Mean girls are a part of life- or so I always thought. With all the negativity we deal with on Facebook, the media, and within our own families, it's hard to escape it. I heard all the old cliches growing up from teachers, coaches, parents, etc: Girls are catty. Girls can't be trusted. Girls want to steal your boyfriend. Girls are jealous. And on and on it goes.
In our family, we are woman heavy. We come from a long line of women with strong personalities. We are all highly educated gals who are respected in our communities and yet we all have one thing in common: we are as insecure as the day is long. Insecure about our bodies, our place in our family, our relationships. It doesn't make any sense. As a mom, I want something better for my daughter.
The first time I can remember feeling insecure and torn down by other girls was when I was in the fifth grade. That year was brutal on my self esteem. All of my good friends ended up in a different class and there was no one left in my classroom who "got" me. I was a book worm. I was madly in love with my teacher and I wanted to impress her. If she asked a question to the class, my hand shot up. If she needed somebody to run errands during recess, I was her girl. The girls in our class all turned against me. They called me teacher's pet. I returned to my seat one day to find that one of them had cut my jacket all to pieces. And worst of all, they started a rumor that I had started my period- which at the time was about the most mortifying thing you could say about a girl and it pretty much ensured that the other kids would treat her like she had the plague. But I kept on doing my thing. I never talked to my mom about it, mostly because I was terrified to use the word "period" in a sentence while talking to my mom.
I finally settled into a groove for the rest of the fifth grade until the very end of the year when all of the girls in my grade decided that they were going out for the junior high cheerleading team. I had zero interest in cheerleading- after all I was a pretty good swimmer and they practiced at the same time. But all the girls would spend recess out on the playground practicing their cheerleading moves and working on their routines for their try-outs. I felt left out. That was the first time in my life that I felt like something was "wrong" with me. I couldn't figure out why I didn't care about cheerleading or wasn't boy crazy like my friends. I felt like an island. I felt uncomfortable around the other girls in my class and that insecurity only continued to build over the years.
I wasn't always a "victim" though. After feeling left out and different so much of the time, I learned to spot the others who felt that way. And instead of banding together with them, I used it as an opportunity to get in with the popular girls. If the popular girls ever invited me anywhere, I'd talk bad about the other girls just so I would seem like I fit in. I folded right into the pressure. And before I knew it, I was popular, too. I'd like to think that it wasn't because I could be mean and that people actually respected me. After all, by the time our junior year of high school rolled around, I was the freaking prom queen. But all that insecurity followed me. In fact, I had only traded one kind of insecurity for another. I know that some of it is because teenagers just naturally go through it, but mostly because I was terrified that the other girls would still turn on me and knock me down a peg. I felt like I was one step away from being discovered as a fraud. I was more of a jeans and tee-shirt kind of girl instead of the girl drenched in Abercrombie and Fitch that I was pretending to be. And I wasn't naturally thin- I was starving myself to look like my friends and I didn't want anyone to know. Keeping up the charade felt exhausting at times. Looking back on it now, I realize that it all stemmed from fear of not being considered one of the girls which is ironic because I had totally become one of those very girls that I had feared. I felt like that was my only option.
It wasn't until I was in college that I made meaningful friendships with women just based on being me and them being them- no Abercrombie necessary. It was incredible. These girls were not catty. They were not mean. They didn't need to knock anyone down a peg just to seem popular. One of them became my lifelong very best friend. And then in my 30's I put together a group of women who just support each other and all those theories of how women are horrible that I'd always heard were laid to rest. All the awesomeness of a friend without all the drama. That was the other option- only it took me 20 years to figure out that it existed.
The moment came full circle this summer. As I was back to school shopping with my 8 year old daughter, we passed Justice- which has always struck me as a store for tiny hookers. (See, I'm still judgemental sometimes. It's hard to shake) She said, "Mom, can we go in there and look?" Trying to be open minded, I agreed and we went in and looked around and found a couple of outfits on clearance that didn't show a naval or her butt cheeks when we she bent over. As we were checking out, she was positively giddy. She took the bag that the clerk handed her and said, "Now I'm going to look popular!" Stop. The. World. I had no idea that this would start this young. I asked her what she meant and she said, "Well, the other girls don't usually wear clothes from Wal-Mart and Target like we do." She didn't say it judgementally, just like she was stating a fact.
It only got worst the next day when one of her friends came over and spent the night. The girl who came over has been Sadie's friend for a long time and we've never had any problems. This girl has parents who are phenomenally wonderful people and who are also very wealthy. They are very giving people, but they also have just about every luxury at their house one can imagine. Sadie always has a blast when she goes over there to play. But this sleepover was different. It was a one-up game from the very beginning. The friend kept telling me that they were bored and that we didn't even have a trampoline. Then it was that we don't have a pond to play in. Then it was that we don't have a golf cart to drive around the neighborhood in. By the time she left, Sadie was feeling utterly defeated and snotty and ungrateful for the things that we DO have. I could just sense her wanting to be like her friend and have all the things that her friend has. She was feeling left out and was taking it out on her brothers. It was so classic that I almost felt sorry for her. I also wanted to wring her neck for falling right into the game. Then I realized that I hadn't done anything as a parent to teach her how to deal with this.
We had another issue this summer with another friend who is 11 and weighs maybe 60 pounds soaking wet. You could snap her in half in about .8 seconds. This friend is on some kind of weird campaign because I hear her talking about how fat she is frequently. I'm not sure if it is a cry for compliments since we all know that she is tiny or if she's really just that insecure. It's probably both. My Sadie has always been in the 95% of weight since her very first doctors appointment. Spending time with her friend has left her feeling crummy about her body and she's expressed how she feels fat and has told me a couple of times that maybe if she rides her bike enough she will lose weight. My heart breaks and I tell her how perfectly made she is and how bodies are all different. I can talk until I am blue in the face, but those messages she gets from her friends are strong. It makes me want to tattoo that passage from Psalms 139 where it says that "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" right on her forehead.
Sadie went to church camp for the first time last week. She had a marvelous time but at bedtime the first day she was home, I heard her upstairs crying. When I walked up to her, she spilled it that some of the girls had picked on her. Granted, it was for really silly things like the color pattern she was using during bracelet making time, but she still felt insecure nonetheless.
Then I said it. "SADIE! GIRLS ARE JUST MEAN!"
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to take them back. What if with this generation of girls, we start a different dialogue. After all, my Sadie is a girl and if I tell her that girls are mean, that's basically telling her that it's her nature to be mean to others and that is NOT the message that I wanted to teach.
What if we stopped telling our girls this from the first time they start questioning their place in their social group. What if instead of excusing girl's behavior, we taught our girls how to be a GOOD FRIEND. This notion started what was the deepest conversation I've ever had with my daughter. It was a real come to Jesus talk about how hurting people hurt people. I think that if we can understand this from a young age than we could understand how to help one another.
It took me until I was 30 to learn that insecure people try to make others feel insecure. We talked about trying to show grace to those who lashed out at us. Not an easy task at all. It made me wonder if I'd have told the girl who cut up my jacket in the fifth grade that I really liked her outfit and pumped up her own self esteem a little if it would have changed things. I think it also comes with teaching tolerance. I asked Sadie what she said when those girls told her that the bracelet she was making was ugly. She said that she didn't say anything and that she turned around the other way and tried not to cry. I said, what do you think would have happened if you said, "Yeah, that's the cool thing about getting to pick your own colors. We all like different stuff so we can all make a bracelet that suites us." She said, "Well, mom. They probably would have not cared so much what my bracelet looked like." Yup. Wise girl, that Sadie.
I know that our one talk won't change the trajectory forever, but if we keep having it, it may help to build confidence in our girls in a world that constantly wants to tear them down. If we teach them that being a mean girl or being the victim of a mean girl isn't a forgone conclusion and that there is a better way, we may just create of generation of girls who get each other and respect one another from a much younger age than we did. After all, if hurting people hurt people, then how awesome would this world be if we pumped up our girls so much and convinced them of their worth and their beauty to the point that that all that grace and quiet confidence spilled out all over the world? I think it would be incredible.
It won't keep everyone from being mean. There's a lot of hurt people in the world. But teaching our girls to see each other's hurts and reach out to help instead of being on the receiving end of venom and subsequent self loathing just seems to make sense. It's why I'll never again tell my daughter when she's upset that girls her age are just mean. I have to teach her that the only option is not "hurt or be hurt". It can be "love and be loved". I can only hope that I can fill her so full of love for herself that she learns to show love instead of hate. If confident girls help instill confidence in others, than this is my job as a mom- fill my daughter so full that she's still got some left when the world gets done with her. No mean girls here. There's a better way.