It’s my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache…
Older students are allowed to roam until the bell, but ninth-graders are herded into the auditorium. We fall into clans: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Facists of America, Big hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders.
I am clanless. I wasted the last weeks of August watching bad cartoons. I didn’t go to the mall, the lake, or the pool, or answer the phone. I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don’t have anyone to sit with.
I am Outcast.
(excerpt from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)
Haven’t we all felt this way at some point? Not invited…the target of gossip…left out. Has the issue of mean girls and bullying increased recently? Is the world today more difficult to navigate for our young girls?
Many adults believe “no.” In fact, mean girls and clans have always existed, presenting a rite of passage for our young girls. Clarissa Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, cites that girls, who are relational by nature, learn to grow within small packs of girls and women. These relationships can lead to higher self-esteem, empathy, and character development.
These packs also contain an element of female emotional life that, according to Dr. Michael Gurian, “often gets missed in our cultural dialogue” – female hierarchies. Gurian states that “female self-esteem often depends on how we help them learn to navigate these hierarchies” (The Wonder of Girls, 200).
In my experience, our girls are growing up in a world that is exceedingly difficult to navigate and very different from their parents’ experiences. Physical appearance, in-crowd and out-crowd hierarchies, and physical and social competition are just a few of the types of power hierarchies young girls create and must navigate. A young girl’s lasting sense of self-worth is often developed in these power struggles – leading to the dangerous side of being a girl.
Young girls cite manipulation, a focus on excessive materialism, shaming of one another’s core selves, and verbal nastiness as just a few of the factors present in girl packs. Often these elements are exacerbated by the fact that many girls feel afraid to speak up – lest they become greater outcasts. One young girl in the On Point program wisely noted that girls are programmed to pretend that nothing is wrong. Another student stated, “Having bad friends is better than having no friends at all.”
Why is this dangerous to the future of our girls?
First, a biological phenomenon occurs. The more insecure a girl’s attachments, the higher her cortisol (stress hormone) levels, resulting in more fragile hormone and brain cycles. Researchers agree that insecure attachments lead to depression, risky sexual behavior, self-mutilation, and eating disorders (Gurian 198).
Second, girls who feel lonely and are influenced by media imagery, peers, and a lack of positive adult influence become more violent. Especially dangerous is that research shows that when females become more violent, males become more violent, having great implications for our society as a whole (Gurian 249).
Finally, “mean girl” behavior programs our internal voices in a negative manner. These voices tell us that we are worthless and can drain our power, creativity, self-respect, strength, and courage. This is exceedingly dangerous when many young girls cite a lack of positive and affirming voices in their lives.
As girls, what can we do to create a positive environment for ourselves and our peers?
• Surround ourselves with positive voices. Identify support networks consisting of at least five adults we can turn to with our five most difficult life issues.
• Surround ourselves with “safe people” and learn to recognize and disconnect from “unsafe people.” In Safe People, Cloud and Townsend define safe people as, “though not perfect, their own character is good enough so that the net effect of their presence in our lives is positive. They are accepting, honest, and there for us, and they help us bear good fruit in our lives” (11).
• Raise awareness in our school about girl-to-girl harassment emphasizing the three components: the bystanders, the bully, and the bullied.
• Regain our voice and power by confronting and reporting when we see bullying or are bullied.
• Be willing to step outside of your “girl pack” to create other female relationships.
• Be assertive – not aggressive. Webster gives the following definitions: assertiveness is “confident communication in anticipation of denial or objection,” while aggressiveness “implies a disposition to dominate often in disregard of others’ rights.”
• Self-assess to see if we are the Negative Voices or bully in other’s lives
• Practice the art of listening and being an independent thinker.
• Develop Positive Self-Talk…journaling, writing and repeating self affirmations.
For Adults: How can we teach our girls to navigate girl packs in a positive way?
• Talk to girls about hierarchies. Watch Mean Girls (the movie), read books together, and discuss the ways that girls seek status and are tested, sometimes tortured, by their peers.
• Ensure you are a positive voice in their life. Unhealthy competition in academics, sports, or social arenas encourages dangerous behavior, as does promoting excessive materialism. Give encouraging words that build her core self-worth. Teach healthy boundaries. Most importantly, be available as a consistent support system for the pressures and issues in her life.
• Teach her to identify safe vs. unsafe people to spend time with. Girl packs are a reality, and you can help her think critically about the character of the people she chooses to befriend.
• Monitor the internet, instant-message, picture-phone, and website usage. Many girls are using technology as a tool to gossip, shame, and harass each other.
• Teach her to speak up – whether she is the bullied or the bystander. If she is the bully, help her assess and realize the negative impact of her behavior.
• Encourage some diversion from girl packs. Recognize that leaving a girl pack can be difficult and feel impossible to her. Help her get involved in sports, youth groups, and weekend activities and hobbies that will build character, resiliency, and self-reliance.
• Finally, demonstrate confident kindness in your own relationships. Remember, you are a model in how to treat others with respect and kindness while portraying healthy boundaries and self-worth. Female relationships are vital in a girl’s development and throughout her life.
Let’s help our girls recognize their value and purpose, and their role in encouraging one another towards positive sisterhood. For more information, contact us here at On Point!