When bullies grow up, who do they become? The Revenge of the Nerds theory is that they peak in high school, or even middle school, and then surrender power to the more socially awkward but smarter kids whose lives they made miserable. Another is that popular kids maintain their edge—they even make more money when they grow up. In Emily Bazelon’s new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, she spent time with a variety of kids who bully and tried to sort out, in the moment, what motivated them. In that sprit, we at Slate want to ask adult women to look back at their past mean girl selves, so we can all understand this phenomenon better with the benefit of grown-up hindsight.
Readers, we want to hear from you! We invite you to submit your mean girl (and boy) confessions to firstname.lastname@example.org and write “bully” in the subject line. (Please check out our submission guidelines.) We will choose the best essays and run them on the blog.
I’m only in touch with a couple of my friends from middle school. And even so, barely. But we used to call ourselves the “Magnificent Seven,” and promised we’d be friends forever. At least that’s what our one-page ad in the yearbook claimed, with ridiculous photos of us and our overplucked eyebrows, braces, and absurd bangs as proof of our supposed magnificence. We each demanded an exorbitant sum of money from our parents for the page, which in retrospect seems particularly demented given that we were already plastered throughout the entire book, especially in the “Class Favorites” section: “Best Hair,” “Most Likely To Succeed,” “Most Outgoing.” Did I mention we were in yearbook class in and charge of “counting” the votes?
At a small K-8 school in a Southern California city of sprawling ocean views and houses on the hills, the odds were against the homely, poor, or kids otherwise deemed uncool. The hierarchy of popularity was largely defined by family name (how cool your older sister was and who your mother chatted on the phone with in the afternoon). I walked a strange line, living just on the outside of town, more beach shack than country club. And my mother worked while my friends’ mothers played tennis together. My parents were divorced, badly, which meant that when my mother traveled for business, I got to stay at one of my wealthy friend’s homes and pretend I belonged there.
Cliques started to solidify in the sixth grade, and at first I didn’t fare so well. The older, popular girls bullied me, likely because I required an underwire bra and most of them didn’t. But I worked my way up by getting in with the older boys. Although the attention I got from them wasn’t necessarily positive, it was certainly noticed by their girlfriends, who, by being mean to me, trained me in the art of teen cruelty. By eighth grade I was finally free of my own bullies, and so I became one. “Flat-chested” and “duck-faced” were my limp, go-to insults reserved especially for when girls attracted the attention of boys I considered mine.
For a while, I operated in the social orbit just outside of the Magnificents’ closed circle, spending most of my time with one or two other girls, not in a group per se, but just, you know, as friends. I loved hanging out with Raven and felt comfortable with her family. Her mother was young, single, and beautiful, and she liked having me over for dinner. Raven was mature and genuine in a way other girls weren’t at that age. I remember her telling me, “You are the only fifth grader to have cheek bones, like ever,” and it feeling like just a nice compliment from a friend, no power play attached. With Raven, I almost always felt good.
Unfortunately, I ditched her and my other friends like her when I drifted into the cool clique, by way of my popular boyfriend, who everyone liked and would steal from me shortly. I wouldn’t say I was a social climber, exactly, but I remember wanting to have more friends—and liking the attention I got from the top dogs. By the end of eighth grade, I was participating in the snickering behind Raven’s back about her then very black hair and very pale skin. We barely made eye contact when we passed each other in the hallway.
The seven of us Magnificents who had forged an alliance in shared cruelty made fun of anyone and everyone. Even when my gut told me what I was doing was wrong, I participated and encouraged the others. (I’m sure some of their guts told them the same, but we all fed off of one another.) While other kids got elaborate in their torture, I preferred the clean cut. One of my strongest memories is how I reacted when a boy I liked refused to reciprocate my weak, albeit meaningful, advances. Instead of bowing out and saving some face, I chose to create a moniker for him, simple yet effective, and spread it around the school. It was “Gay.”
This was 1999, and I didn’t know anyone who was gay, but I knew it was a thing that boys my age didn’t want to be. It was the perfect shaming device, and I inserted it in place of this kid’s name in conversation with classmates and, of course, right to his face. It caught on like wildfire. (I eventually did apologize for this, and now of course I understand why he didn’t like me back then. Who could blame him?)