Mean girls never grow up. They just get new screen names. That’s where the problem begins.
I was bullied at school. Mercilessly. Before Heathers and the “Plastics,” before books and studies about girls who bully, before it was a recognizable trend, there was me, isolated and alone in my all-girls Catholic school, bullied every day.
The reasons why I was bullied are numerous. I was a smart girl, and intellectual geeks are always targets. I was also the tallest girl in my class, and my gawkiness was made worse by a uniform and saddle shoes.
I came from a dysfunctional home, so my social skills were sketchy.
My family was poor, so I was regularly called out for unpaid tuition in front of the entire class. At events where we wore regular clothes instead of uniforms, my classmates were attired in chic little Villager and Lady Bug miniskirts. I was wearing clothes my mother had made or things she had bought at the thrift shop. Rickrack was almost always involved.
If you’re bullied in childhood, it can lead to a lack of self-esteem. But even if you grow up to become popular and successful, those mean-girl taunts remain in the back of your head, echoing into your adult life.
Lesbian life is full of mean girls. We’ve all run into them. They’re in the bars, in the activist groups, on the email lists. Some have even been our titular leaders. They haunt our community with their rumor-mongering and nasty asides.
My school was claustrophobically small, just like the lesbian community so often is, even in big cities like my own. There was nowhere to hide from the hierarchy of cliques.
The lesbian community can be the same way. As vast as it can appear when you first come out and don’t know how to navigate the terrain, it can suddenly seem like a crowded elevator stalled between floors when you break up with someone or leave a particular group.
A few months ago, a story made all the news outlets about a young girl who committed suicide after being bullied mercilessly online. It was a tragic story and made me think about the new trend in bullying: hit and run on the Internet, where anyone can post anything about another person, and the victim has no recourse.
Megan Meier was only 13 years old when she hanged herself in her bedroom closet after being bullied online. The girl thought she was being bullied by a boy she met on MySpace. It turned out the “boy” was the creation of a former friend’s mother and this woman was the real bully.
Mean girls never stop being mean girls, even when they grow up.
Meier’s case is perhaps extreme. But many girls are bullied online and just suffer through it, afraid to tell anyone for fear the bullying will get worse.
This is the Internet Age, and everyone has a cyber life in addition to their daily offline life. Adolescence is primed for bullying, but so is the Internet.
I’ve been involved with online groups over the years—some political, some queer. I discovered in my cyber life that mean girls never grow up—they just get new screen names.
One of the problems I had at school was that I couldn’t mislead or conceal. I was only ever good at being myself. I never did develop that trait of dissembling. As a consequence, I am the same in real life as I am online.
But that’s not the case for many people in cyberspace. As Meier found out all too tragically, mean girls haunt the cyber world, trolling for victims on whom to vent their prodigious spleen.
The difference between cyberspace and the real world is that in the real world you can’t say or do anything you want without consequences.
But online, anything goes. You can use vile language, lie about someone, invent new identities, steal others’, or trash a life and just move on.
I found this out firsthand when a lesbian email list I had belonged to for almost a decade let its mean girls take over. It began with an argument over politics, but then it escalated into something more sinister. I began receiving nasty off-line messages from a few members of the group. These were startling and hurtful, and I requested that the harassment stop. It didn’t, so I just deleted the mean girls’ emails.
Then there was a shocking twist: The woman who started the group ousted me. She sent a letter to the group saying they were not “allowed” to talk to me about why she did so.
The years of bullying came back in a tsunami, knocking me flat. It was as if I were back in that schoolyard all over again. It was a terrible feeling.
My story has a much happier ending than the Meier one. Many of the group’s members left in solidarity with me and I started a new group, which has none of the tensions of the old one.
But for several weeks after my expulsion, I was in the tortured place of the victim with no recourse. In real life, I could have sued the list maven for the things she said about me—lie upon lie fed to her by the women who had been bullying me for months. In real life, I would have been able to face my accusers and ask for evidence and, when none was presented, been vindicated.
But the terror of online bullying is that there is no redress, no way out for the victims. And when those victims are young and resourceless, the results can be tragic.
I saw myself in Megan Meier, because I was her, many years ago. I attempted suicide as a kid; the bullying was that harrowing for me. I spent years cutting my arms with razor blades in an effort to release the pain.
Then, magically, I became an adult and life was under my control. I survived.
Mean girls proliferate in all walks of life. They cut their vicious little teeth on childhood pariahs and then move on to bigger targets. Whenever I read a column by Maureen Dowd on Hillary Clinton, for example, I imagine she was a mean girl pushing and shoving her way through the schoolyard.
As adult women, we often equate viciousness with strength, but they are not the same thing. Being on the receiving end of a mean girl’s poisonous pen or whiplash tongue can end tragically, as it did for Megan Meier.
We need to rein in the mean girls in our own communities and never let them gain the advantage or create more victims. Mean girls give all women a bad name and can damage impressionable young girls—sometimes, as with Megan Meier, beyond repair.