendship tend to be more tenuous than ever and true platonic connections are few and far between, I am determined to not let that happen ever again.
I doubt I will ever have the multiethnic, boozy brunch-filled lady squad of my dreams. I also don't know if Suzannah and I will end up being friends, let alone BFFs. But I do know that I had a good time with her on our friend date, and I also know that we have a date to see Les Miserables next week. And my fear of being bruised aside, that is a date I fully intend on keeping.
*First name has been changed.