Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mean Girls

"If you only knew how mean she really is.  You know that I'm not allowed to wear hoop earrings, right?  Two years ago she told me hoop earrings were "her" thing and I'm not allowed to wear them anymore.  And then for Hannukah, my parents got me this really expensive pair of white gold hoops, and I had to pretend I didn't even like was so sad."  --Gretchen from "Mean Girls" 

Only three weeks into school, and already Sophia comes home in tears: “It’s the mean girls,” she says. Three girls are bullying her. Aggressively confronting her over her clothes(she wore the same shirt one of them wore several days earlier and said she was“copying” and better not come back to school wearing it again), taunting her,saying she should be in First Grade she’s so short, following her around and calling her “Dragon Girl” (she loves dragons and sculpts pretty elaborate and impressive dragons from clay), saying “Dragons are for babies. Are you still a baby?” And she cries at her desk, at lunch, at recess. Sophia has a pretty thick skin(she makes fun of me for crying at her kids’ movies) but this doesn’t seem like she’s a target for a day, but has been singled out for the foreseeable future.

In the car on the way home, she tells me she’s already tried the advice given in the anti-bullying movie they watched at the start of school.  "First I tried ignoring them; then I used words: Leave me alone. You’re just being a stupid bully. But nothing works. Maybe it’s because I’m so small,” she said.

That was it. I gave her time to work it out after the initial episodes; I wanted her to believe in herself and her strength and not to run from the bullies. “Sophia,” I said, “you did nothing wrong. It’s not about you; they say these mean things because something is wrong with them. And if you want, I’ll go and talk to your teacher about this.”

She nodded her head. “That would be good,” she said. “But why do they do this? Why can’t they just leave me alone?"

I have an appointment this Friday with her teacher and you better believe I’m not backing down because I know, from experience, how she feels: afraid, anxious, and alone. Her confidence in herself is damaged.

For my entire Fifth Grade year, I was the kid designated by my classmates as the one to be “hated.” No Birthday Party invitations placed on my desk at the morning bell, no giggly conversations about boys at the lunch table, no silly notes passed to me by a girlfriend sitting two rows behind and four seats over. I was blackballed for no specific reason other than the fact that it was my year to be bullied, or the victim of what the professionals call “social aggression”—a confusing term since “social” can be understood as the interaction between people; or it can be understood as interacting in a friendly way. Kindly, affable, welcoming aggression. I was desperate to be let back “in." Every day at school was lonely, and I kept myself as small as possible at my desk to avoid surreptitious kicks aimed at my feet, spit balls aimed at my head--an impossible feat as I was the tallest person in the entire class. But still, I tried—knees bumping the underside of the desk in the exact middle, my shoulders hunched around me, all my textbooks and papers gathered in the middle of the desk top. Maybe no one will notice me today, maybe I can slip by, maybe, maybe, maybe I’ll be let back in. Ironic, because I wanted smaller, and Sophia wants taller.)

One morning,in a desperately self-degrading attempt to be part of the The All-Powerful Girl Pack, I walked up to Julie who was passing out invitations, and begged for one. “Please can I come? I’ll be good (everyone called me hyper and crazy). I promise….”  I trembled while she decided my fate, consulting with a few other girls. Now everyone would know how pathetic I was."

"I’ll have to ask my mother," she said.  "But nobody wants you to come.”

She was right. When I showed up at the party, I was wrong from head to toe: my jeans weren’t the designer brand of the moment, my white shirt had “babyish” ruffles, and my hair wasn’t flipped with a curling iron. Everyone laughed at my gift: a stuffed Hello Kitty doll. Since Julie covered all of her notebooks with Hello Kitty stickers, I thought this was perfect, so perfect that maybe she’d like me again, and if one girl did, then maybe another would.

Of course, recess was horrible. All morning, my anxiety would climb, and as we walked out to the playground in two single lines, my heart would thump and thump like a battering ram, and my stomach would twist itself into a water knot—a knot that is almost impossible to untie—because I knew what was in store: either sitting by myself on the curb, or my former friends maliciously circling around me like sharks, whispering (because if they were overheard by a teacher, they’d get detention), “Loser! Skeleton! Psycho!  You're so ugly you make us want to barf! Why don’t you just go home and die!” Or, as mentioned in a previous post, chased around the schoolyard by them as they pinched my shoulders and chest in a mock search for bra straps and boobs.

Yes, I was resilient because I knew they’d zero in on someone else eventually, so all I had to do was wait it out. I couldn’t tell my mother about it because I was ashamed—surely I did something to deserve all of that, and she would likely know what it was, and I didn’t want to embarrass her by my behavior, by my essential un-likeability which invited the ostracism. I wish I had someone to tell me that I was perfectly okay and loved and none of this was my fault. I wish that I had been reassured that I didn’t have to alter myself to be accepted and likeable. I wish I had been told that I was beautiful and courageous and creative and smart. It might have made a difference.

Of course, by the next year, I’d earned a reprieve and a steadfast ally--Erin, my best friend ever since. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t really resilient because I wear the scars of that year. My anorexia colludes with those taunts when I look in the mirror—too tall, too skinny, fat cow, disgusting.  So in a way, by starving and purging, I'd been trying to make my body perfect, above reproach. And if I keep shrinking and shrinking, nobody will notice me because I will have no body. My basic belief that I am unworthy, not good enough has also been shaped by those backs turning on my approach, by the invitations I never received to parties, playdates, and sleepovers. And my alcoholism? A way to help me slide into those groups of girls at parties, a way to talk to them, a way to get them to like me because I could drink like them, drink more than them. In part, a way to transfer “their” loathing of me into my loathing of me. I can become my very own mean girl, better at it than “they” were. I could always win because I could inflict greater self-damage than “they” could.  I'm not suggesting that the root of all my ills lies in fifth grade bullies--but certainly, those bullies fostered what ails me.

No, I don’t blame those girls. Likely most of them were self-conscious, too, about who they were becoming, and fearful about losing their places at the center. I know that I was no angel of justice. I’m sure I gossiped and giggled, but I don’t remember ever being part of the circling sharks or deliberately cruel. And yet, don’t we all know the exact, right words that will wound the most? So often, we say them—if not aloud, then in our heads. And most often, what we say in our heads is directed at our own bodies and self-worth: Fat Pig. Skeleton. Bitch. Psycho. Nobody Likes You and Nobody Ever Will.


  1. Oh, I feel so much for Sophia! I wasn't bullied until I was in high school and college (and grad school!), but the shame and fear stick with me and inform lots of my bad behaviors. I hope this works out for her -- such a bright, funny, beautiful, and courageous kiddo! I keep her dragon on my desk at home to remind me to look for magic in my everyday life.

  2. This breaks my heart. Children can be so cruel, and I believe it must be a parenting issue when it's to this extent. Unfortunately, there are adult bullies too.