I Was a Mean Girl
When I read about bullying today, I realize: Hmm, I did that.
Teenage girl with attitude.
Photo by Dan Brownsword/Gallery Stock
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 spirit, 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 email@example.com 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 and in 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 friends' 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?)
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.