boy, she has to act and dress right, she should be smart, but not too smart. Even after a girl reaches the coveted “popu- lar” circle, her position is never secure. The reigning Queen Bee may penalize anyone in her social group who shows too much individuality, starts hanging out with the wrong people, or is perceived as a threat.
Several survey respondents in the NDSU study reported that Queen Bees handled the sting of jealousy by rumor mongering. One of the college students in Miller-Boschert’s survey wrote: “If they were jealous of others and their rela- tionships with boys, they would start rumors about them being sexually active or call them a slut – sometimes to their face. I found it appalling and would keep my mouth shut as it was happening, partly due to the shock element of it and partly because I didn’t want them to turn on me.”
One anecdote illustrates the brutal and unforgiving nature of adolescent society. “In my grade in high school, most girls had their own clique,” a respondent wrote. “At one point, a girl from the ‘popular’ clique had gotten into an accident and had some physical scars from it, including lazy eyes. Her friends would no longer talk to her, and she was always trying to get included into the other cliques. She had been so mean and rude in the past, though, no one wanted to be her friend.”
Contrary to popular belief, most female bullies aren’t hid- ing their insecurities behind a bunch of bravado. Research suggests that most bullies not only possess average to high self-esteem, many do not view themselves as bullies at all. In fact, when asked about bullying behaviors in their school, the biggest offenders of all will report, “We all get along pretty well.”
The sad part is that most victims’ need to belong is so pow- erful that they’ll take any amount of abuse from the Queen Bee and her hive. They would rather belong to the top social group – even in a toady position – than to not belong at all.
Of course, not everyone believes the issue of bullying girls is all that important. Some critics argue that it is simply a trendy issue – a media-generated crisis du jour until we have something better to complain about. Others point out that rejection is a necessary, if painful, reality of growing up. They say it teaches us how to defend ourselves, and helps shape who we are.
True, Miller-Boschert says, especially if one has the resil- ience and self esteem to brave the storm. But, she quickly adds, there’s no denying that some victims are irrevocably scarred by their middle-school years. She quotes survey respondents who reported that their experiences made them hate themselves, distrust other women or even contemplate taking their own lives.
“It’s more than just thinking ‘girls will be girls,’ ” she says. “In the U.S., we almost look at it like a rite of passage. But it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be part of some- one’s life, to the point where they’re considering suicide.”
More disturbingly, girl-to-girl bullying can trigger a dan- gerous pattern that affects a woman’s entire life. According to Gary and Ruth Namie’s book, “The Bully at Work,” most instances of workplace bullying involve women sabotaging women. Unchecked, a bully will continue to steamroll over others – and likely teach their children to do the same. And, “Once you’ve been a victim as a young girl, you continue playing the victim role throughout your life,” Miller-Boschert says, “until you take the bull by the horns and say, ‘I’m not going to be bullied anymore.’ ”
It’s not as easy to break the pattern as it sounds. First, girls need to be taught how to stand up for themselves, Miller-Boschert says. In some cases, schools have taken on that responsibility by adopting rules or hosting workshops. One of her students teaches in a Minnesota school that fol- lows a well-known anti-bullying program. Program features range from a “bullying box,” where students can anonymously report incidents of harassment to teaching students and teachers the difference between “teasing” (a gentle gibe that both parties enjoy) and “taunting” (an aggressive attack that only the perpetrator enjoys). In Minnesota, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, Fridley, introduced legislation that would require all Minnesota school districts to establish bullying standards, adopt an anti-bullying policy and provide training for school officials.
Yet people can’t expect schools to be the sole crusaders against bullying; our most important lessons begin at home. Parents need to be aware of two uncomfortable possibilities: That their child may be bullied, but too ashamed to talk about it, or that their child could actually be a bully.
Children should learn, from an early age, how to be respectful of others, Miller-Boschert says. At the same time, they need to learn how to stand up for themselves. They can be taught how to express themselves assertively, rather than in an aggressive and destructive way.
When asked what can be done to curtail bullying, most of the respondents agree in one area: The best antidote to poisonous relationships is to instill a strong sense of self in one’s child. “Tell them you love them, tell them they’re beau- tiful,” says Miller-Boschert. “Be there when they need to talk. Just be there for them. They might roll their eyes, but they really want that. They want to know that they’re loved and accepted and that they’re OK.”