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:
“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.