Queen Bee and Wannabe

Friday, December 02, 2005

I have been reflecting on Jenn's post about her feelings watching her preschool daughter get her first taste of being rejected by the "in-crowd".

The topic is one that I have thought a great deal about over the past three years. Both my actions and reactions have often been driven by issues that I have buried deep in my consciousness. Indeed, for my very last graduate degree paper, I wrote about "Female relational aggression" - using the observations I had done in my daughter's classroom, my own experiences, and those of my daughter as the core of the writing.

Jenn's post brought this topic back into the forefront of my mind, and coincidentally collided with a new "incident" in our home.

Emily had recently brought her school class photo home. I sat with her and went over all the children, asking her to name them and tell me a little bit about them. I like to have a face in my mind so if I have to go in and kick some ass, I will aim for the right kid. No, seriously, she and I have a lot of conversations about her day and I like to know who she is talking about. Now that she is in public school, I don't have the access and knowledge of her classroom peers and families I once did. I rely on these conversations to fill me in on the "stuff" that I can no longer see.

Emily went through every picture, and described each person - what they like, what games they like to play, who she sits with at work time, who has allergies, etc.

A few days later she was talking about a little girl and I responded "Oh, is she the chubby one?".
I did this completely unconsciously. Emily didn't even stop the flow of conversation to acknowledge what I had said to her, and I assumed that the comment had gone unnoticed. Much as all the "clean up your crap" conversations seem to be repelled from her brain.

Then, last Monday, as we lay on the bed talking about her day she says to me:

Emily: "And then I told Allison that my mom thought K was "chubby", and Allison said "What does that mean?"
Me: "OH MY GOD! (hand covering mouth) Did you really say that? You didn't tell K that I said that did you?"
Em: "No, I told Allison and I think that Allison told K what you said"
Me: "OH MY GOD! When did I say that? I didn't say that , did I?"
Em: "Yeah you did - when we were looking at all the class photos, you said "Is she the chubby one?"
Me: "Oh, Honey. That was not kind for Mommy to say. That could really hurt K's feelings - did it hurt her feelings when Allison told her that I said that?"
Em: "I think so, yeah."
Me: "Oh,God. I am really embarrassed. I should NOT have said that."

In my mind, I am picturing K and her mother having the flip side of this conversation. I picture K's Mom wanting to beat my ass - and rightfully so. I deserve to have a whole six pack of whoop ass opened on me for that bit of female aggression. I ponder whether or not to go into the "Body Types are not a good reason to judge another person", but how fucking hypocritical can I sound in one night? Even a 7 year old will be able to see through that transparent lie.

Which brings me back to the paper I wrote. Part of the journey through this topic was a re-examination of my own roles in some of the key "female group" moments in my life. Was I the victim that I always remembered myself being? Or had I played a much more influential role in my teen angst?

My Bad Year was 8th grade. 7th grade was rotten, but I survived, hanging onto a group of girls I had been friends with in elementary school. Indeed, I had run with the "Alpha" females in elementary school. I was in the "smart" reading groups, "smart " math groups. Things came easy for me.

8th grade, however, was a different ball game altogether. I became a target. There were notes put in my locker describing how "low" I was, what a "slut" I was, how "stuck up" I was. Every time I opened my locker, there would be a group watching me , trying to see if the last note got a reaction. This group of my "friends" would move lunch tables on me, and laugh as I searched the cafeteria for my lunch table. I would invite these girls to slumber parties and they would accept - then no one would show up and no one would call to cancel.

The crowning moment was in Humanities class. After enduring yet another brutal day of whispers and notes, another anonymous petition was passed to me during this 5th period "Honors" class. I opened the note and burst into tears. No, Sobs. I began to cry so hard that I started to hyperventilate. I couldn't talk, I couldn't breathe. My teacher had to physically carry me out of the room. When he got me to the Nurse's office and tried to ask me what had happened, I couldn't tell him. I would get my friends in trouble and then things would be so much worse. I demanded to go home.

Once home, I wouldn't tell my mother what had happened. I refused to go to school for almost two weeks. I lay in bed and tried to find the key - the reason my social group had expelled me. I could see no "rule" I had broken. I was distraught and depressed. I went back to school. I wouldn't talk to anyone. I was a girl without a country.

The following year, I re-formed a social group. I would like to tell you that I was a nice girl who included everyone and was never mean to anyone else again, having learned my lesson. But......... that would be a big lie.

It would be really attractive to tell myself a story of Dawn the victim, done wrong by the selfish Bitches of Rutland, Vermont. Sadly, that edited version of the story would be leaving out large and important chunks of the story.

In 9th grade, I did indeed reform a social group. I did not speak to any of those other girls again- although I could tell you every one of their first and last names to this day.

This experience of being the pariah did not stop me from ascending to the top of the new social ladder I had constructed. I gathered enough influence to have my new group of friends help me target and harass an older Senior girl ~ Heather Luther~who had briefly dated my high school boyfriend before I had dated him. We would station ourselves along her route to her classes and announce "Here comes the Beast", among other phrases. She complained to my boyfriend. We ramped the torture up. We would each find countless ways to persecute her and then report to each other over long phone conversations.

In 5th grade, I helped spread a rumor that a girl - Mary Jackson - had head lice. Mary was quite poor, and we wouldn't play with her. She did not return for 6th grade. In 6th grade, I helped isolate and target another new student, Gloria, who ended up peeing her pants in class. She didn't stay long in our school after that.

In the Karmic sense, it is not surprising that I experienced such a fall. Hubris? Is that you I hear knocking?

I had to own my role in the cycle of female relational aggression. Feminists theorists will tell you that women perpetrate "Horizontal Violence". We are disenfranchised, so we seek to destroy people like us ~ other women. It isn't safe to bring our anger to the real place it belongs, so we seek to mitigate it through this relational aggression. We disguise our Anger. We use silence, and looks and other underground communication techniques to communicate this to other women. A woman never has to say a thing to let you know that you have pissed her off. When boys bully, they are easy to catch. The jump and wrestle and yell. Females are much less overt and this makes finding evidence of bullying very difficult. Add in the Mafia enviable "code of silence" that goes down between a group of girls, and is it any wonder that no one addresses this with our daughters?

So when our girls start to experience this in their own lives, the flashbacks start for a mother. The denial, the cover up, the blaming of the victim ( their own daughter) begins.
"What did you do to make others mad at you?"
"This isn't happening to you, you've got lots of friends!"
"I never had trouble making friends at your age!"

There is a dark moment when a mother thinks "I must not have done a good job, cause the other girls don't like her. Did I buy the wrong clothes?" and on and on. We are shamed for not preparing our daughters to handle this shit, but we never learned to handle it either. Their social success, or lack thereof, is our success story or our fault.

So I struggle. Every Day. I struggle with the fact that I still take joy in mocking a co-workers shoes ( "I think those are "Spleather", since she couldn't buy the "Pleather" pair!") I struggle with the "Chubby" comment that I don't even recall saying. I struggle with how to both shield, defend and prepare my daughter for her life among the pack.

All I can do is walk next to her in this puzzling, changeable landscape that is female relationships.

7 Baleful Regards:

roo said...

When I was in elementary and middle school, I'd sometimes tell my parents at dinner about being targeted like that. Eventually I stopped, because my mom would get so angry on my behalf that she wanted to go to school with me and have a show-down, and I'd have to beg her not to make it worse.

And I wasn't above trying to boost myself up by targeting the few people who were lower than me on the social ladder. I guess it's that victim/victimizer cycle again...

From what I've read on your blog, it sounds like you're doing a great job keeping your balance while walking that line. Don't be too hard on yourself.

Nancy said...

Thanks for this post, and for linking to Jenn's. I hadn't read her site in a little while, and had forgotten what an amazing writer she is. And she put so eloquently into words what I, too, have been struggling with.

Big-A is exactly like I was as a child -- sensitive, smart. She's also got, at almost 4 years of age, her own little "clique" at school. Some days she has little fights with her friends, and comes home upset. She's been a victim of comments about her clothing. I didn't expect this so soon, and it's sort of made me look back on my childhood. Some painful memories. As I commented to Jenn's post, I am hoping maybe I can help her deal with the social elements of being a girl better than I did at her age.

One of the things I am so appreciative of as we begin to navigate this slippery slope is that I have made a friend and ally in Big-A's best friend's mother. I think we are similar in temperament and parenting approach, and we try to frequently reinforce the behaviors we want our girls to perform (inclusiveness, acceptance.) It doesn't always work, but we are trying.

Kudos to you for being such an involved, caring mom.

Lisa said...

My mom never believed in having Nike shoes or an Izod shirt. She bought the cheapest clothes Wal-Mart had, which back then, were ugly and itchy. And I was made fun of ALL OF THE TIME. In fifth grade, my "best friend" decided to spread a rumor about how she saw me picking my nose in church. For the rest of the year, no one would talk to me. Even the kids in the older and younger classes knew the story and would call me names and make fun of me as I walked by. It was about 8 weeks until the end of the school year. No one would even sit next to me at lunch. And my mom and dad would have never understood. So they never knew until recently.

And the remaining years were much of the same. But yes, those years sucked. I went to a Catholic grade school where people sent their kids more as a status symbol. My parents are very Catholic and sent us there for the education.

And girls that age are so mean! And then, I'd come home to parents who told me how ugly, stupid and lazy I was. If I snuck a cookie before dinner, I would get spanked with a large wooden stick or slapped across the face. So you can imagine what would happen if I actually did something considered bad! I was so skinny my teachers whispered amongst themselves that I was anorexic. (I was really skinny (5'5 1/2 at 105 pounds) because my mom was a horrible cook. And was very cheap. Snacks and sweets (except for a small package of cheap cookies) weren't allowed in our house. And if you took a second helping of green beans or something else, my dad and mom would start moo-ing at me. SO I spent alot of time hungry.)

It is amazing how those years can shape us. I will NEVER be a Catholic again. I refuse to even go to mass. And it took years of therapy to get over what my parents and those girls did.

I could tell you lots of stories about being the victim. The Mean GIrls movie has nothing on the mean girls I went to grade school with. And I've learned that if there's an outcast in the class that seems a bit socially backward, they often have more bullshit to "look forward to" at home.

madge said...

Wow. Tidal wave of memories here. Gulp.

I went to an exclusive private girls' school in Manhattan for NINE years. When the parents started having meetings about the cruelty (such as, sticking a maxi pad filled with hot chocolate and red Kool Aid to the locker of the one girl who had her period in fifth grade), you would have thought some of them would remove their daughters. But, noooooo. That would mean they'd failed and their daughters were the victims. So, we were left to navigate the internal and external tortures alone.

I will NEVER EVER EVER send my daughter to a single sex school. At least with boys around there is some distraction from picking at other girls' flaws.

Dawn, I think your awareness alone is a tremendous leg up. Add your training to that, and Em has a very fine ally on her side for this crazy adventure.

Contrary said...

All through elementary school,I went to the same school with the same bunch of kids. There were about 6 of them who just made my life a living hell. We were very poor and hand me downs were the fashion of the day. Wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been the only girl wearing clothes that had already been through 3 of my 4 brothers. (don't worry, things are better now, no need to send soup or socks my way)

When I was in 4th grade, one of those kids (her name was Jackie) died in a car accident on the way to school. Now, I hated this girl as much as a little kid can. But when she died, I was as freaked out and sad and shook up as anybody else, because she had just been there, the day before, tormenting me.

After that, I really stopped caring how those other kids felt about me (and you'd be amazed how quickly they lost interest in me once I stopped crying and tattling and started with the ignoring). It's an odd experience to learn how short life really can be at such a young age, but it's served me well.

Even when our financial conditions improved and I was a fairly popular and happy teenager, I never picked on anyone. Not because I was a saint (no halo here!) but because I knew how it felt to be picked on for stuff I couldn't help and because I knew how quickly things could change.

JenfromBoston said...

7-8th grade were my years from Hell, too. I was one step above the kid that got shoved and locked into his locker. I was also, quite possibibly, the nicest kid you'd ever meet. And yet, was the one who wore a "Kick Me" sign on her back. 1985 was the year of USA for Africa and that song "Feed the World" was played at lunchtime for donations and they kids would say the money was going to me (was on lunch-aid tickets and also scary skinny). Incredibly, that only marginally bugged.

Girls are a weird "breed", one day they're your BFF, the next you're invisable. As a result of my experiences, I have tried to be really sensitive making sure I don't make ppl. feel like that. that my friendship is for lack of a better word, contingent.

I do , however, have one moment of true asshole-etry. In 8th grade there was a band/choir trip to D.C. I didn't have roommates yet for the trip (no one had drawn the "short straw" yet, I guess) and when some 7th graders said I could room w/ them (girls I liked, in fact) I was so overjoyed that I wasn't going to get stuck w/ Bettina, you know, the *really* weird girl. SO elated and relieved that I'd have fun girls to hang out with (if only by proximity) I literally jumped up and down and squealed, "Yay! Now I won't have to room with Betttina!" Yeah, guess who was standing right behind me when I said that?
Immediately, I was ashamed of myself and as you can see, at almost 33 still remember it like yesterday. Who the f*ck did I think I was? So I decided then, for better or worse, I'd never be that girl again, even if it meant ppl. didn't hang with me.

This is not to say I am above makign a snarky comment now and then. You know, I never said I was perfect.

mothergoosemouse said...

It's funny - Tacy and I have just recently had the conversation about how "fat" is an adjective that can be an accurate descriptor, but it's still not a polite word because it may hurt someone's feelings. Kids are so innocent, and it kills me to see how they learn to hurt one another, even unintentionally.

I have a draft brewing about how female officers treated one another (in my brief experience). Sad how some things in life don't seem to change as we get older (and supposedly more mature).

 
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