Warning—strong language ahead.
I was always the nerdy kid.
People don’t ever believe me when I tell them this, now. Now, I am (semi) successful—I do what I love. I surf. I scuba dive. I’ve been practicing yoga for ten years. I am (marginally) attractive—at least, no one has ever run screaming from my door. I can make friends with strangers, I chat to everyone in line at the grocery store, and I am a loyal, kind, even funny friend. I am fortunate enough to have not one, but several loving and supportive communities through yoga, writing, and work. You could say I am (gasp) popular. I drive a trendy car. I live in the fastest growing city for singles under thirty.
I even have motorcycle boots. And tattoos (on top of finally being okay with being me).
I am cool. On the outside.
On the inside, a part of me will always be eight years old. I am fat. I have terrible skin. I am terrified to talk to anyone, because they will probably mock what I say, in a high pitched voice meant to shut me up. I have greasy glasses, braces that hurt my teeth, and frizzy hair that is the complete opposite of what the pretty girls have. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I am part werewolf, because no other eight year old gets picked on for having black leg hair in gym class. Or body odor that is part pure prepubescent hormones and part new puppy.
Yes. Pre-adolescence was a joy.
Needless to say, I did not get invited to the moon dances and the drum circles and the sing alongs.
I was not cute. I was not cool. I did not look like the other girls, with their petite, delicate, hairless bodies, and tiny Limited Too ensembles. I did not understand why everyone was giggling over Tiger Beat when clearly Lord of the Rings was full of cooler, hotter guys.
I was 5’2” by fourth grade, and topped out at 5’9” by seventh. I wore women’s clothing, not girl’s. I had a 36C bra by age 11.
My uncle was dying. My family life was pretty chaotic, and we were sad a lot. Usually I just wanted to hang out with my parents, and escape into my world of books.
I was lonely though, and I wanted friends. I wanted to be invited into the world of friends—the world of being included at lunch tables, and going to birthday parties, and manhunt parties, and sleep overs where my mom didn’t need to call the other moms for a special invitation, and being a part of the inside jokes, not at the receiving end of them—I wanted to be liked for me, not disliked for things I had no control over, like being a giant wooly mammoth among the woodland nymphs.
The mean girls were like little chirpy birds—they gathered in small groups, one occasionally flitting away to join another, carrying rumors and mean words like tiny treats to feast on. Why? I still am not totally sure. Maybe they were bored. Maybe they didn’t know how to interact with other girls who didn’t look like them. Maybe they just didn’t know how to be nice. Maybe they were afraid?
The boys of course, did what boys do, at that age, and generally for all time, or until they self-actualize—they followed what the girls did. So if the girls picked on me, the boys did too.
I remember one boy saying to me, when I finally got contact lenses in sixth grade, “You think you’re so cool just because you got contacts.”
My twelve year old soul was crushed. No, I didn’t think I was cool. I did think, so very incorrectly, that it would take away some of their ammunition, perhaps dull the sting of their venom.
When I lost 40 lbs from mono and rheumatic fever (and, you know, almost died and stuff) at 14, got my braces removed, finally shed that awkwardness that, with luck, we all shed by the end of high school, just in time to leave the viper pit, it didn’t get any better. No. Now I was teased because I was pretty. And who did I think I was, being pretty? A bitch, that’s who. A slut. Oh, and still a loser. A bitchy, slutty, dorky loser.
And somewhere in my wondering why they were still so mean to me, and how I could be their friends if they wouldn’t see how nice I was, I realized.
They didn’t know any better.
They didn’t even know they were mean girls.
Their parents never taught them that it was important to be nice to everyone, not just the popular ones, or the cool ones, but all of the ones, because everyone was a special and unique sunflower and maybe some of those special and unique sunflowers had uncles dying of brain cancer and sad mommies and needed friends too, and it was not okay to invite everyone but Sally because her hair smells weird, or she collected pogs long after it was cool, or whatever.
Does it make it okay, that they didn’t know?
No. Because surely, they always knew the difference between “Hi, be my friend” and “Go away, pizza face.” And as we began to grow up, they definitely knew they were mean. Absolutely, without a doubt by the time we hit high school, and remarks like “slut” were getting thrown around, it was clear that we knew what we were saying, that the venom that spewed forth from our lips was poison.
But did we ever stop to wonder why we treated each other like that?
Do we now?
Mean girls have been taught, consciously or subconsciously, that it is better to be right, than to be kind. That it is better to be popular, than sweet. To be feared for what they might say sarcastically, than liked for what they did say, compassionately.
These are the girls that said, “Nice skirt, slut” in high school, when we were wearing a perfectly harmless pink number (our mom’s, in truth) or asked much we weighed in front of the entire fifth grade at a pool party, and then poked our bellies, taking away all of the joy in our new bathing suits. And, you know, life.
Who told our crushes that we liked them. And three way called us in secret.
These are the girls—grown women—that now do not smile back at me in bars, stores, or on the street. Will not move their mats over in yoga (seriously, girls? Why are you here?). And, if given the opportunity, will still go out of their way to put other girls down so that they can feel high.
Just like when we were kids.
When I was a kid, I realized that these mean girls didn’t know any better. As an adult, I realize that, yes, probably most of them know that they are mean. But I have 28 years of experiences that help me—I am able to see that these girls did not have the parents, and the background, and the upbringing that taught them they should be kind, and caring, and invite the dorky kids, and love the ugly dolls, and talk to the people who look weird, or smell funny, simply because we are all people, too.
Unique and special sunflower people.
The mean girls were, and are, afraid. Afraid that if they do not put others down, they will not get to be higher. They will not be the special, unique sunflower. They won’t be popular, anymore. They will lose power, or beauty, or happiness, or whatever it is they think being mean gets them.
Because they do think it gets them something.
Mean girls are not mean for the hell of it. They, like the girls they pick on, just want to be loved, and cared for, and find a special place in the world.
Their means are simply different. They think they will find it through power, malice, and control. They are afraid that if they do not act this way, their worlds will turn on them.
The other side realized, usually long ago, that our worlds are pretty much out of our control despite what we did. And that putting others down was no way to ever feel good. That we felt better, the world looked a little brighter, a lot happier, the more we made others feel better.
We are all struggling. We all want to feel loved, and cherished, and like we matter in this world.
The mean girls don’t bother me anymore—they are simply nice girls, who are afraid. Who are scared. And don’t know how to do anything else.
And I feel bad for them. Because they are missing out on a lot of beauty. And a lot of happiness.
And the worst part is, in the end, the person that they are being meanest to is themselves.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman