There are three things only your real friends can do: Tell you when your clothes don't fit, tell you when you're acting ridiculous and help you celebrate a huge achievement.
Strangers can tell you if you have spinach in your teeth. Somebody you've never met before can help you grieve. It's easier to offer an incidental observation or sincere sympathy than it is, for example, to offer authentic, enthusiastic admiration.
But only someone who's known and loved you for a long time can cheer you on and mean it when you receive a significant promotion, drop three dress sizes or win big money on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
A stranger can indicate that you've got something in the corner of your eye through the universally recognized action of desperately rubbing the corner of her own eye until you, chimpanzee-like, mimic her action only to discover that you now have a flake of mascara the size of a tea bag smeared across the top of your cheekbone like an NFL running back.
But only a real pal can tell you that your new iridescent eye shadow makes you look not like Halle Berry but like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, only less subtle.
It's not easy to be a friend.
Oh sure, you can hit the "accept" button on a social media site and pretend to be popular, but does that really mean you'd be able to identify the person you just "friended" in a lineup? If you could, would you offer to make that person's bail? A real friend offers bail.
Would you recognize his or her voice over the phone? Even more important, if you saw on your caller ID that it was this person phoning you, would you pick up or let it go directly to voice mail? Real friends pick up and don't pretend not to know who it is.
Real friends say, "Oh, thank God it's you," and then admit who it is they are glad not to hear from ("The only time she ever calls is when she needs bail").
I know people claiming to have 1,236 friends who haven't had an actual conversation with a living adult in eight years. You know the kind I mean: the ones having five-second phone calls while texting, while waving to somebody while gesturing to you to "hold on, just one sec." You, meanwhile, are attempting to back away as quickly as possible from this carnival of self-aggrandizement. Sometimes they'll step on the cuff of your pants to keep you in place.
But what's really scary is when these people are pushing strollers. There's some little tyke in there wearing a fabulous costume, which would be great except the kid hasn't had to focus on a human face since the last time a family photograph was taken. Nobody speaks to him directly; his parents are always on the phone. They won't make eye contact with their offspring until they're all in court being asked to stand beside him when the judge says, "Will the defendant please rise?"
Look: Even your dog knows when you're not paying proper attention — making eye contact and friendly conversation ("Lulu, girl, check out that sparrow! That sparrow must weigh 45 pounds, huh, Lulu? How can something like that get liftoff?) Notice how the dog looks back, shaking her head as if to say, "Yeah, that sparrow's built like a Buick." You've just had a little moment of interspecies connection.
As I always say, Lorelei Lee got it wrong in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: It's not that diamonds are a girl's best friend, but it's your best friends who are your diamonds. It's your best friends who are supremely resilient, made under pressure and of astonishing value. They're everlasting; they can cut glass if they need to.
And just as there's no such thing as a fake diamond — it's either real or it isn't — there's no such thing as a fake friend. Fake ones fall off when you get into hot water.
Hold your friends close. Talk to them, in person if possible, and cheer them on. Real friends are a better — and kinder — reflection of you than any mirror.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. © 2012 Hartford Courant