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I Fear This

January 29, 2010
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Maybe there’s a better writer working in the feminist blogosphere than Sady Doyle, but then again, maybe there isn’t. She’s best known for her acid wit, but some of her stuff shows that she has a reservoir of penetrating analysis to draw from, too.

Doyle just wrote something that cuts right to the heart of my fears as a parent. As a parent to a son, I feel like I know what to do. But as a parent to my daughter, I feel like there is a gauntlet of soul-destroying ugliness waiting for her that starts in middle school, and I have no idea how to prepare her for it.

Doyle set out to say, essentially, that Clay Shirkey’s piece, while poorly framed, missing the structural issue and raising hackles, puts its finger on the way women are hamstrung by the culturally mandated self-censorship and self-deprecation. I started this post by saying how good Sady is, but she can’t say it about herself, and she can’t even agree when her friends say it. She knows Shirkey well, and she summarized her conversations with him about her own abilities like this:

“I, Clay Shirky, believe you to be capable of more than you are doing right now! Allow me to offer you some advice on this particular front.”

“Oh, my goodness, NO! I believe you to be severely deluded as to my capabilities! Allow me to present you with a list of reasons why I would not be qualified for doing anything, ever, in the entire world.”

FIVE HOURS LATER:

“And so, Clay, those are the reasons that I suck. I can provide you with further proofs of my sucking, drawn from personal history reaching back as far as kindergarten! But I think you have the basics. You see why you must rescind your advice and belief in me as a person, as clearly I would only bring shame upon you. I am but an idiot child, who spills things frequently upon my wretched frame. How did I even get dressed this morning? I don’t know! It is a fluke, clearly.”

“Um, okay. But I was trying to help…?”

“CEASE THIS FUTILE CRUSADE AT ONCE! I must go now, and mortify my flesh, perhaps with whippings. As I do so, I shall review my sub-standard grades from middle school, that I might never aspire above my due station. Thanks for coffee!”

How does this happen? Doyle draws the line back to childhood:

But I will say that I have, recently, been reading a book called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons. One passage in this, which grabbed me and blew my mind and suddenly made about a thousand troubling incidents way more easy to understand, was about how female bullies pick their victims. The author interviewed a whole bunch of girls about this, and she came up with a really good, really obvious answer. So, do you want to know how they pick their victims?

They pick the girl who seems the most confident.

Yes, that’s really it! In the particular seething cauldron of insecurity, unhappiness, and fear that is female adolescence, girls tend to feel shitty about themselves for about a million reasons, and to think that they need outside approval – from friends, from boys, from the culture at large – in order to be worthwhile. But if a girl seems not reliant enough on outside approval – if she doesn’t hate her body enough, if she’s too successful at getting guys to like her, if she’s not interested enough in getting guys to like her, if she thinks she’s smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty (or if she just is smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty, and it’s pronounced enough for the people around her to take notice) – then the wolves start circling. Because they’ve all been bullied, too; they’ve all been undermined; they’ve all made the mistake of standing out, at one point or another, and they’ve been punished for it. And now, because they feel like shit about themselves, you have to feel like shit, too. A girl who doesn’t feel like shit is a threat to the entire social order, the extensively complicated and crappy system whereby women have to earn their way into a pretense of self-esteem by getting enough approval from other girls or from other outside sources in general.

What girls learn to do, in order to survive in this particular dynamic, is to race each other to the bottom. It lasts for a lifetime. They maneuver, hiding the urge to matter and succeed under an appropriately self-loathing demeanor, so that they can get ahead and climb up without ever appearing to do it.

For example: have you ever gotten the Complinsult? It is a wondrous and immensely complicated thing, the Complinsult. Here’s one of the best I have ever received, which I keep close to my heart: “Your outfit is amazing! I think it’s so great that you can wear that out in public. I’d never have the nerve.” The words are saying “I suck and you are awesome,” and yet? That is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what it means…

Or: the Fat Talk. You know about the Fat Talk, right? Lots of people have written about the Fat Talk already… the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady.

The weird thing is that, in this scenario, it seems not to ultimately matter whether you get the cheeseburger or the nachos or whatever: what matters is the extensive ritual of saying bad things about yourself, and contradicting other ladies about the bad things they have said about themselves, and giving each other permission to order the nachos, before they’re ordered. And if you don’t get permission to order the nachos, if you’re the one girl at the table who doesn’t get contradicted when she says she’s fat and shouldn’t be allowed to eat what she wants, then you know something is up. You know someone at the table, or maybe everyone at the table, has a problem with you. Which is why you don’t place your order without doing it: for a long time, I thought I was just demonstrating my good body image by ordering a cheeseburger and not participating in the Fat Talk, and then I sort of figured out that I was straight-up declaring that I was so hot I got to do whatever I wanted and was too insensitive to appease the body insecurities of my friends, who were (my actions declared) less hot than myself. I still think the Fat Talk is destructive and body-hating and stupid, and I don’t want to do it, but the way I get around it is to talk with the girls I have lunch with about why I think it’s destructive and body-hating. Not to just bypass it. Because that’s how self-esteem, and self-promotion, and social status, tend to work with girls: it’s a series of very subtle interactions in which you say you’re not good enough so that other girls can tell you that you are.

[Emphasis supplied.]

I’ve got this little girl to raise. She’s smart and loving, she’s strong and physical, she’s brave, and she is gifted with the relentless tenacity of her mother. She’s a whole, wonderful person. And I wonder if she will be when the evil vortex of middle school gets through with her.

I wish it were as simple as, “well, if we teach her to recognize it, it will go away.” But it won’t. As Doyle writes, just refusing to do it is itself a way to start trouble. Refusing to ritually self-insult is to insult the group.

If it were easy, the dynamic would not be evident among women who were more aware of it, or who were more confident. Yet Doyle uses quotes like this one to illustrate that even among feminist women there is plenty of tendency to trash anyone who rises to prominence:

I have been watching for years with increasing dismay as the Movement consciously destroys anyone within it who stands out in any way. I had long hoped that this self-destructive tendency would wither away with time and experience. Thus I sympathized with, supported, but did not speak out about, the many women whose talents have been lost to the Movement because their attempts to use them had been met with hostility.

If I do everything in my power to raise a smart, confident daughter, will the social world around her work just that much harder to tear her down? That’s the prospect that ruins my sleep. Will I make her a target just by teaching her to be brave and love herself?

The commenters add a lot to this piece. Fnord Prefect wrote:

Oh lordisa. My response to Shirky’s article can be summed up as, briefly, “This is news?” for exactly the reasons you state. I have been doing this experiment wherein I no longer apologize for things that are not my fault, and you will not be surprised to hear that I am more frequently addressed as “difficult” (to put it euphamistically) than in the halcyon days when I acquiesced and ate a little piece of my own liver every day. It is amazing how fast the hammer comes down on a lady who dares to not apologize, for all the girl-power(tm) Beatrix Kiddos in pop culture. All of this is basically to say, I agree. Thanks for saying it better and at greater length.

[Emphasis supplied.]

Patriarchy has always been about no-win situations for women. They can self-sabotage, or they can be attacked for refusing. The real answer is that change has to affect the whole culture, but that systemic answer neither gives me comfort nor guidance. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that my spouse and I have discussed homeschooling her through the middle school years to keep her out of the toxic cauldron.

She’s still in pull-ups (there’s that stubborn streak!), so we’ve got time to think about it.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 12:07 pm

    Thomas

    I hate to say it – but I will.

    There really isn’t an individual solution that will save your daughter from this culture of female self hatred that she will be assimilated into within the next few years.

    The post you quote at length made that pretty clear.

    I’d I’d just like to expand on that by making the point that there is a reason why our society is structured like this – I suspect it has a lot to do with making women accept a world where they are considered less than men and their social role is to subordinate themselves to men.

    Change that system, and you might have a shot at changing the culture of female self hatred that goes along with it.

    That’s a tall order, but I really don’t see any other way.

    And, sadly, I wish there was a way out for your daughter – a personal escape pod she could get in and avoid all that toxic self hatred – but I really don’t see it.

  2. January 29, 2010 12:41 pm

    When one reads material such as that which you’ve quoted, it’s pretty difficult to feel that there is any possible way for a female-identified individual to escape the self-deprecation that you’ve described. But… it’s also fairly difficult to feel that any individual has the opportunity to exist in this society without being miserable and bitter and self-hating. This kind of socialization does not just affect women because that’s the hierarchy of our society; no matter who is being socialized into the “dominant” or “subordinate” role, that process takes emotional discomfort and shame and guilt.

    That being said, there is definitely hope for your daughter. When I talk to my female-identified friends about middle school, the trend is that they describe it as an experience that failed them, and not the other way around. They have remained optimistic and self-loving by affirming — through their own words, through the words of their friends, through the words of their family — that they have great worth, that they deserve to be loved, that their own lives are valuable. And that’s what it takes; support is the most important component of any significant social connection, and it is (as is evident in the thoughtful, caring words you have written) something that you are already providing for your daughter.

    Just being a spectator to those rituals of socialization is a pretty terrible experience, for sure, and there’s a lot of that in middle school for everybody. But, I think, by continuing to treat her with that same support, you will already be doing a lot to encourage that she treat herself with love.

    Also: homeschooling is an idea definitely worth pursuing. That way, she can learn directly from her mother about how she was able to keep on believing in herself.

    • January 29, 2010 5:14 pm

      I have serious problems with homeschooling, and think it’s a really bad and really sexist idea.

      The first problem is, realistically, homeschooling is only possible with a two parent family, with one of the parents (almost always the mother) withdrawing from the workforce permanently to take care of the kids.

      Obviously, this privileges those families where the husband makes enough money so the wife can quit her job – or where they are willing to be reduced to a poverty level standard of living.

      And of course, for single moms, the homeschooling thing only works if you have a trust fund – because even welfare has a work requirement these days!)

      Beyond that, the whole concept of a one income couple, where he has the job and she sits home, is a deeply sexist concept – he gets to be part of the world, while she is a parasitic dependent – an able bodied adult with no job and no money of her own.

      Call me a radical here, but I happen to think that’s a deeply medieval institution and I have serious problems with it.

      I know it’s not Politically Correct to say that.

      We’re supposed to think that it’s every woman’s “choice” to work or be a homemaker, but, being a totally non PC person, I have to speak my mind here, and say what I really think.

      Beyond that, homeschooling is aggressively pushed by the far right, for reasons that are explicitly reactionary and patriarchal, and are explicitly aimed at getting women to give up their financial independence and withdraw from the adult world of work and money.

      In other words, I happen to think that homeschooling is a VERY BAD IDEA, for the reasons I outlined above.

      In this specific instance, homeschooling would make the daughter’s self esteem problem even worse – she’d see that her dad gets to have a career and his own money, while her mom is stuck at home with no money and no life of her own.

      That would teach her to believe that she has only one role in life – to be some man’s wife and some kid’s mom, with no independence for herself.

      So homeschooling is not only a bad idea in general, but it would be a really bad idea in this specific instance.

      • January 29, 2010 7:08 pm

        There is more than one approach to homeschooling, and it’s really the family’s configuration that determines how it can be executed successfully. One example is the homeschooling that I received, which was from two parents, both of whom were working. They arranged it so that they could each spend equal amounts of time on education while still generating enough income to keep us all fed. Not everybody has the ability to do that, and there are certainly a lot of unhealthy households where homeschooling is a fundamental element, but the assumption that homeschooling is to be a female-oriented responsibility doesn’t seem like it would be a component were it executed by feminist/radical/thoughtful parents (like, I have to imagine, Thomas and his partner).

      • January 29, 2010 7:16 pm

        Jacek,

        That may be the case with Thomas and his wife, but, at least based on what I read in the blogosphere, it would seem that most homeschooling involves the wife giving up her job and staying home with the kid.

        And I have a problem with that – I think that’s a sexist and patriarchal institution.

        Let’s get radical for a second – why not talk about reaching out to others, organizing and changing the school system as a whole, rather than opting out on a personal basis?

        That sounds a lot more “progressive” than any kind of homeschooling.

        And for the record, I was NOT homeschooled, I was a product of the New York City Board of Education’s public schools, and I think I turned out pretty well.

        We need better public schools, not homeschooling, no matter how “progressive” it might be.

      • anarchofemme permalink
        January 31, 2010 11:26 pm

        About home schooling… I was home-schooled until I was 14 and for me it was a wonderful experience. How well it works depends entirely on one’s parents – mine were both left-wing feminists… so yay for me. Home schooling allowed me to be different and confident about my difference when going to a school might not have given me that chance. When I did go to high school I experienced some of the girl-bullying tactics that Sady described, but I managed to ignore them as best I could – partly because of my childhood, I believe.

        About home-schooling being sexist – this really is making a huge assumption that the family will place all the responsibility for education on the mother. I have met plenty of families where the father plays an equal or greater role in the education. Most parents seem to work out together which one of them would prefer to work. For my family, it was an easy choice, because my mother never liked paid work and was much happier to look after my brother and I because it allowed her lots of time for political activism!

        So, if people are prepared to work at it, home schooling can be a wonderful option!

      • February 1, 2010 11:31 am

        anarchofemme,

        First of all, I have a profound ideological belief in universal, comprehensive, compulsory public education – a belief that was only reinforced during the brief period when I worked in the youth services field.

        I happen to think that homeschooling should be illegal, as should private and parochial schools, because all children need and deserve secular public education provided at no cost by the government.

        Should schools be improved – ABSOLUTELY – and, based on my experience in youth services, I could go on, in detail and at great length about that, but this is not the time or place for that.

        Don’t take this as a personal insult – this is a political belief of mine, and my dislike for and opposition to homeschooling is no disrespect to you or your family.

        With that said, your experience basically proves my point.

        Your mother was privileged enough that she was in a position to not work simply because she didn’t want to.

        MOST PEOPLE DO NOT LIVE LIKE THAT.

        For most Americans – and most people around the world – not working is simply Not A Viable Option… they have to work or they will be on the street sleeping under a cardboard box.

        Your mom was privileged enough to have a partner who made enough money that she was able to sit home and not work just because she didn’t feel like working.

        Also, as a man, I really have a huge problem with that whole idea that working should be a “choice” for women – because it sure as hell is not a “choice” for men.

        For men, it’s either work or starve.

        And, on the real, for women who don’t have a husband who makes a whole hell of a lot of money, it’s “work or starve” – plus, the women get guilt tripped if they work and have kids, because they are “bad mothers” and the only “good mothers” are the women with affluent husbands who don’t have to work.

        Also (and PLEASE don’t take this as an insult to your mother as a person) it’s quite frankly rather parasitic and medieval for one adult to sit home idle and unpaid while the other one works like a dog to pay the bills.

        I happen to have the rather radical view that EVERY ADULT SHOULD BE GAINFULLY EMPLOYED, FOR WAGES, OUTSIDE THE HOME.

        And “every adult” includes women with kids too.

        As for “not liking paid work” – newsflash, most people don’t like paid work!

        That’s why they call it “a job”!

        But they do it anyway, because part of being a productive citizen involves earning your keep and paying your own way in life.

        So, I’d like to thank you for, despite your own best efforts, actually proving me right, and I’d like to reiterate my opposition to homeschooling and to able bodied adult women sitting home not working and totally dependent on their partner’s income.

        Both of those are medieval institutions with no place in the 21st century – and, in particular, homeschooling should be outlawed as a violation of the compulsory education statutes.

      • February 1, 2010 11:37 am

        Outlawing all schools other than public schools is a serious departure from what a lot of people think is an appropriate relationship between the people and the state. And not one I’ll ever be on board with. That would mean no Jewish day schools, no private French language schools for Francophones in the US, no Montessori schools for kids who learn better in that environment — and any proposal to make the public system so all-encompassing that it will provide a school for everyone who would prefer a different environment is simply utopian.

        I’m just not in favor of a government so powerful that it arrogates to iteself the exclusive right to determine how every child is educated. And I say that as a public school parent and a product of public schools.

      • February 1, 2010 1:31 pm

        Thomas,

        Well, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that.

        I’m an atheist, and I believe that all children should be given the chance to learn about secularism instead of having their minds pumped full of religious mythology.

        If you want to indoctrinate your child in religion – take them to the Mosque on Friday afternoon, the Synagogue on Saturday morning or the Church on Sunday morning – but Monday through Friday from 8:45 to 2:55 should be strictly reserved for secular public education.

        If you want to educate your child in a foreign language, send them to an after school program – or lobby your local school board to add that language to the curriculum.

        As for Montessori and other “gifted and talented” programs – at least here in New York City, in practice those essentially operate like the “Segregation Academies” of the post Civil Rights era South – a way for middle class White parents to keep their kids from going to school with Blacks and Latinos – and, of course, I oppose that.

        I happen to think that a LOT of the opposition to public schooling that has emerged in the last 45 years in this country is quite flatly racial – no matter what kind of rhetoric is used to disguise it.

        I’m not saying that about YOU – I’m just saying that IN GENERAL, a lot of the folks who call for homeschooling or advocate private schools do so for reasons that are basically racial in nature, and I cannot support that.

        Beyond that, society isn’t always about “everyone who would prefer a different environment” – quite often, you have to sacrifice your personal whims for the greater good.

        That’s why we call it a SOCIETY – to quote Mick Jagger “you can’t always get what you want”!

        Look, if left to their own devices, most White Americans would “prefer” an “environment” where they never had to be around Black people – but, unfortunately for them, we have Civil Rights now, so they cannot legally do that.

        Honestly, I really don’t care about the whims of individuals, I DO care about THE GREATEST GOOD FOR THE GREATEST NUMBER and individual preferences can and should be sacrificed in the name of that greater good.

        [did I mention that I'm a communist?]

        So that’s why I think homeschooling and private schools should be outlawed, and religious institutions should do their child indoctrination on their own time, not during regular school hours, which should be reserved for secular, racially integrated, coeducational, free, compulsory, public education.

      • February 1, 2010 1:50 pm

        I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in gods or other supernatural entities. You’re a religious abolitionist. You want the State to actively work to eliminate religion, if I read you correctly.

        We do, in fact, disagree.

        This thread was about gender socialization and the culture of adolescent girls. I think that the discussion of homeschooling, which appears in one line of the OP, is interesting but has swallowed all other discussion. So I’m curtailing the dertail.

        All further discussion of homeschooling or private school versus public education is O/T.

      • selin permalink
        February 5, 2010 7:27 pm

        I went to an all girls school…and when reading the passage on how girl bullies pick their victims…I just nodded…throughout. I haven’t read something that eye opening in quite a while. You don’t even need to read the explanation to understand the fact that the girls with the most self-esteem and indifference towards outside approval are picked on if you’ve witnessed it yourself.

        I want to share that passage with every single one of my friends.

  3. January 29, 2010 12:45 pm

    You want a really good example of the way that women are smacked down for being confident, and given Complinsults? Look at the way that Gabourey Sidibe is talked about. Here’s a young woman who’s rejected all the negative messages society has for a woman who looks like she does, and is not afraid to say that she’s awesome and happy and she deserves to have good things coming her way. And while she’s cheered on in some quarters, most of the press about her has an undercurrent of snickering, of disbelief, of how-dare-she, of she-must-be-delusional, of doesn’t-she-realize-she’s-fat-and-therefore-disgusting. I was very sad when I saw that she’d been forced to address some of this shit head-on, but glad to see that she followed up her slightly defensive “I know what I look like” with something along the lines of “I know that other people think I’m not worth anything, but I don’t have to think that about myself.”

    Whatever she did, I want to know what it is. Because at, what, 24? she’s thoroughly rejected the societal messages that I still struggle with. I had a hard enough time training myself to just say “thank you” when someone complimented me; that level of self-acceptance still eludes me.

  4. January 29, 2010 1:14 pm

    My daughter is almost 2 yrs old. My son is 5. I am confident I can teach my son how to respect women and all that jazz.

    I am scared shitless for my daughter…I cry for her on a regular basis (as I am not after reading your post) and I lose sleep on it as well.

    I love my daughter and son both. But…but…I dread to think of the sparkle in her eyes that was there from the day of her birth being diminished. That her spirit will be broken from what people feel she should be or do or say.

    Whatever happens to her in life…all I can do is my best and hope my lessons stick with her and hope and pray that her spirit will not be crushed like mine was.

  5. Liz permalink
    January 29, 2010 4:22 pm

    I’m a young woman who went through middle school in the early 2000s and I can say that self-awareness and understanding went a long way in making “girl world” navigable. Although, I’ve experienced attacks from other women up into my college years.

    I think what made such a difference is knowing that I am objectively and demonstrably a smart, kind, and empathetic person and knowing that the girls and young women who have treated me poorly weren’t.

    My mother’s model and support was everything.

    I have faith that both your children will grow to be amazing individuals and that other girls will see your daughter as someone to be admired.

  6. cmb permalink
    January 29, 2010 4:44 pm

    i’d just like to say that although i experienced everything this article mentions i did not crumble under the pressure of middle school. i didn’t even particularly hate school though it sucked for all those reasons and it seemed like everybody in the world hated me.
    I think part of the deal is that my mom and i were really close and we talked a lot about media and advertising and social politics and why people do what they do. I’m not sure if that’s what took the sting out of it specifically. for some reason i just never got the impression that those people really meant what they were saying. yeah, they hated me, but it wasn’t personal. they didn’t really know me, my friends knew me. my group was really close in part because a few of us were really confident even though most of us weren’t even close to cool. a really confident girl can give compliments that are compliments and if she can have friendships where that’s the norm, girls can support eachother against the storm of social backbiting. a confident girl can help shy girls become confident friends, it spreads.

    parents who thought that they had got it all right and their kids were doing it all wrong failed to support their girls when they needed it the most. my mom let my friends and i make our own mistakes and she didn’t freak out when we really messed up. we could trust her, we could come to her with our problems, however petty or serious. I know your concern is the climate at school, but a strong home life can lead to strong friendships and these are the things that helped us pull through. even the support of one really helpful adult can do a lot of good for many girls. my mom was like a rock in a storm for me and my friends. we all came out strong young women with her support and eachothers’. i would say i got out of middleschool relatively unscathed and with some good people.

    it’s not like my mom had all the answers or was perfectly self confident in all situations, but she was sympathetic and had good perspective.

    above all, please do not despair.

    (sorry this was so long : P )

  7. CollegeBookworm permalink
    January 30, 2010 12:47 pm

    I almost never comment on any of the numerous blogs on my RSS reader, but this post struck a nerve for me.

    “So, do you want to know how they pick their victims?

    They pick the girl who seems the most confident.”

    Hello, my life, and why did I never understand it before? I am one of the lucky few who somehow got through childhood without developing food issues (a mother who put healthy balanced meals on the table almost every night and encouraged me to eat what I liked probably helped), who was never boy-crazy and therefore never cared about boys paying attention to me, who kicked ass at academics and didn’t try to deny it, and so on.

    As a daughter of two parents who occasionally express wonder and amazement that they managed to raise me without ‘issues,’ here’s my thought: don’t worry about it. Don’t spend every moment concerned with how your daughter will react to the outside world. Just do your thing, encourage her to do her thing, and reassure her through the tough moments- and they will come, and they will seem like the end of the world to her. Worry about YOUR DAUGHTER. Her health, her favorite things, her personal growth, her understanding of the world. Let the world outside happen as it will, and make sure home is always a safe place to come back to.

    I’m pretty sure that’s all my parents really did. Worked out pretty well for me. Middle school was kind of hellish, high school not much better, and my parents probably worried then. But it worked out. I’m okay. And while my parents’ home is less of a safehouse for me these days than it was in middle school, that’s part of me growing up. But it was my safe haven, and that made the difference.

  8. femspotter permalink
    January 31, 2010 2:49 pm

    I don’t think they always pick the girl who seems the most confident. I can’t imagine that I seemed confident in middle school. I tried to fly under the radar as much as possible and went from an A student to a B student so as not to stand out academically. I think girls sometimes pick on the girls who seem the most vulnerable. Bottom line: some girls are just mean, plain and simple.

    But I also think that a lot of the girl on girl cruelty dynamic comes from our inherent fear – from years of being underdogs to men – that only one woman in a group of women can claim to be the leader or the alpha woman. Ergo, tell your daughter than there’s room for more than one girl to be the “best” student, athlete, writer, dancer, etc. Make sure she believes strongly that conditions are improving for women globally (a little white lie?) so that she can feel sure that, despite the nastiness she will inevitably come into contact with, there’s room enough for her and the meanest girl around at the top of the chain. AND make sure to tell her not to be one of the mean girls too.

  9. Quill permalink
    February 1, 2010 7:34 pm

    I was in middleschool in the early 2000’s, and to this day I am the only girl or woman I know who got through middle school without being bullied.

    I tend to get louder and more confrontational the less secure I feel. I’m also very good at ranting at someone who has provoked my ire until they go away. The fact that I was absolutely comfortable arguing with teachers or peers meant few people were willing to criticize me. I knew I was bright and that girl were cruel to each other, but I saw myself as completely different from other girls. I eagerly sought out opportunities to challenge or start arguments with authority figures and peers because it was a way of feeling safe and in control. I was not bullied, but I did not have friends either, and I was incredibly angry at the world. I do think girl on girl cruelty is a problem, and I don’t think my method of dealing with it was optimal – but it’s a method.

    If there were a way for girls to “sign out” of following social rules about accepting bullying without avoiding normal social interaction entirely, it would be excellent, I think.

  10. February 2, 2010 12:34 am

    This article definitely rings true for me. Middle school was one of the most difficult times I’ve ever experienced– coming to terms with a personality that didn’t fit with my gender expectations, and also coming to recognize a lot about myself in general (political beliefs in particular) made things very difficult for me. I excelled in science and math, was a band nerd, and had few friends. I think that a lot of the chaos of that age group is exacerbated by the school enviroment, but I doubt that it will change the importance of learning those social cues for your daughter, whether she participates or not.

    During middle school, there is a lot of exploration of personal preferences, and attempts to differentiate oneself from one’s peers and parents begins at that age (or it did for me anyway). This all gets externalized– lots of very conspicuous displays of change and growth– and usually it becomes more of an internal process by high school, when things are, once established, meditated upon.

    There are huge cultural forces at work that will affect your daughter throughout her life. I think that as long as you can be a supportive parent, allow her to grow and explore, and SHOW a balance of letting go and holding on during her adolescent years, things should work out. Be sure to remind her that you’re willing to help without enabling, and that you do genuinely care. Having reasonably supportive parents is a big part of why I made it to the other side of adolescent girldom.

    Thanks for posting this– I’ll be sharing it in the future.

  11. February 2, 2010 11:37 am

    Just to be clear, I’m cutting off the homeschooling discussion.

  12. Disco Mom permalink
    February 4, 2010 9:13 am

    Huh. I understand the worry; I have it too for my three daughters, especially as I already begin to see patterns of social motivation in their personalities. I didn’t read every single comment here but probably share CollegeBookworm’s point of view most.

    The article was freaky. Seething cauldron of toxic self-loathing and all that? It’s not how I remember middle school. I’d call it a confusing time for sure, full of changes and questions and insecurity. But I don’t remember a lot of cruelty or bullying. Was I just ignorant? Or have things changed since then? Or did I just get lucky with my school, or my friends? Though I will admit to lifelong body issues – I wouldn’t even know how to trace them back to their sources.

    I think a strong home life cannot be underestimated. Like CollegeBookworm said, be who you are (real-person awesome role models) and love who she is. Honestly, a quick mental review of my adolescent years highlights that I experienced more pain feeling unaccepted and unloved at home than from anything that happened at school or social settings. In fact, I sometimes felt admired and validated in those settings but couldn’t totally believe it because I wasn’t getting it from where it mattered most.

    I don’t think it’s been mentioned here yet, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the role of strong personal faith. Good friends and leaders at church/school are a bonus, but even if they’re all weird or lame, which sometimes they are, having a personal relationship with God goes a long way in navigating tough social waters. Plus, just like a strong home life, it gives you something else that matters, and matters more, than just the social atmosphere at school. It can help to naturally put things in perspective.

  13. February 4, 2010 7:57 pm

    I’d just like to affirm that regardless of setting I believe it IS possible to help young women build at least partial immunity and critical distance from the feminine culture of self-hatred that we all interact with on some level. For me, that distance was fostered by parents who chose to make our home-life a space in which we were free to question dominant cultural norms. Having that alternative community (as it were) of support for asking questions made all the difference to me. They made it acceptable for me to keep asking “why does it have to be this way?” relentless, ceaselessly.

    I think Disco Mom’s point about a church community / faith is another possible case of this. Obviously churches come in lots of flavors, many of them hardly feminist! But I grew up in a very Christian-saturated community and a lot of self-identified feminists I knew growing up came out of that culture and identified a continuity of counter-culture identification between growing up Christian and growing into feminism: both subcultures, to some extent, find crucial strength in standing at the margins and critiquing the dominant societal norms. So experience I had definitely doesn’t have to be family-based — it can also be authorization from a wider community to challenge what others seem to accept as “common sense.”

  14. February 4, 2010 8:29 pm

    I’m 29 and just now getting out of this s**t. Also I have a medical condition which means I went through puberty later than all of my female friends and socially I felt like a freak. I never usually said the words “I feel like a freak” but I think the fact I wasn’t willing to obviously fake so much of myself just to fit in stood out enough.

    I wouldn’t say I hated myself but I felt very alone in middle school. It was a very crappy time. In high school I found a bunch of friends that I liked and had a good time, and it was the start of me getting through, getting by. And now, finally, at 29, I am doing more than just getting by.

    Now I find that people my age are coming to grips with the things that have made them different, or the way suppressing that in their teenager hood has harmed them, and I’m realizing that I did that a long time ago. I may not have thrived, or flew like I wanted to fly, but I never forgot who I was or ignored who I was. It’s given me fuel. You never know when something that’s happened to you can finally turn out to be a plus. All of the times I felt like an outsider, or was sad because I thought of the other outsiders I related to and refused to participate in something that hurt someone? Well now that I have a chance to use it I can actually have experience to draw from and be able to look back and realize that I was actually strong, and not weak.

    Also, it comes down to parents are just people too, and while you may be smarter and and more able to question our fucked up society you are still a product of it too, and want your daughter to succeed which at some level means she will deal with society in some way, shape, or form. I doubt you want her to be cut off from the rest of the world because on top of all the multitudes of crap, you occasionally find joy and options that you never knew were available if you keep someone cut off. I think homeschooling would work for you because you seem like you could be a good educator. But I don’t think the purpose of that should be to shelter her from the world. maybe you can use it to give her a more questioning mind than you feel the schools in the area will, but that is a separate issue of how is she going to socialize and does she want to hang out with other girls her age or not.

    I think you do the best you can, let her know that’s what you want from her, too – to be a good person. As people mentioned say there can be more than one woman succeeding at something. Let her know that it’s cool to not just order the hamburger but speak up and say that no one should apologize for what they eat…be active in living what her values are. And not to apologize for those things. That’s all you can do and expect. And I think anyone can take pride in reading this that someone has thought this and asked these questions, you make me feel better about humanity!

  15. February 7, 2010 8:44 pm

    Best of luck. My oldest daughter is graduating this year, despite having spent most of her Freshman school year in and out of residential psychiatric facilities because her classmates drove her to self-harm and suicide attempts. (and on several occasions attempted to kill her by shoving her down the steps, because their church doesn’t believe gay people should live)

    The best advice I have is: Be prepared to be her safe haven, her safety net.

  16. femspotter permalink
    February 24, 2010 11:18 am

    http://www.thebostonchannel.com/education/22653526/detail.html?hpt=T2

    There has been a suicide in Mass. because of girl on girl bullying, but thankfully the town is mobilizing. The bullies have been expelled.

  17. elle permalink
    December 13, 2012 9:25 am

    I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I just found your blog today. I have to comment on this one because this post completely described the second half of my high school experience. My family moved from Florida to the Northern VA area halfway through my junior year, and my mother chose the house we lived in primarily because the school district it was located in was well-known for being a good one. Unfortunately, it was filled with kids who had all grown up together, had pre-formed cliques, and was elitist enough to make sure any outsiders felt like outsiders. I’d grown up all over the Eastern Seaboard and was fairly adept at making friends in all different types of groups, and was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have womanly curves while being athletic. I stood out, both personality-wise and physically. I also have always done my own thing which had never caused me grief until then. I was a cheerleader, but hung out with the band kids and the athletes. I looked a lot like Barbie, but I was a virgin and didn’t even have my first boyfriend until I was 17. The list goes on, and I think the fact that I was secure enough to do my own thing made a LOT of the other girls feel threatened, even though I didn’t even know half of them. Every day was hell. I can still feel the fear from 15 years ago when I remember walking down the hallway from my locker to my next class, my back ramrod straight and looking straight ahead because I was so afraid of everyone around me. Even that didn’t help because from that I got labeled stuck up. The funny thing was, the day of graduation everyone was instantly friends with me and the hate and cruelty ceased. It still affects me years later, even though I fight it internally so that the goal they tried to achieve in high school doesn’t succeed years later.

    My (unsolicited) advice is to send your daughter to a school where the population is so big that everyone is a stranger to another and groups can form without labels. My FL High School was over 4000 kids. Even as a competition cheerleader for the school I wasn’t well known because of the amount of students. The second high school in northern VA was less than half that, and between that and the cliquish attitude of the students made life a living hell. One last thing, if she wants to transfer schools after trying to resolve issues, let her transfer. There’s a difference between teaching her to stand up for herself and subjecting her to cruelty under the guise of a lesson.

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