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Girl World

I have noticed a spate of articles in the media of late on “mean girls”; commentators have been quick to highlight, and to almost revel, in tales of adolescent girls who bully others.

I work face to face with hundreds of teenage girls from right across Australia and New Zealand each week. What do I see? Is bullying and bitchiness as rampant in our classrooms as the media would have us believe?

Planet Girl can be a place filled with cliques, secrets, passive aggressive exchanges, and tears. Much has already been written about the ugly side of teen girl friendships. And let’s face it, it is easy to be negative about teen girl world for it can be a political, intense, place. Unlike the boys who often get physical and then forget and forgive their differences, girls do tend to ostracize their enemies and use words as weapons and this can be far more scarring and damaging long term. Many women I speak to in my seminars for parents still vividly recall the pain of being teased by other girls. And still feel guilt over the times they teased other girls.

Girls may also be bullied one minute, and the bully the next as they jostle for position with the social hierarchy. In the years I spent as a teacher and in student welfare roles, I witnessed some truly devastating episodes of girl bullying. I have seen girls’ lives made literally miserable by their peers.

Often the reasons behind this victimization are bewildering. A girl I met in my work with Enlighten sat scribbling furiously on her feedback form for me after the workshop. And as she left the room she held me – for a long time. When she left I read her comments, they included this poignant insight into the devastating effect the other girls at her school had had on her:

“I learnt today that I am beautiful and I’m not ugly because they (the other girls at my school) might say I am, I’m not what people may say I am. I can imagine, I can love, I am beautiful, I also have purpose…”

When I asked her teachers what this girl’s experience of school was like, they told me that ever since High School began she had been tormented – pushed down stairs, spat on, ignored. Why? The other girls all thought her ears stuck out.

This type of mean girl behaviour must be taken seriously by the adults who witness it and action must be taken. The ABC’s Life matters recently broadcast an interesting program which explored ways in which parents and schools could deal with bullying and help girls develop positive relationships – it is well worth a listen. Other useful resources include the video clips “Words Hurt”, “Cyber bullying talent show” and an interview I did earlier this year with Prue McSween. All can be found in my video library – Vodpod.     

Left unchecked, girl hostility can escalate and become a systematic campaign of verbal, and physical, violence. Experts point to a new gang-like mentality among schoolgirls where a popular “queen bee” uses friends to bully or hurt to cement her position of power. The term “Barbie Bitches,” a term to describe gangs of girls who believe they are beautiful, popular and have the right to intimidate those deemed less worthy, has became a frightening new part of our vernacular.

Yet despite all the politics and the potential for drama, I also find that the friendships between teen girls can be breathtakingly beautiful and authentic. And it is this positive, healing side to female friendships (a side that the media so often ignores) that I really want to further explore and celebrate this week.

Many girls deeply love their friends and their peer relationships provide a sense of belonging and acceptance that is sadly sometimes missing for them at home, where family members may seem to be time poor and over-scheduled.

I love the way girls giggle together, the way they play with each other’s hair and cuddle, the way they can be so fiercely loyal and protective of each other. When I ask girls who really knows them, understands them and loves them, the vast majority will tell me it is their friends who make them feel these essential emotions.

Recently, as part of my research for the book I am working on for Random House, I asked hundreds of teenage girls to share with me what they love about their female friends. I thought I’d share just some of their responses with you here now too:

“They understand mostly where I am coming from. They know when I am grumpy or upset how to deal with this. Although when stuff goes wrong it is horrible they are always willing to listen.” Ali 16

“How there is no pressure to ‘act up’ or to impress them. They accept me for who I am, not what I try and be.” Elizabeth 15

“They deal with the same problems as me. In conversations we often have moments when we realise how similar our issues are, and how much of a strong helping force we can be to each other.” Anon 15

“I love the confidence of my friends, the way they always strive for something higher; whether it be in school or socially and the way I know that they actually care about me and would always support me.” Haley 15

“I love the fact that they are all different from each other and from me. They respect who I am and my choices. I trust them with my life and can’t live without them.” Amanda 15

” I love how they don’t see me on the outside, and how they love me because of who I am. I can ask them for advice knowing that their advice will actually help me.” Julia 16

“I love how we can let go of our egos with each other, we can be stupid and silly but at the same know that there are always one or two of us who are mature ‘big sisters’ who have our backs.” Yan 16

“Being able to talk about private stuff I like the most. I have a guy friend who I tell my problems or difficulties to, but my girl friends, they also go through periods, shaving, cramps, bad hair days, etc. and it is nice to have them there to talk to. I also like not having to impress them, with boy friends there is always the ‘urge’ to impress them, with my girl friends it’s just us, and it’s fun.” Katie 17

“Female friends are great as you can never run out of things to talk about. I love being able to share everything about intimacy, body issues, etc and not being judged.” Abigail 17

“What I love about my friends is how they are always there for me no matter what and there to cheer me up if I’m feeling down. They are always fun to be around and make school all the better having them with me. Also they would never judge me on something and will always encourage me.” Montana 13

“I love my female friends because I can talk about anything with them. We can talk about things that I would never bring up with my mum.” Aimee 15

“Something that I love about my female friends is that no matter what you can always talk to them and even when you are smiling they always know when something is wrong. Basically without them there would be no way that I could live.” Carly 16

“Things I love about my friends is the happiness they can bring to you. A strong friendship can make you feel like you’re floating, even in your darkest times.” Laura 14

“I love all my girlfriends with all of my heart. They are easy to talk to and give great advice back. They help me go on the right path and not wrong. They are the soul of my body.” Courtney 14

How heartwarming. Female friendships are so valuable, and are so highly valued by teen girls – and by us older girls too! I’d love to hear just what your girlfriends mean to you, and how your female friendships have brought you love, light and laughter.

Let’s not ignore the problems that do exist, or turn a blind eye to bad behaviour. But let’s also unpack what works, and celebrate the many healthy relationships too.

Published inBullyingCyber world / BullyingFriendship

6 Comments

  1. Sonia Lyne

    Danni you are so right … we do tend to focus on the negative and forget to celebrate the positive.When I think about my schooling years and the gorgeous bunch of girls that surrounded me I recall so many moments filled with outrageous laughter, giggles and fun, fun, fun. It was many of these moments that helped shape who I am today. I remember one particluar time in my life when my besties went out of their way to make me feel at ease with the whole process of my first period. As my mum had died I had no idea, and as fate would have it, I got my first period at our swimming carnival. I still remember watching each of my friends comfort and assist me in various ways. It was so powerful that I still get goosebumps thinking about it. The support, love and friendship that each of my friends displayed illuminated the importance of each of them in my life and most importantly how I couldn’t live without them.

    YEAH FOR GIRLFIENDS!!!!!!!

  2. Lisa Porter

    EMPATHY is the greatest gift girlfriends can give. Sitting holding hands with a close friend and former flatmate a few years ago when we each had a parent going through cancer treatment, I felt her strength washing into me and vice versa. So many unspoken things in a simple touch. A hug from a girlfriend is like nothing else on earth, and is totally different to a family hug. When a parent hugs you, they are the adult, the reassurance. When a girlfriend hugs you, she is living it with you. I am lucky enough to have an incredible sister who is also my best friend – hugs from her are pure gold!

  3. Lisa Porter

    On the flipside – I have just had one of my beautiful, strong, sweet Year 9 girls sobbing her heart out in my staffroom all afternoon. Peer pressure and bullying have finally taken their toll. She has copped comments like, “If you lost a few kilos you’d be really pretty.” She IS SO BEAUTIFUL how she is – she looks healthy and is smart, friendly and has a great moral compass. There’s also been huge pressure on her to conform to the clique and if she resists and stands up for herself they dismiss her as a drama queen.

    I’m horrified that it has been going on… In a way though I’m glad now that I know exactly what has been going on so I can start to address it. Some of the culprits are coming away with me on a camp next week – my rule for the camp is “No Negativity” about self or others. My student highlighted this afternoon how awful it makes her feel when the skinny girls say, “Oh, I’m so fat…”

    *sigh* sometimes I feel like nothing has changed since I was at school, and was teased for being too skinny!! At least now there are more tools available to kids, parents and teachers to address these issues – Enlighten especially 🙂 Thank you.

  4. Ella

    My girlfriends bring me so much. Not only love, laughter and light. My girlfriends have saved my life, more than once.

    My friends bring me happiness, a sense of reality when I have temporarily lost that. They treat me with compassion, dignity and respect, more than I feel I deserve. My girlfriends are the ones I chose to challenge fears and phobias with, and the ones who know me better than I know myself.

    I guess – a little thing that happened to me the other day. Throughout illness and recovery, my friends have very much been like my family. The other day, one of my friends was talking to me about what it was like when I was acutely ill (and now I have two friends who are very unwell, and while it is shocking and terrifying, it offers a lot of insight, I’ve never gone through this as a close friend, or as someone like a sister). She was saying that, she hadn’t been to church in years, but every night before she went to bed she would pray “Please let Ella wake up in the morning. Please, please, please let Ella wake up in the morning – tonight is not a good night for her to die, PLEASE let her wake up in the morning” and then when I wasn’t quite so sick it was “Please don’t let Ella relapse, please let Ella eat her meal plan for today” and now her prayers are “Please let Ella see that her life is worth living, that she’s not ugly or stupid, please let her learn to live, please let her stop hating her body”.

    I went to visit this friend in Melbourne and when she saw me she ran over and went “What the f*** man. You are SO not fat”. and spent the next week encouraging me to eat properly and patiently sitting with me when I did eat, and stopping me from reading labels and freaking out when preparing food. Now days she gives me hope for the future – she plans when she’s going to come and visit, and she plans our weddings (she knows the boy she wants to marry, I do not!) and sometimes she sends me text messages, just out of the blue that brighten my whole day.

    I truly believe that is what friendship is about. It can be about going out on a limb and challenging someone when you know they are ill or wrong (and challenging that does not mean that you do not care about them) , it is about showing unconditional love and support and accepting a person, for all their flaws.

    On the flip side – I was bullied all throughout years 7 and 8. It made my first two years of highschool and some of it was physical violence, although more often the kind of emotional bullying which is not so much recognised. Girls can be nasty and the cliques do exist. But I think the media just like to jump onto something – and girl violence happens to be the hot topic of the moment.

  5. Lisa Porter

    Just an update on my above post… I took 23 Year 9 kids away this week for a 3-day sport and rec camp. It was fantastic to see them pushing themselves out of their comfort zones and experiencing things like abseiling, high ropes courses, bushwalking and a camp fire on the beach (complete with marshmallows and damper – for my migrant kids it was their first experience of what I considered to be a rite of childhood!). They were all incredibly supportive of each other, got to know each other a bit better and strengthened their relationships.

    On the last night I sat down in the girls’ lodge with a bag of Freddo frogs and had a looooong chat with them – about friendships, bullying, school… life, the universe, and everything. They are amazing – they are all thinking so far ahead, and have so many questions and concerns about how things change as they grow up. I reinforced the messages that Danni gave them back in June (Danni, they are still wearing your wrist bands!) about being positive about themselves and each other, and learning to take care of themselves. It was such a beautiful evening and I saw some of the hurt that a couple of the girls have inflicted or experienced over the last months being repaired. The boys were desparate to know what we had talked about for so long (my assistant year adviser had a bit of a chat with them, but the boys aren’t such big talkers!), but the girls just told them it was “girl stuff” and I think they thought it was a “period talk” and backed off 🙂 And you know what? When I went back into my room, the girls sat around straightening each others’ hair 🙂 Very, very sweet.

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