Adolescent girls tend to form exclusive groups called cliques, complete with leaders and specific codes of behavior regarding what is acceptable. A given middle or high school may include many cliques, each with its own distinct subculture. For example, when members greet each other, a specific phrase (as in “Wha’s up?” or “Yo”), gesture, and voice inflection may be required. Often, there are certain expectations regarding clothes and physical appearance; perhaps members all ascribe to multiple ear piercings, streak their hair, sport the same style bracelet, or worship thinness.
When a girl aspires to join a particular clique, her day-to-day progress (or perceived lack of progress) toward that goal are of dire importance to her; any remark, however casual, from a popular clique member can either make her day or consign her to the doldrums. However, life inside a clique is not as rosy as wannabe members assume; although these groups may offer a sense of belonging, they sometimes exert intense pressure to conform and become hotbeds of subtle or not-so-subtle aggression. A girl who is “in” one month can be “out” the next. Holly knows about that firsthand. A year ago, she developed anorexia shortly after a falling-out with her girlfriends. Now 13, she and her parents have kindly offered to tell their story.
“My daughter’s outgoing personality draws people to her,” states Jordan, Holly’s father. “She’s always been very popular, a leader among her classmates. Her seventh-grade teacher described her as an extraordinary girl not only because she is an enthusiastic learner and has a strong work ethic, but also because the other kids looked up to her. Never timid, she gets a great deal of satisfaction from her friendships.”
Holly describes how her social life took a turn for the worse: “It started as a little fight and blew up way out of proportion.
Melanie was my best friend in seventh grade, and there were four other girls in our group. In the winter, Melanie started feeling left out. And she was right; the others weren’t including her like they had in the past. She wanted to know why they were down on her, so she tried to talk about it with them, but they got mad at her for making a big deal about it. When they were mean to Melanie, I stood up for her, and then they turned against me as well. If I’d given in and taken their side in their fight with Melanie, they would have liked me again. But I never gave an inch. I’d pass them standing in their usual spot in the hallway, and they’d get closer together and sort of whisper. One of them, Christie, used to say, ‘Bitch,’ just loud enough for me to hear it. I tried to keep on walking, pretending that I didn’t care. But one day, I must have blushed or looked upset because I paused for a second. So Christie turned to me and said, ‘I was just joking around. Can’t you take it?’ I’d never been so embarrassed in my life.
“After a while, I stayed away from their hallway get- togethers.
But sometimes we’d all be in class and one of them would look over at me and mouth, ‘Bitch.’ I’d feel like mouthing that same name, or a worse one, back at her. But I didn’t because they just would’ve hated me more. It was hard to get away from their mean looks, especially when they rolled their eyes as if I was from another planet. Before all this started, I’d shared all their inside jokes. Now they had new ones. These girls had been friends with me since kindergarten. They knew which buttons to push to upset me. Mostly, they acted like I didn’t exist. It went on like that for months.”
The kind of bullying Holly experienced is all too common.
Mainstream American culture places girls in a bind regarding how to cope with anger and other emotions. Females tend to place special value on their friendships and go to great lengths to preserve them, sometimes at substantial personal cost. Resolving a dispute in a healthy way generally requires opposing parties to talk about their feelings. Yet many women have grown up unprepared for this. Raised to be nice at all times, girls typically avoid voicing anger face-to-face. Instead, they tend to express it quietly and indirectly. Like Christie, the girl who is annoyed at a friend may engage in name-calling, claiming to be kidding when she isn’t. Maybe she passes nasty notes in class, spreads rumors about her perceived rival, or stops talking to her, encouraging others in their social circle to do the same. Perhaps she finds safety in numbers. Recruiting peers as allies often affords her the opportunity to bully under the protective blanket of a group; if she’s one of many aggressors, no one is likely to blame her directly. In fact, with access to e-mail, girls can gang up on an opponent without saying a single word to her face.
“By sticking up for her best friend,” says Holly’s mother, Marianne,” Holly did what was strong and noble. It bothered me that she had to pay such a high price for being a true friend. She took the aggression of these girls hard, and I sympathized with how she felt. For the first time in her life, kids weren’t knocking the door down to be her friend. Ostracized from her group, she became withdrawn, slept much later than usual on weekends, and spent a lot of time moping. Another change was that she complained of headaches and stomachaches prior to her hip-hop ballet rehearsals. I wondered whether these were the result of social pressure.