I’ve been turning over the idea of a “Mean Girls” post for months but have ultimately been avoiding it. However, when I checked out Twitter this morning only to discover that it’s “officially” Mean Girls Day, it seemed like a sign that I was supposed to finally give in and share my thoughts on this one. So here it goes: Happy Mean Girls Day.
It first occurred to me that I might have some lingering “mean girls” issues of my own when I was driving home from a sister circle about six months ago. I was carpooling with another woman who attends circles, and we were discussing how much we loved circle and the unconditional support of the women who attend it. My friend made a comment to the effect of: “I just love being surrounded by women. I know other people say that they can be catty or whatever, but my sisters and female friends have always been the most positive, supportive people for me. I’ve never understood why people think women are mean.” I felt a couple of things simultaneously: 1) Shock. Did she not understand how insanely judgmental and awful women are to each other on a regular basis? 2) Guilt. I write a blog that is entirely about female friendship and connections – what is my issue?!
I could at least comfort myself with the fact that I’m not the only one who recognizes the mean girl phenomenon. After all, there’s a reason the 2004 high school comedy struck a chord with so many viewers. And what defines “mean girl” behavior? For me, the hallmarks are spreading rumors, belittling other females in an effort to lower their self-esteem, and ignoring or social blacklisting. I know that I have been on the receiving end of all those behaviors at one point or another in middle and/or high school, and I would guess that a lot of other women have too.
When I was in the thick of it at age twelve, just trying to emotionally survive the dad-to-day reality of being the class bully’s favorite target, it hit my self-esteem hard. I remember frantically trying to figure out what was wrong with me that made the “popular” girls hate me so much. At one point I went to my mom and asked her if I smelled bad and just didn’t know it, because I was just so desperate to make sense of everything. (Not too many memories of middle school still hit me emotionally, but for whatever reason, that one is still raw.)
As an adult, I can look back more objectively and recognize that my refusal to participate in their bullying threatened them in a way that they could never tolerate. One night I was at a sleepover, and twin sisters who I was friends with were going to arrive late because they had figure skating lessons. The other girls spent the time before they arrived hanging “Figure Skating Sucks” signs all over the basement in an effort to make my friends feel as unwelcome as possible, and I spent the time tearing down the signs and hiding them in the garbage so that my friends wouldn’t see them. The same group of girls ganged up to target our seventh-grade teacher as well, a woman who I genuinely liked and connected with. I didn’t participate in that either. It was inevitable that I was going to become their target.
So I understand now that my experience with bullying wasn’t my fault, but it leaves the question, what was wrong with them? Or, to be more accurate, what is wrong with how we socialize girls and women that makes this bullying, mean girls dynamic so prevalent in our culture?
The most common answer is, of course, that bullies have low self-esteem themselves. Because they question their own self-worth, they need to gain a sense of power and control by tearing down the people around them. And this would fit well with the prevalence of mean girl behavior during adolescence, when there is so much rapid change and it’s part of normal development to feel uncertain about who you are. Unfortunately, the same developmental factors that lead to bullying also make being on the receiving end of bullying particularly harmful. How horrible to have your self-worth questioned when you’re just trying to figure out who you even are . . .
It’s not like mean girls magically disappear at high school graduation, but I think it’s safe to say that you gradually encounter fewer and fewer of them as you get older. On the one hand, I like to think that they grow out of it. They grow up, work through their shit, and no longer need the crushed souls of middle school girls to make them feel better about themselves. I ran into one of the girls from my middle school class at the grocery store last year, and we said hi and exchanged pleasantries, easy peasy. On the other hand, I know for certain that fewer women would tolerate bullying behavior as adults. If anyone tried to shame me in the way I was in middle school, I would have no problem telling them to fuck off and not giving them another thought. I think that’s pretty par for the course by the time you’re in your 30s, and it simply leaves no room for mean girls to have power or take control.
Which isn’t to say that bullying disappears entirely. Every community is different, but personally I see the mean girl mentality rear her ugly head most often in business or professional situations, when ambition takes a turn for the worse. And this makes sense to me. In many ways, I think women – as a whole – are still in their “adolescence” when it comes to having a professional identity that they are comfortable and secure with. We’re only a couple generations into the transition of women as career people, and I feel like the first generation or so was spent emulating a more masculine ideal, whereas now we’re at a point where women are embracing themselves more authentically – including their feminine strengths – and trying to figure out exactly what that looks like in the business place. So it is a scary, insecure place in many ways. And insecurity is where the mean girl thrives best.
So where does that leave us and our adolescent sisters? I think that, like any bogeyman, we need to teach girls about the mean girl dynamic early and often. The girls who are being bullied need to understand that it is not a reflection on them, that as horrible and humiliating as bullying is, abuse says nothing about the abused and a lot about the abuser. And adults need to help the mean girls. Any child who is desperate enough to seize control through emotionally abusing peers is hurting on some level, and we need to have the resources in place to address it, while also holding them accountable for their actions.
In the meantime, I really love this quote from Fred Rogers:
And if you can’t watch the video, it goes like this: “”When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” (fredrogers.org)
Yes, I had some horrible days in middle school. Most of us do. But I also had some amazing helpers. I had my friend Lauren, who sat next to me all night in the bathroom at the school dance when I was afraid of encountering my classmates. And after I switched schools, I had some amazing friends whom I stayed close to for many years. Less than a month after I was hiding in the bathroom with Lauren, I was having a sleepover with one of my new classmates, sneaking food out of the fridge at 1am and thinking, “Wow, this is what seventh grade is supposed to be like.”
So I guess my message to middle or high school girls who find themselves the target of the mean girls would be: 1) It’s not you. It’s them. Really. And 2) Look for the helpers, or as I like to call them, sisters. When you find them, you can laugh off or ignore the people who have their own crap to work through. But no matter what, know that it gets better. Middle and high school should never be the end – they’re barely the beginning.