We’re All Mean Girls, Sometimes

Have we all been mean girls at one time or another?

When Rachel Simmons penned  Odd Girl Out in 2002, she opened the door to the treacherous world of tween and teen girl relationships. What was behind it shocked many and gave rise to new research and changed society’s perception of girls, their personalities and the way they really interact.

What I am taking away from the revised 2011 version is new insight not only into girls’ relationships today, but insight into myself, other women I know, our relationships and the way we interact with each other personally and with others professionally.

Simmons spent three years talking to girls in several schools in different parts of the country, as well as adult women who looked back on their experiences. Listening to these girls tell their stories was like being transported back in time. It also illuminated the roots of such female behaviors as ganging up, rumor spreading, exclusion, silent treatment, and nice-in-private and mean-in-public friends. Some were bullied mercilessly, while others were the aggressors, yet all were “nice” girls who say they were never out to hurt anyone. They were just angry. Really, really angry. I think most women can recognize these behaviors to varying degrees in themselves or others at some point in their lives, not just during teenage years.

Sowing the Seeds of the Good Girl

From a young age, girls are conditioned to be “good.” Girls who talked to Simmons described “ideal” girls as being pretty, popular, smiling, happy, helpless, dependent, perfect, and having superficial conflicts (solved easily), while “anti-girls” are athletic, brainy, opinionated, pushy, professional, strong, independent, and hard to get along with. Society’s version of the good girl stresses perfection where there is no room for expressing anger and learning about conflict. This forces girls into a stifling silence that can manifest itself in these destructive behaviors. “Our culture has made truth telling and anger, indeed, everything that is ‘not nice,’ feel wrong to girls.”

Relationships Are Critical

For girls, relationships are crucial, but therein lies the minefield. Much of girls’ identities are wrapped up in their social lives. Friends play a huge role and isolation is punishing. Girls act out against each other by threatening to withhold or terminate friendships (relational aggression). Many times, along with torpedoing the friendship comes a crowd effect where others turn against the target as well, isolating her from her peers. Girls learn to wield this relationship power and fear its consequences at an early age.

“In fact, it is the deep knowledge girls have of relationship, and the passion they lavish on their closest friends, that characterizes much of their aggression. The most painful attacks are usually fashioned from deep inside a close friendship and are fueled by secrets and once-shared weaknesses.”

Simmons believes that betrayal in a close friendship at a young age is extremely damaging. It shatters children’s beliefs that friends are nice and that love given will be returned. Some of the stories Simmons tells are tough to read. A vicious campaign against a girl that seemed too confident (“thinks she’s all that”), girls who left others behind in the empty pursuit of popularity, and the constant shift of power within circles of “friendship” had devastating and long-lasting effects on those involved.

Other women Simmons talked to described developing a mistrust of other women and drastic personality changes due to early aggression. Other girls remaining in toxic friendships, were unable to break away, and over time internalized the idea that not only their feelings were expendable but that they are disposable. These same women were also seen to quash their own feelings, needs and wants in order to please the domineering friend. This sets the stage for other unhealthy relationships later in life, including ones with domestic violence.

Does this mean that all girls are irredeemably spiteful and vicious? No. Simmons says these behaviors are a result of girls not learning to deal with anger and face-to-face confrontations, and most girls experience them in one form or another. Are all girls involved in such malicious instances of bullying? No. But bullying comes in varying degrees. Some emerge relatively unscathed, while others carry deep scars into adulthood.

Code Phrase: “I’m Sorry”

“I’m sorry” has many meanings in Girlspeak. During a silent girl vs. girl struggle, it signals surrender. Whomever says it first, loses. On the flip side, “I’m sorry” heads off confrontation altogether and short-circuits discussion. When a girl does try to express her feelings to a friend, a dismissive “I’m sorry,” ends the conversation. Any attempt to continue looks like an emotional overreaction, which is another taboo. In addition to being “good,” girls are not to be emotional (remember that “ideal” girls are always happy). Emotion is used against them. “I’m sorry” is also a knee-jerk reaction, the phrase that springs easily to the lips in many situations to seem courteous and appear good, but ends up making women and girls seem submissive, unsure, and smaller than they are.

How Talking About It Can Help Them and Help Heal Us

Although Simmons’ lengthy research focused primarily on situations involving girls between ten and seventeen, she concedes that these behaviors don’t go away when girls grow up. Simmons said, “The cultural constraints on anger and aggression don’t disappear when a girl grows older, she doesn’t enter womanhood suddenly being able to speak her mind, so these behaviors continue.” Simmons believes that the best way to change is for women to encourage girls to talk, to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way and to develop an outlet for their frustration and anger. Both women and girls can benefit.

After writing Odd Girl Out, Simmons traded journalism for a teaching certificate and co-founded the Girls Leadership Institute (GLI), a nonprofit organization focused on teaching girls (K-12), educators and parents about healthy relationships, assertiveness and self-expression. During these workshops, girls learn leadership skills and how to recognize and deal with aggressive behavior.

Simmons is proud to see the progress the girls make during the workshops. When I asked her how the girls applied their newfound skills and awareness once they returned to their original environment, she reported that when the girls looked at their old environment through their new, empowered lens, their friends either accepted and embraced their assertiveness, or the girls realized their old relationships were unhealthy and had the strength to move on.

Perhaps the more girls who learn these skills, and the more girls who witness their use will create a ripple effect in changing attitudes. While Simmons is teaching girls to flex their assertiveness muscles early, she admits that society is very uncomfortable with these displays of power. Personally and professionally, women and girls can only be so empowered. Society has to change its perception of how women and girls should act for there to be any real change.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Almost all girls have been on both sides of the fence – the bully and the bullied. The talker and the talked about. The one left behind in a friendship, and the one who moved onto a new set of friends, perhaps leaving out a former confidant. Childhood is tough to navigate, especially within the societal constraints of the “good” girl. After reading Odd Girl Out, I looked back at my own childhood experiences and could see many parallels. However, I could also identify toxic friendships in college and into adulthood, as well as personal and professional situations handled badly.

The first step to acknowledging a problem: talk about it. Considered just a part of childhood by many, after a rash of suicides attributed to bullying, it is now being recognized as the poisonous behavior it is. In Odd Girl Out, Simmons devotes time to defining normal friendship-growing-pain behavior as opposed to actual bullying. Bullying is also being called out in other settings and people are being encouraged to open up about their experiences. Bullying in the workplace has become an issue in recent years, with much of it perpetuated by women. Ecosalon editor Sara Ost talks about her own brush with bullying as an adult and her advice for dealing with it, and walking away. A new YA book, Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories features tales from the bullied, and those who were bullies.

Has girl bullying improved over the last decade since Odd Girl Out’s original publication date and the formation of GLI? Simmons calls it a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that since it has come to light, more research is being done, there are more interventions and more states are holding schools accountable with anti-bullying legislation.

The bad news is that cyberbullying is a particularly virulent strain of bullying and is only getting worse. Additionally, Simmons laments, reality TV has glorified bad female behavior, turning aggression into a form of entertainment and highlighting confrontation in exactly the wrong way. This works against all efforts to promote healthy emotional interaction, and, sadly, many girls are watching and emulating.

It’s time for women to feel more comfortable expressing themselves in a healthy way – and for society to encourage us. We need a world with less repression and more genuine friendships, young and old.

image: Monica Arellano-Ongpin, Ava Weintraub

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.