I Was a Mean Girl
When I read about bullying today, I realize: Hmm, I did that.
I played a different kind of game with boys outside the popular group who were rumored to “like” me. Keen for attention from any male—something to do with my dad, but that’s for another essay—I flirted shamelessly with these boys, even though there was no chance whatsoever that I would be attending the school dance clad in my sparkling spandex tube-dress with any of them. I liked the way these guys made me feel, and I also liked to eventually remind them of their “place” in school by rejecting their totally appropriate advances. Oh, you thought I’d actually go out with you?
But, like all of the Magnificents, I directed most of my cruelty to the other members of the group. We were always jockeying for position, and most of our interactions reflected this. A typical sleepover activity was to ask each other questions like “What TV character most resembles me?” If the answer was Andrea Zuckerman, the shaggiest of the 90210 girls, that meant you had some work to do in the coming weeks. Nothing could make a Magnificent more insecure than being called an Andrea! If, however, the hive mind determined that you were a Buffy—Sarah Michelle Gellar, not Kristy Swanson—well, that was good news. It was a simple game in which we clarified our roles in the group and practiced our meanness.
There were peaceful times—we were, despite everything, close girlfriends. We took baths together and examined each other’s pubic hair. We shared dresses and details of our bowel movements and unknowingly imitated romantic comedy plots by writing out elaborate documents promising to marry each other at age 40 if we hadn’t found the perfect man. We raided our parents’ liquor cabinets and wrote really bad group poetry. We were popular (just ask the yearbook!) and projected an image of being untouchable. But we also lived in a constant state of anxiety, trampling over each other, clawing at acceptance, desperate not to be edged out by a rising star threatening the power status quo. We all feared being eliminated or overtaken. And so we hurt a lot of people, especially one another.
We were most devastating when we operated as a pack against one of our own. Fighting among teenage friends is normal, of course, but our fights were a bit more ritualistic than they needed to be. If, for instance, one girl managed to lure the entire group to her side against another girl, we all ganged up on that poor loser in a ritual we called “Circle.” Seriously, we named it Circle. We formed a perfect globe around the offending Magnificent and shouted off reasons we didn’t want to be her friend or why she wasn’t worthy of being ours. Of course, some of those reasons were fair—we were all mean girls, after all, and terrible to each other—but we were merciless by any standard, enclosing her tightly before we expelled her for good. (We actually started as a much larger group, but through Circle and other similarly lovely activities, we whittled ourselves down to seven by yearbook time.)
One particular night at a friend’s unsupervised home, a Circled girl became hysterical and had to be retrieved by her mother. But the following Monday at lunch, the ritual continued. Our former friend knew she could no longer sit with us at our designated spot (smack in the middle of a common walkway, which forced peers and even teachers to alter their paths). So she settled on a distant corner by herself, and I took out my disposable camera—which I always had on hand—and took a picture of her. I still have it.
Recounting this incident brings me a mixture of horror and shame. But I have another feeling, too. Tabitha—I hated her stupid name almost as much as I wanted to bestow it on my firstborn daughter. She was effortless; her father worked on a very popular sitcom that continues in reruns today, her house was sprawling, her life seemed perfect. When we were 11, she announced that I would never go anywhere in life and predicted that I would be pregnant by 13. That may sound innocuous, but it stabbed hard at a real insecurity: not that I would actually be pregnant at 13—we were hardly holding hands with our “boyfriends” at that age—but that I knew I didn’t come from the same place she did. That we ended up in the same group of friends was a strange circumstance. That I stayed in it while she got voted out was, at the time, incredibly satisfying. Her words lingered enough that when I heard she was having an oops baby in college, I couldn’t help but feel vindicated.
My overwhelming emotions about the shallowness and brazen superficiality of my junior high years are regret and puzzlement. But I also know that I’m not entirely past all of those old rules and insecurities—though more often than not they show themselves in how I treat and judge myself, not others. I guess I deserve that.
All grown up, we Magnificents are, according to Facebook at least, a motley crew. My friend who we used to call “Big Nose” unfortunately had a nose job and is a successful accountant in San Francisco; another came out and was subsequently shunned by her mother. Another is in law school; another is milking cows for free in France. The prettiest, most popular of us still lives in the town where we grew up—doing what, I couldn’t say. Until a few years ago, I maintained a pseudo-friendship with just one of the Magnificent Seven. Our meetings were drenched in wine and fueled by her incessant need to click through album after album on Facebook, pointing and laughing at people’s miserable jobs and bootcut jeans. When I defended one wearer of said jeans as a smart, well-traveled guy who was my true friend and someone I admired, I felt uneasy, vaguely anxious. At 25, I thought I had finally moved on but obviously, less completely than I’d hoped.
Carly Pifer is a writer based in Brooklyn.