“Iced. Tea.” Everyone erupted in giggles and knowing glances around me as I sat wondering what exactly the joke was and how I could’ve possibly missed it. I was in 8th grade, sitting at lunch with a table of “friends,” who all seemed to be in the know of an impossibly hilarious inside joke without me. It wouldn’t be until junior year of high school that my unspoken suspicion was confirmed: there was no inside joke. It was all made up behind my back to purposely make me feel left out.
It seems all too twisted to be real, let alone the creation of a group of 13-year-old girls. And before you begin picturing the Regina George-queen bee of the school type, you should know that was far from the caliber of girl I was surrounding myself with. My group was on the quieter side, largely made up of the very smart, well behaved (and well respected by adults) “good girls.” Most of us were involved in music, advanced courses, and seemed to be, in every sense of the word, on the path to success. But what no one outside my family knew was how tortured and isolated I felt by this group, who to the outside eye were my closest confidants and supporters. Melting into my mom’s arms sobbing was a typical after-school activity, and weekends were spent navigating sleepovers and AIM conversations that seemed meticulously designed to make me feel increasingly isolated and bewildered.
It’s an unfortunate reality that most adolescents will experience bullying to some capacity throughout their middle and high school years. However, girl bullying takes on a mind of its own, so far beyond our comprehension of what an average squabble between friends looks like. It’s psychological warfare, and is invisible to those who exist outside of its walls. I can’t blame teachers and other parents for not noticing and intervening, because the damage does largely exist in the subtlest of ways. However, whom I do blame are the educators who claim that these interactions do not exist, and refuse to take action against it, nor educate students and parents alike. My mother was my truest friend throughout the scarring and tumultuous middle school years, and as a social worker, she recognized not only the reality that I was experiencing, but also the psychology behind this phenomenon. Even as a well-known and valued member of the PTA, seeking action was more or less futile. Although her ideas were heard and validated, a solution was never developed. Administration would only fund a “general” bullying program that all students could benefit from; though, my mother and I both knew such programs end up having little relevance to and impact on the issues girls specifically face. The frustration she must have felt paralleled the anguish I was forced to endure day in and day out.
It’s easy to ask, “why didn’t you just seek new friends?” an attitude my desperate father adopted as he attempted to make sense of the broken, silenced girl his daughter had become. That was simply not an option at the time, and it’s taken me until now to truly understand why. What I’ve learned from Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out, a book my own mother clung to for answers throughout that time (and one that I highly, highly recommend to any woman – victim and/or bully alike), is that females are conditioned to value relationships above all else; our failure in friendships ultimately leads to our sense of failure as an individual. The fear of losing a friendship is so profound and deep, that despite the agony we put ourselves through, we’re convinced it will never compare to the miserable, unbearable alternative of being alone.
It took me almost four excruciating years to reach the rock bottom that ignited me with enough courage to no longer fear isolation from my group. It was freshman year of high school, and somehow my completely innocent words to one friend were twisted into a negative, and shared with another in disgust. Setting up our Halloween plans, I told a friend that as far as I knew, we weren’t meeting at the other friend’s house. I never thought twice about this interaction. The next day, I was confronted with anger from the second friend, who claimed I had “no right” to uninvite the other girl from coming to her house, and that it was not my place to make such a bold statement. This sort of role reversal was not uncommon throughout my time in this clique, but for some reason, this time it hit a nerve – and I am grateful every day since that it did. I explained myself as calmly as I could – to no avail – and the conversation somehow concluded with the unspoken decision that we were no longer friends. The next day at school, I was immediately faced with the consequences of our verdict, as I received silence from every “friend” I had, even those not involved in the argument. The war had finally ended. I spent most of freshman year more or less alone, but truly anything was better than the psychological torture from before.
What makes me so passionate about educating others on this topic and fighting to empower the next generation of girls, is the lasting influence this time of life had on me, and on several adult women I’ve discussed the issue with in recent years. The most painful part of the whole ordeal was how truly crazy I began to feel. I questioned if those inside jokes were real or not, but I had no one but myself to reason with, and walked away feeling utterly paranoid. Those girls shook every bit of confidence I innately had and stripped me of my voice, something I am still fighting hard to reclaim ten years later. My experience with girl bullying left a lasting mark on how I approach friendships, making me desperately, and unattractively, cling to any genuine relationship I come across. It’s a habit that I detest, and one that I have no doubt stemmed from my middle school days.
What’s even harder to admit is that my experience as the victim resulted in my fair share of times as the bully, as I was forced to succumb to the “eat or be eaten” mentality. In years since, I’ve made great strides in the healing process, and gotten continuously more in touch with just how great compassion and empathy loom at my core. These are the values I strive to bring into my career as I begin my journey as a Master of Science in Social Work student at Columbia University this fall. I am endlessly devoted to helping break the cycle of girl bullying, but that starts with education, and sharing my own story has to be the first step. All I can hope is that this brings confidence to another woman to bring voice and light to their own similar experiences, validating their existence and chipping away at the deep-rooted belief that they were the crazy one. Empowered women empower women.