Mean Girls

“Women are such catty bitches!” I said to my friend, completely exasperated. She laughed and I laughed, and we both understood — there is no animosity between you and I, but get a group of females together in any greater number, and shit just hits the fan.

Why can’t we all just get along?

I am not, nor have I ever been, especially popular. I don’t have a raving social life. I am very good at maintaining close friendships, but awkward when in a group. I’ve never been a member of a clique, though it wasn’t for lack of trying in my adolescent years. There was a time when I so desperately wanted to fit in. Typically, people join groups that align with their personal interests, finding kindred spirits among the other members, but I’ve never had success in that way. Maybe I was an ASL student, a writer, a pagan — but whenever I tried to assimilate into an established group of those individuals, I still found myself feeling like an outsider.

Instead, I excelled at close, personal ties with other outsiders. Maybe we’re weird, but at least we can be weird together, we would say. I felt I had my niche. If I couldn’t be popular, at least I knew who my real friends were. I waited patiently for college and for my grown-up life to start. Adulthood, they promised, would be different.

They lied.

It has been ten years since high school, but I still feel like I’m surrounded by mean girls. Girls who view each other as competition, rather than colleagues; potential threats rather than potential sisters. Contrary to what our Mommas told us, it doesn’t always get better — bullying and social aggression is still prevalent throughout adulthood. To add insult to injury, bullying in adulthood is most commonly seen in females against other females. WAY TO GO GIRLS! While we were talking about women’s rights and equal treatment, we forgot to confront the idea that internalized hatred influences how we treat each other.

One might think that those same mean girls from school just grew up and continued to be mean, but studies suggest that this isn’t necessarily the case. Often times, it is the former victim of the schoolyard bully who grows up to utilize relational aggression in order to exert power over her peers. Prolonged feelings of powerlessness awaken the primal need to establish one’s self as an aggressor in order to regain power and control. Perhaps this is one of the underlying reasons that adult women are observed to indulge in more bullying behavior than men. (Because if anybody knows what prolonged loss of self-agency feels like, it us. Right ladies?)

It is discouraging to find that childhood torment can follow you into adulthood. After all, shouldn’t we have grown out of this juvenile behavior? Perhaps not, as evolutionary psychologists have long since established that bullying behaviors can be biologically advantageous, despite the fact that they are also socially damaging to the community. We know that bullying is ubiquitous among all cultures on earth, and while the behaviors of our ancestors are shrouded by the passing of time, we can easily observe bullying behaviors in other non-human primates. It seems that we are hard-wired to be suspicious and untrustworthy of any perceived threats to our resources, and unfortunately, our primal instincts aren’t equipped to differentiate between friend or foe. It’s just part of the human condition.

Our drive to dominate one another is inborn and subconscious, but from a moral standpoint, our society has pretty much unanimously agreed that bullying, ostracism, and engaging in social hierarchies is wrong. Then why do we continue to engage in these behaviors? In some cases, it is because the group dynamic favors the action. In having developed a sense of morality, human beings as individuals are able to justify their most primal behaviors as necessary to ensure the safety or success of the group as a whole. As psychologist Christoper Boehm points out, “we learned to gang up not just against our superiors but against individuals who we feel are so deviant that they deserve to be treated as outsiders.” Even though we know that different isn’t bad, our minds trick us into rationalizing our prejudices so we can act on them, guilt free.

It’s awful, though, isn’t it? All right, so bullying goes way back, and it once paid off in former contexts, and it is a self-propagating social disease, causing it’s victims to become aggressors themselves — but, really, can’t we just agree to stamp out that impulsive lizard-brain bullshit and be good? Perhaps, but it will take more than an after-school special to drive this one home. In media, the female aggressor, or the Iron Lady, is a trope that is highly celebrated and played out in film, television, and books. Movies like the Devil Wears Prada indicate that in order to be a successful business woman, one must be manipulative and conniving, ready to sacrifice relationships toward the end goal of dominating the workplace hierarchy. Does this mean that sisterhood is dead? Not necessarily. But the misconception of “assertiveness” being achieved through “bitchyness” ought to be shown the door.

All signs point toward mindfulness as the key to solving unnecessary aggression. We must all rely on our higher functioning minds to lead us with compassion and morality when the primal need to aggressively assert oneself arises. We must also, as a society, come to the agreement that bullying behavior isn’t acceptable, neither in childhood nor in adulthood. The current movement toward making our schools and other learning institutions “Bully-Free Zones” is a start, but we also need to face the truth about adult aggressors. Bullying is not a uniquely adolescent problem and it needs to be addressed accordingly. According to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, thirty-five percent of adults report being bullied in the workplace. Such a hostile environment increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and is naturally counterproductive to the success of the group. And yet it continues, ultimately because we allow it to.

I’m one of those idealistic freaks who would like to remake the world in her image (perhaps this is another reason why I’ve always been a bit unpopular…). For as long as I can remember, my relationships with people have been contingent on the “you either really like me, or you really don’t” principle, but I, just like most people, would prefer to be taken as I am and judged on my merits rather than my faults. (Or better yet, not judged at all.) In aiming to treat other people how I want to be treated (your Momma really did have that right), I have a fairly laissez faire attitude with people — you are what you are, and that’s fine by me. I will take you as you come.

Granted, you can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time. You aren’t going to be friends with everyone you meet, but you can sure as hell make up your mind to be civil. And if you’re one of those people who have engaged in divisive, bullying behavior — particularly if you’re a women waging social war on other women — it needs to stop. See the bigger picture: how can we change the things that are wrong with the world, if we continue to be a part of the problem?

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