28 August 2006
Mean Girls Are Everywhere
by Serena Mackesy
I went to a girls' school, and while violence wasn't much of a problem, there was an awful lot of bullying. Bitchiness, ostracizing, labeling, public humiliation, hazing, the habitual theft of people's belongings; and that's just what I experienced personally on my first day. I know, I know, standard girl-bullying tactics. But the difference, in my school, was that the vast majority of this behavior was carried out not by the girls, but by the staff.
Sixty percent of boys who were named as bullies in grades 6 - 9 have at least one court conviction by age 24, and bullies continue to show higher levels of serious criminal and abusive behavior than their peers throughout adulthood. What I learnt in my first few months of school was that female bullies are no different from their male counterparts. Bullying is something that some people never grow out of. In the case of my teachers, there was a pool of them, presumably all interviewed and employed by a central individual with the same stunted maturity problems, but the fact is this: Mean Girls Are Everywhere.
Female bullying is something that has only recently become widely recognized, though countless victims and former victims such as Helen Green (recently awarded $1.5 million in the UK courts after being subjected to a concerted campaign of "mobbing" and "stonewalling" by her (female) colleagues in the legal department at Deutsche Bank) could have furnished ample anecdotal evidence that it did. The denial of female bullying is a strange hangover of the "ladies only glow" attitude that was rife in our historical past. Like Queen Victoria refusing to believe that lesbianism could exist.
It's really only in the last 20 years that the definition of bullying has expanded to include stuff other than the sort of overt and thuggish acting-out typified by the male of the species. But even this expanded definition is limited by identifying domineering bitchery as being the exclusive preserve of privileged, white, middle-class girls, and therefore a sociological rather than gender phenomenon. This is most assuredly not the case.
A recent study at the University of Iowa, conducted exclusively among subjects from low-income African-American, Latina, white and mixed-race families in Sacramento, California, shows explicitly that the same vicious tactics - gossip, social expulsion, making fun, and nonverbal tactics such as pointing and eye-rolling - are endemic among girls right across the board. This is all just a wee bit Department of the Bleeding Obvious, but what is interesting, though, is that these tactics have finally been identified as the building-blocks of bullying rather than just girls-will-be-girls bitchiness. Because the fact is - while teenage girls en masse are vile and vicious creatures as they learn the skills to negotiate the labyrinth that is social and hierarchical interaction - bullying of this sort can have a lifelong effect on the victim. For my own part, I had my own personal psychotic stalker-bully-teacher who made it her personal business to make my life unbearable for three long years. I can date my first depressive episode back to the onset of her attentions and am certain that my lifelong struggles with the condition are related at least in part to the experience.
But the thing about bullying is that it's not just an experience of the moment. It can, and does, leave a permanent mark, both on bully and victim. Many bullying victims fail to thrive in adulthood: they distrust relationships, are fearful, experience isolation and have difficulties standing up for themselves. A disproportionate number of bullying victims drop out of school before their abilities alone would have dictated. Some manage to create ways to salvage their sense of self-respect, often through academic achievement. There's a large chicken-and-egg question hovering over why so many academic kids also experience, or have experienced, bullying - but childhood bullying, largely, predicates some level of blight on the futures of those involved.
Interestingly - comfortingly, some might say - there's a lot of evidence that suggests that, long-term, bullying has extremely negative effects on the lives of the bullies themselves. As I mentioned earlier, male bullies are far more likely to have criminal convictions than their peers. They also commit more driving offences. Have more court convictions generally. Be more prone to alcoholism. Exhibit higher levels of antisocial personality disorder. Make more use of mental health services. And evidence also suggests that they become, over time, increasingly isolated by their peers. Because, though in adolescence a bully can dominate and manipulate the schoolyard, and even command a scared sort of popularity, if they get stuck - as a high proportion do - in the adolescent state, they will be left behind. And one of the great things about adulthood is that you have choices over where you go and who you mix with that were never afforded by the closed, limiting world of school. And one of the major choices that a well-adjusted adult will make is not to spend time in the company of people they have realized, they don't actually like.
Sources for understanding and counteracting bullying:
A really interesting overview in Psychology Today.
Bullying action campaigner and trainer Stan Davis's web site is an excellent resource for schools and other institutions and has an interesting article on bullying by teaching staff.
Bully OnLine is a resource centre for victims and those concerned about bullying, both in childhood and adult situations, including legal advice and an action forum on workplace bullying.
The rather unfortunately named Workplace Bullying Institute has stats, studies and services.
UK charity Childline's resource centre includes child-friendly coping strategies.