The secret life of
When Sarah* entered high school, she was fully prepared to be initiated.
The ritual of hazing freshmen was a time-honored tradition in her rural community. And so she gamely endured pranks such as getting whipped cream smeared in her hair. "I thought it was hilarious," the North Dakota State University student says today.
But after a couple of years, the initiation ritual developed a nasty edge. It came to a head when several of her classmates tied younger students to a flagpole with duct tape, poured Kool-Aid over their clothes, then kicked and hit them.
The incident was all the more memorable because the perpetrators were girls in a small North Dakota town.
When Sarah shares this anecdote in DeAnn Miller-Boschert's classroom, the NDSU education instructor is disturbed by it, if not particularly surprised. In her statewide research of girl-to-girl bullying, Miller-Boschert quickly discovered the ruthless pecking order isn't confined to urban America or Hollywood films. She has unearthed stories of betrayal, cruelty and the type of peer-group machinations that might have given Machiavelli pause.
Miller-Boschert has submitted her research findings to the Association of Consumer Sciences Journal, where it is in the rewrite stage. She could not have picked a hotter area of study. In 2002, Rachel Simmons published the seminal work on girls and bullying, "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls." Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees & Wannabes" - a book to help parents guide their daughters through the social minefield of adolescence - also became a New York Times bestseller. It inspired "Mean Girls," a hit movie that manages to be both entertaining and searingly honest in its depiction of teenage divadom.
Several factors motivated Miller-Boschert to join the charge. One was reading Simmons' "Odd Girl Out," based on interviews with 300 girls from 30 different schools. Another was her own experience as a middle-school teacher and administrator. Yet another hit closer to home: Her own daughter was entering the world of brand-name clothing and cafeteria politics, of sleepovers and hallway gossip.
A statewide survey of middle school teachers and interviews with female college students provided her with the necessary data. Just as Simmons and Wiseman had found, she discovered a world where even a walk down a school hallway could become a maze of catty comments, deliberate snubs and frosty glares. All sugar and spice stuff aside, the world of adolescent girls can be as fickle as it is demanding, as complex as it is brutal.
Like Simmons, Miller-Boschert believes female cruelty springs from socialization: Girls are taught to be kind and sweet, yet are discouraged from confronting or showing anger toward others. As a result, they develop what Simmons calls "a hidden culture of silent and indirect aggression."
While boys will torment other boys with overt acts of violence, girls will use indirect tactics such as back-stabbing, note-passing and excluding peers. Girls grow adept at camouflaging their cruelty from authority figures; they learn to torment their victims through slang, the silent treatment and a glare known universally by any middle-school girl as "The Look." They may start rumors about her, or tell her they love what she's wearing in a tone that says exactly the opposite.
"It's a hurt that goes really, really deep," Miller-Boschert says. "There's no black eye, but it cuts through the soul. You have to ask: Why don't we help our own gender?"
Girl-to-girl bullying is probably at its peak in sixth and seventh grades, when peer acceptance is at a premium and social hierarchy is being established. But Miller-Boschert has found bullying tactics develop years beforehand. She's heard several stories of clubs formed by 4-year-olds, who refused to let another girl into their precious preschool circle.
As girls age, their "games" can grow more underhanded. Miller-Boschert relates the story of a grade-school class in which the popular girls wielded their influence with school supplies. Every day, the teacher chose students to hand out colored pencils to the rest of the class. When the popular girls distributed the pencils, they purposely doled out the prettiest colors to girls in the "in" group. Girls on shakier ground would sit at their desks in fear, dreading that they'd be handed a drab brown rather than a popular pink. A student's color status could change from day to day.
On the extreme end, peer bullying can make school intolerable. In one case, a scapegoat was tormented so severely by other girls that her parents relocated her to another state to live with her aunt. The school remained so divided by the incident that parents and community members got involved. Finally, the girl's family wound up moving.
In some instances, technology adds a whole new dimension to peer persecution. Junior high and high school kids across the country use well-known sites such as Xanga.com to create blogs in which they "flame," or attack, other students. In the country school days, girls gossiped by passing notes. Today, their "notes" reach hundreds of online users - and they can pass them with virtual anonymity.
"We have this not-in-my-backyard thinking," Miller-Boschert says. "It does happen here."
A girl can become a target for any number of reasons, from wearing the wrong clothes to speaking her mind. The requirements for middle-school popularity are manifold: The girl must be pretty and thin, she must date a "cool" boy, she has to act and dress right, she should be smart, but not too smart. Even after a girl reaches the coveted "popular" circle, her position is never secure. The reigning Queen Bee may penalize anyone in her social group who shows too much individuality, starts hanging out with the wrong people, or is perceived as a threat.
Several survey respondents in the NDSU study reported that Queen Bees handled the sting of jealousy by rumor mongering. One of the college students in Miller-Boschert's survey wrote: "If they were jealous of others and their relationships with boys, they would start rumors about them being sexually active or call them a slut - sometimes to their face. I found it appalling and would keep my mouth shut as it was happening, partly due to the shock element of it and partly because I didn't want them to turn on me."
One anecdote illustrates the brutal and unforgiving nature of adolescent society. "In my grade in high school, most girls had their own clique," a respondent wrote. "At one point, a girl from the 'popular' clique had gotten into an accident and had some physical scars from it, including lazy eyes. Her friends would no longer talk to her, and she was always trying to get included into the other cliques. She had been so mean and rude in the past, though, no one wanted to be her friend."
Contrary to popular belief, most female bullies aren't hiding their insecurities behind a bunch of bravado. Research suggests that most bullies not only possess average to high self-esteem, many do not view themselves as bullies at all. In fact, when asked about bullying behaviors in their school, the biggest offenders of all will report, "We all get along pretty well."
The sad part is that most victims' need to belong is so powerful that they'll take any amount of abuse from the Queen Bee and her hive. They would rather belong to the top social group - even in a toady position - than to not belong at all.
Of course, not everyone believes the issue of bullying girls is all that important. Some critics argue that it is simply a trendy issue - a media-generated crisis du jour until we have something better to complain about. Others point out that rejection is a necessary, if painful, reality of growing up. They say it teaches us how to defend ourselves, and helps shape who we are.
True, Miller-Boschert says, especially if one has the resilience and self esteem to brave the storm. But, she quickly adds, there's no denying that some victims are irrevocably scarred by their middle-school years. She quotes survey respondents who reported that their experiences made them hate themselves, distrust other women or even contemplate taking their own lives.
"It's more than just thinking 'girls will be girls,' " she says. "In the U.S., we almost look at it like a rite of passage. But it doesn't have to be. It doesn't have to be part of someone's life, to the point where they're considering suicide."
More disturbingly, girl-to-girl bullying can trigger a dangerous pattern that affects a woman's entire life. According to Gary and Ruth Namie's book, "The Bully at Work," most instances of workplace bullying involve women sabotaging women. Unchecked, a bully will continue to steamroll over others - and likely teach their children to do the same. And, "Once you've been a victim as a young girl, you continue playing the victim role throughout your life," Miller-Boschert says, "until you take the bull by the horns and say, 'I'm not going to be bullied anymore.' "
It's not as easy to break the pattern as it sounds. First, girls need to be taught how to stand up for themselves, Miller-Boschert says. In some cases, schools have taken on that responsibility by adopting rules or hosting workshops. One of her students teaches in a Minnesota school that follows a well-known anti-bullying program. Program features range from a "bullying box," where students can anonymously report incidents of harassment to teaching students and teachers the difference between "teasing" (a gentle gibe that both parties enjoy) and "taunting" (an aggressive attack that only the perpetrator enjoys). In Minnesota, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, Fridley, introduced legislation that would require all Minnesota school districts to establish bullying standards, adopt an anti-bullying policy and provide training for school officials.
Yet people can't expect schools to be the sole crusaders against bullying; our most important lessons begin at home. Parents need to be aware of two uncomfortable possibilities: That their child may be bullied, but too ashamed to talk about it, or that their child could actually be a bully.
Children should learn, from an early age, how to be respectful of others, Miller-Boschert says. At the same time, they need to learn how to stand up for themselves. They can be taught how to express themselves assertively, rather than in an aggressive and destructive way.
When asked what can be done to curtail bullying, most of the respondents agree in one area: The best antidote to poisonous relationships is to instill a strong sense of self in one's child. "Tell them you love them, tell them they're beautiful," says Miller-Boschert. "Be there when they need to talk. Just be there for them. They might roll their eyes, but they really want that. They want to know that they're loved and accepted and that they're OK."
-- Tammy Swift