I used to not be very good at choosing my friends. (Understatement of the year, right there.) I distinctly remember an incident in my sixth grade art class, where we paired up to draw portraits of each other. I paired up with my best friend, and started working on her portrait as she worked on mine. I looked up because suddenly she started pounding her marker on the page, making a funny noise, and asked her what she was doing.
“I’m drawing all your pimples, of course! Next, I’m going to start on your unibrow.”
I remember my jaw dropping and face flushing with shame, having absolutely no idea what to say. And unfortunately, incidents like this were entirely not rare for a lot of my middle school & high school existence; I seemed to near-universally attract friends who, while nice some of the time, were downright abusive at least half the time. Unsurprisingly, this seriously screwed with my own self-image, which made me think I was worthless, which kept me putting up with their abuse instead of telling them to fuck off. (Familiar cycle? Anyone?) I was probably 18 or 19 before I had mostly recovered my sense of self-esteem, despite the fact that I stopped hanging out with those people at 15-16.
As women, we’re socialized to be shitty to each other. And to expect shittiness from each other. Everyone knows that teenage girls (or, of course, women in general, but especially teenagers) are just catty, prone to betrayal, and drama magnets. That’s just the way things go, right? No changing it!
There is this ideal version of “close as sisters” female friends, that we’re all supposed to strive for, that’s displayed everywhere in the media as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But then, we also have “frenemies” – a concept, almost exclusively female, that didn’t even exist when I was a kid/teenager (and thank heavens, because I certainly didn’t need anyone even remotely normalizing the behavior of my “friends”, since I was already trying hard enough to do it myself). How can we trust each other if we’re constantly waiting for a catty remark or some kind of backstabbing to occur?
For a while, my way of dealing with it was to just not be friends with women. I told myself I’d rather hang out with guys, because they weren’t going to betray me. (Shocker: it turns out guys are just as capable of being catty as the ladies are! Who knew.) When I began to read more about feminism and started to think critically about our culture as a whole, and the messages our culture sends us, that helped – looking at the way women’s relationships with each other are portrayed in the media does wonders for explaining some of the things I experienced.
And then, of course, there’s looking back at an adult at things that I didn’t fully understand as a child. My “friends” in particular, who were so cruel, almost universally had problems at home, to varying degrees that I couldn’t really understand as a 12-13 year old who came from a stable, happy family. Does this excuse their behavior? No. But I can forgive them for being cruel teenagers while acknowledging the damage they did to me at the same time. Those two things don’t contradict each other. And I can certainly see how a young person, not taught any healthy coping mechanisms for anger (dealing well with anger is not something our culture addresses – you may have noticed), frustrated with other areas of their life, would turn to taking out their anger on someone else in a way that, though not really encouraged, is generally considered socially acceptable.
The toughest part is that I have no easy answers for how to stop this. How do you break any cycle once it’s going?
The conclusion I’ve come to is that the only real participation we can have in stopping the cycle is simply refusing to participate. Don’t tell the girls you know that other girls are mean and not to be trusted. (Which sounds really basic, but I overhear this all the time.) Don’t be catty or a “frenemy” yourself. Help people – including yourself – understand how to deal with things like frustration and anger in a healthy way, without taking it out on anyone else.
And…simple though it may be, that’s all I’ve got. It seems tiny, but if we all aim for that, maybe we can make a difference. How do you refuse to participate in the cycle of girl-hate?