I am in the classroom, twelve years old, cheeks burning. ‘Haven’t you started yours yet? I’ve had mine for ages.’ She laughs scornfully at my unwomanly state. My tormenter is resentful of the fact that I’ve made friends with ‘her’ best friend. Any opportunity to make me feel insignificant or immature she seizes on, with a daily barrage of snide remarks. With hindsight, I see she was the immature one, but it didn’t help at the time. Girls are apparently made of sugar and spice and all things nice, so why is it that they often form into bitchy cliques, behaving incredibly cruelly to their peers?
I have two boys and while they also have problems sometimes with friends, their dealings with their peers don’t seem as tangled and fraught as those reported by friends of mine who have girls. Is there something in the make-up of girls that makes them more prone to this behaviour? Developmental psychology reasons that at an early age girls absorb from their parents, peers, and media images that they are supposed to be “nice” and “sweet.” They are not encouraged to resolve their differences through fights—as boys often are, they must hide them and not rock the boat. Girls are more likely to taunt, stare at, or exclude the offending girl from the group, tell lies about her, or threaten to withdraw friendship. This is not attention-grabbing behaviour, so it often goes unnoticed.
Ironically, because girls tend to put more store in close friendships than boys (who have more of a pack mentality), their aggression towards other girls (but not boys) often involves threatening to and actually destroying relationships. The high value they place on friendship and having another girl as their bosom buddy leads them to shut out the best friend who displeases them, even though they will fiercely protect her from being taken by intruders.
Another trait is to temporarily include a third person into their pair so both can score points off each other only to reject the third later. This happened to me twice, which Oscar Wilde might have observed looks more like carelessness than misfortune, but one of the times was at university, when you hope everyone’s gone past that stage. Sadly these patterns of behaviour last into adulthood for many girls. Perhaps they are mirroring events that they have encountered at home. Their controlling trait masks their own insecurity, because bullies are ultimately cowards. While I’ve remembered it vividly years on, I’m sure they were barely aware of their behaviour. The inability of bullies to see the effect their behaviour causes is one of its most distressing aspects.
Nowhere are the mores of society more blatant than when reflected on a programme like Big Brother. Often the rival camps in the group will be centred around one strong female who will gather a small circle of acolytes. They will victimise one of the other girls for being tarty or sluttish, while at the same time batting their eyelashes at the boys themselves. The others join in, mostly for fear of being the target. Is it getting worse due to the media increasingly putting airbrushed visions of ‘loveliness’ everywhere, thus setting girls against each other? Or has it always been this bad? Pretty girls are rarely as unpopular as ugly ones. Girls seem to have a greater need to fit in – knowing that their looks are what attract men, at least that’s the view perpetuated from everyone from the media to retailers – they can focus mainly on external, more shallow qualities. In any group of girls, there seems to be a jostling to determine who is the most desirable. Even if there are no men around, they need to establish themselves as the top dog, the most attractive prize should a male become available.
Channel 4 screened a pair of documentaries some years ago, ‘Boys Alone’ and ‘Girls Alone’ about two groups of eleven year olds left in a house without parental supervision. The boys ran wild, inviting comparisons to Lord of the Flies, yet they trashed the house rather than each other. The girls were less messy, ate better meals and even created some activities such as fashion shows, but they still formed rival camps, ostracising certain girls for ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. One locked herself in the bathroom, having been voted the most unpopular by the others, two left the house early.
Rachel Simmons wrote Odd Girl Out in 2002 after visiting thirty schools in the States and interviewing three hundred girls aged nine to fifteen in focus groups and individually to find out more about relational aggression. It revealed that girls as young as four were bullying, threatening, and shutting out other girls from play groups. Simmons addresses the issue from both sides—the “queen bee” taunters and the dejected outcasts. She urged that girls be taught to recognise their anger and not to hide it under the pretence of nothing being wrong or being superficially nice. Next, girls should be taught how to communicate their feelings to the perceived offender in non-threatening, assertive language, much as most boys seem to do naturally. “I don’t like that” or “That really hurt my feelings” can open the door so that the other girl can apologise and make amends. Also, girls need to know the long-term harm their behaviour can cause.
In principle, this sounds fantastic, but it’s a very long term strategy. Many women in the workplace, for example, bully younger women because they were bullied in their turn. And so the cycle goes on. The problem needs to be addressed in the media and in all the reality shows that clog our screens before any real progress can be made.
Image credit: Baruska Pixabay