Mean Girls and Finding Kind

I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you about a free documentary screening at the Q Café on May 18th 6:30pm, particularly if you’re reading this post in Seattle.

Finding Kind is a feature-length documentary film that explores the phenomenon of girl-on-girl bullying across America.  The two first-time filmmakers, Lauren Parsekian and Molly Thompson, embark on a journey across America, interviewing women and girls along the way about their lives and experiences while revealing some universal truths about growing up as girls.  More information about the movie can be found on the film site.

In addition to making the rounds at independent film festivals (it was shown at last year’s SIFF,) Finding Kind was recently named Best Documentary at the Palm Beach Women’s International Film Festival and was a finalist for the Social Justice Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

If you are in the Seattle area, it will be showing for FREE next Friday May 18th.  All you have to do is register and download free tickets here:  There will also be a brief discussion after the film about the topic of girl-on-girl bullying and why it is important to discuss this issue in our day and age.  I’d encourage you to come out.

So why is girl-on-girl bullying an important topic today?  Well, my own personal short answer is that the good and bad lessons we learn as girls and adolescents often carry over into adulthood.  We girls are deft in being mean to each other in ways more subtle than pure physical aggression.  Words (and hurtful words, in particular) are powerful and damaging.  This is where issues of shame, beauty and body images, eating disorders, unhealthy relationships with the opposite sex, and other harmful insecurities are born and come into full bloom.

Besides, the attainment of high social status and adherence to hierarchies don’t go away when we become adults.  And while as adults we have become more sophisticated in dancing around or working within uncomfortable power dynamics and hierarchies in our own circles–socially and in the workplace–often the underlying and deep-seeded primal fear or aggression is still there.  We’ve just learned to play the game better.  And sometimes, within these social structures, the behavior of survival we learned in school as children often become an unconscious de facto way of adult life.  And some of our childhood fears and insecurities never go away.  There will always be bullies among us.  We all have to learn to deal with them, both as kids and as adults.

But what particularly disturbs me about the issue of girl-on-girl bullying is that today’s school environment is radically different from my own childhood experience.  Back in the day, there was just the school day.  At least you got a break when you went home.  Not so in today’s age of cyber-bullying.  There are so many more insidious channels with texts, smartphones, Facebook, and other media devices that are always on, always watching, judging, stalking, and spreading rumors or lies 24/7.  You cannot turn it off.

The 2004 movie Mean Girls, based on Rosalind Wiseman’s bestselling book, Queen Bees and Wannabes (Second Edition, Three Rivers 2009) touches upon many aspects about social status and politics in Girl World.  In the second edition of her book, Wiseman talks about “the different roles girls play in and outside of cliques as Queen Bees, Targets, and Bystanders, and how this defines how they and others are treated.”

Helping to organize this event got me to thinking about my own memories of growing up.  I’m sure if you speak to most adult women, they will agree that childhood and adolescence were often filled with awkward years of trying to fit in, and constantly feeling insecure, particularly about appearance.  Many of us were basically trying to keep a low profile and get through school.  I was definitely most often a Bystander, but I will talk about one time where I was a Target.

In the third grade, I wasn’t a total reject but I wasn’t popular either.  You could say I was on the fringe, so basically on the cusp of unpopular.  If we were talking letter grades, I’d be a part of the C-crowd, so basically someone just 1 step away from being picked-on.  For someone in this particular social category of subsistence, the modus operandi of survival is to be invisible so as not to attract the attention or wrath of A-crowd kids who could easily kick you down to D or F-land—equivalent to social pariah or leprous untouchable.  Even as a third grader, I was aware that the powerful and popular older kids in the fourth and fifth grades were to be revered.  Otherwise, your life would be miserable the rest of the year during school, lunch, and recess.

So imagine my horror one day to wake up with a large viral cold sore in the middle of my upper lip.  The lip world is divided into two groups: Those who get cold sores, and those who have no idea what it is and who obviously don’t get them.  A cold sore is not a canker sore (canker sores are not visible.)  The Mayo Clinic defines cold sores as fluid filled lesions caused by the herpes simplex type 1 infection.  It is related to the virus that causes genital herpes.  There is no cure, and those who have contracted the virus will experience breakouts throughout their lives.  Cold sore symptoms are usually more severe during childhood and become less obvious in adulthood.  More than half of the U.S. population is infected by the type 1 virus by the time they reach their 20s, but not everyone exhibits symptoms.  For those of us who do exhibit them, it’s an unsightly and visible blight on your lip that goes away after a week or two.

But for a kid, we’re talking immediate social death.  And my outbreak in the third grade was huge, gross, and obviously very visible on my face.  I knew it was ugly and I wanted to disappear.  But missing school because of a “facial inconvenience” was not an option.  It didn’t help that no one in my immediate family ever exhibited a cold sore.  So off I went for the week bearing my mark of ugly in the middle of my upper lip.  Soon the sore started to scab over and heal, but the dark scab made it even more visible.  Most people in class were nice and either didn’t notice, or kindly ignored it.

But one day, Maggie, the queen bee leader of the popular fourth grade A-crowd (and the most powerful fourth grader in our school) happened to notice my cold sore.  She stared fixated at the sore and loudly exclaimed, “WOW, that is SOOOOOO DISGUSTING and ugly!  And by the way, YOU are DISGUSTING and UGLY too!  Nasty!  You should cover up your FACE!”  She then spun around in her perfect ribbon-tied brown locks, and walked away towards her friends, ignoring me.  While no one else really heard her talking to me (including teachers and other classmates) it was still mortifying to verbally and audibly hear the thoughts you’ve already been thinking inside your head.  I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole.

I still remember the burning sensation of blood and embarrassment flood to my face and ears: humiliation.  But there was nothing I could do except wait for the sore to slowly heal and my lip return to normal over the next week.  Still, I was very lucky that no one in class said anything more.  After a few days everyone (including Maggie, I suspect,) forgot about it.  The girls in class knew that Maggie was a bully, but no one said anything.  Third grade life went on and I stayed out of Maggie’s way as best I could.  In the fall of the following year, to my delight and surprise, I found out that Maggie had suddenly moved out of town over the summer.  I was literally saved.

This experience may not have been as traumatic as others’ more dramatic experiences with bullying.  But as a third-grader, I learned some unforgettable lessons about feelings of shame, judgment, and the importance of physical beauty and outward appearance.  I also learned some real life lessons that stayed with me throughout school: the importance of being and staying invisible, particularly if you’re NOT a part of the popular or socially-elite crowd.  Don’t say anything to rock the boat or you risk being ostracized or becoming a target.  These were the main life lessons from middle and high school, and that’s how I learned to survive.  I was the archetypical bystander and silent witness.

Through middle and high school, I was witness to many other more acute instances of girls bullying other girls, but I never said a word.  I clung to my role as a member of the silent (and powerless) Chorus in a Greek Tragedy.  In middle school, I was considered a friend to some of the girls whom I’ll call the Math Nerds.  These were the girls who competed in Math Olympiad and Odyssey of the Mind.  But in high school, I decided to ditch them for a different social group in the name of social survival.  I became a silent watcher for fear of being lumped into the reject crowd.  I remembered what it was like to be picked-on, and I never wanted to feel that shame or embarrassment ever again.  So while I didn’t join the bullying, I was complicit as a silent and invisible witness—a traitor.

My salvation was going away to college and having the chance to reinvent myself.  I worked hard in high school to get good grades so that I could get away, to escape.  I knew there was a bigger world outside of my small town and I couldn’t wait to get out to see it.  This was the hope that saved me.

I still get cold sores today and it is still gross, but thankfully the breakouts are less frequent and intense as an adult.  I’ve found good medication.  But I’ll never forget that incident in the third grade and I’m trying to delete the lessons I learned as a kid about invisibility.  And I suspect that is my real salvation.