By Vanessa Copeland
“On Wednesdays we wear pink.”
“She doesn’t even go here!”
I bet most of you reading this can immediately identify those quotes as coming from the popular movie Mean Girls. For the two of you who are unfamiliar with this film, or the Broadway Musical it inspired, it’s a comedy from the early 2000s which documents a girl who is new to high school and her run in with the popular girls known as “The Plastics”. This movie, while hilarious, is based on a very real phenomenon. And the harsh truth is real mean girls can be much crueler and have much less remorse. Another struggle with real life mean girls is they are not always so easily identified by a self-proclaimed nickname such as The Plastics. Sometimes mean girl behavior can come from someone you considered a close friend.
The mean girl phenomenon is a by-product of patriarchal pressures on young girls to be the prettiest, to find their worth in their appearance and in a man’s opinion. Couple these societal pressures with the agonizing time of just being a teen girl and you have the perfect recipe for same-sex bullying and torment; survival of the harshest. With the onset of social media, mean girls now have a new tool in which to gossip about, harass and slut-shame other girls. The unfortunate reality is that many adults do not see mean girl behavior as an issue. It is viewed as just part of being a teenage girl. However, many studies have shown that the effects of this type of behavior can be long-lasting and devastating, even for the mean girls themselves. I would not have considered myself a mean girl in school; however, I now realize that I partook in mean girl behaviors. There were a couple of girls with whom I exchanged many harsh words, name calling, gossiped about, etc. I cannot even remember how the ridiculous rivalry started. What I do remember is being unnecessarily cruel to them. It is something I have never been able to forgive myself for. I still feel ashamed of my behavior to this very day. It does serve as a reminder of the type of behavior I never want to exhibit again. Unfortunately, many girls do not outgrow this behavior and become adult mean girls.
While all of us grow older, not all of us grow up. Many times we don’t recognize mean girl behaviors because we tend to believe that type of thing only happens in middle school and high school. However, the harsh reality is that many schoolyard bullies grow into bullies in the work place and in their circle of friends. The same tricks they used in high school: gossip, exclusion, shaming, etc. are used to intimidate, ostracize and damage the reputation of their targets. Since we typically believe this type of behavior to be something that should have been left in our youth, many of us are ill equipped to deal with it.
Here are some helpful hints on actions you can take with the mean girl in your life.
Don’t blame yourself
The first thing to remember is that it’s not your fault. At times, adult bullying can be so subtle that we start to question ourselves. We start to buy into the bully’s portrayal of us or our work. Be confident that you did nothing to illicit this behavior. Even though it may be easier said than done, try to remember their behavior has nothing to do with who you are as a person/co-worker and everything to do with who they are.
Take the high road
Next, do not confront the person. This may go against advice from family and friends or even your base instinct. The simple truth is mean girl behavior is a systematic campaign to undermine your confidence and soil your reputation. Confronting the person will not cause them to change their behavior. It will only show them that they have succeeded. The best thing to do is surround yourself with those who build up your self-esteem, who are happy for your successes and who appreciate you for who you are.
Stand up for others
Also, remember to stand up for others. Once you have taken the power away from your tormenter, use your experience to help others free themselves from their bullies. Do not give into the diffusion of responsibility. When people do not act because others are present or for fear of repercussion, it only creates a more toxic environment that is ripe for bullying.
Break the cycle
Lastly, recognize your own mean girl behaviors and do better. Stop slut-shaming girls you don’t like. Stop excluding other women from office lunches. Be happy for others’ successes. Appreciate others’ values. We are never going to smash the patriarchy if we continue to be manipulated into bullying one another.