I’ve never been able to say the word ‘bully’ with a serious face. A bully, to me, is a scary, overgrown cub in a Berenstain Bears book. The softness of the word takes away from what it really means: a person (or several) who intimidates others with abusive language and sometimes even physical violence. The most common method seems innocuous enough but is very destructive – creating a space in which the targeted individual not only has to withstand a barrage of insults, but publicly, so that others will avoid them. I can’t call people who willfully isolate others in such a way, or use their physical strength to an abusive advantage, bullies. But the words that I feel would adequately describe them are too rude to use and this is, after all, an all-ages site.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t until recently that I realized I was bullied in 8th and 9th grade. I didn’t really see it as that at the time, because I saw the people trying to get me all harassed not only as idiots, but I’m pretty sure they were hoping to ascend the social ladder a notch or two by pushing me below. Which, frankly, if they were, was completely useless, seeing as I was as giant a nerd as I am now but it would be almost another decade before hipsteurism made that something to covet. Mostly I thought they were doing themselves more harm than me, because each time they tried to insult me or gang up on me, it was like they were shouting from the mountaintops “we are jerks, watch us at our foulest!”
It started in my 5th period science class. This kid Michael* sat in front of me, a bowl cut on his head and both growth spurt and voice change still distant in his future. One day before class started, he was being annoying in one way or another and I asked him to stop whatever he was doing. To be fair, I was probably obnoxious about it, seeing as I was a newly minted 13 year old and it does kind of come with the territory. Michael got defensive, overdid his comeback, and landed on calling me a cow. It quickly spread amongst a certain set of guys in the class, and before I knew it, I was Julia Moolia (Julia Moolia Gulia once the Wedding Singer came out).
At the time I was just annoyed. It wasn’t until after college, when I read Queen Bees and Wannabes, that I realized what it means to call a girl who develops early a cow. Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t make the connection at the time. What I didn’t think about until recently is the fact that half a dozen guys ganged up on me, a girl, and made their attempts at humiliating me their primary form of entertainment, some into high school. This guy Andrew still tried to keep the joke going past tenth grade, when I had already transferred schools.
This is something I don’t hear about much but know happens: guys bullying girls. At an age when social acceptance is already crucial, for most girls that also means figuring out their sexuality and where they stand with guys. I transferred schools to an all-girl one (for different reasons), which was a great experience because the pandering to what the boys think was far less and there was much more freedom to just be intelligent, let alone expressive, and not spend math class retouching your eyeliner (I never did this but we all know half the class does if we’ve ever been in a co-ed room). There is already a problematic imbalance of gender relations in middle and high school. Just look up any article on the world “slut” (like this recent one from Jezebel). So the idea of a group of boys ganging up to tear down a girl using a part of her sexuality that she doesn’t even have control over – her anatomy – absolutely terrifies me.
The thought that it happened to me is frankly baffling, because I was so oblivious to it at the time. I was just annoyed by it, like a radio you can’t turn off. It was like once Michael had gotten the ball rolling, everyone who was waiting to have a target to throw their newly found adolescent angst at quickly joined up. And not like Angela Chase angst. Emotionally stunted angst that hailed Beavis and Butthead as role models instead of understanding the satire. But then spitballs started flying and even at 13 I knew I didn’t need anyone’s herpes stuck to the back of my head. It would get quiet and I would turn around to realize they were making plans for mysterious, clearly unpleasant-for-me, collaborations. I would take the bathroom pass and not come back until the bell had rung. I would take the late bus home to avoid them, or get off early and spend an hour at the drugstore.
But what about those girls who realize exactly what is happening? The girls who are not only avoiding the annoying or humiliating aspects of this kind of bullying, but who also fear their bodies being violated? I still marvel at the fact that while the whole of my science class was aware of what was going on and kids in my grade from other classes knew of me as Moolia quickly enough, our science teacher did nothing. On occasion he would tell the guys to settle down, but only in the context of quieting the whole class to begin teaching. This was apparently acceptable behavior. When this becomes acceptable behavior, it can spiral. I was lucky to get through just as the girl no one asked out (again, totally oblivious until years later when friends told me of guys who had gushed to them about their crushes on me, and yet none ever approached me).
I went to a fairly innocuous school. Guys would call each other ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ but I don’t remember anyone getting beaten for it. It makes me wonder about schools where students are driven to self-abuse or suicide by bullying because tolerance for slurs like ‘faggot’ enables those saying them to push the envelope. If pushing that envelope escalates on far too many occasions to physical abuse, then what happens to girls when guys gang up on them?
According to One In Four USA, one in five high school girls have experienced forced sex, otherwise known as rape. Most rapes and sexual assaults, however, are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. 13% of girls (and 9% of guys) reported being forced to do something sexual at school other than kissing, according to an AAUW (American Association of University Women) study. The same study also showed that a greater proportional number of girls react to bullying with negative affects ranging from becoming more self-conscious to grades dropping. My science grade probably would have suffered if the class had held more challenges than watching the Voyage of the Mimi beginning to end. The AAUS study also showed that one in four girls said they stayed home or cut class because of sexual harassment.**
We have seen an increased trend in bullying having such an effect on students recently, and my own experiences have made me wonder how many young women are victims. I wonder how many of them don’t even realize what they are going through, because it is socially acceptable for girls to expect evaluation and criticism from guys in middle and high school. While I consider myself lucky to have recognized that not everyone’s opinion of me is worth my concern, it does not mean that what happened was fine. Ultimately, Michael, Andrew, and the rest of those guys probably acted out of their own insecurities. Getting past insecurities, or at least realizing that the lip gloss on Caroline Kraft’s snaggletooth will not make you any smarter***, is a hard lesson for a lot of kids. It would be lovely if middle and high school communities would be open enough that fewer and fewer people felt the need to act out this way.
*I’m totally using real names. Mmmmmhm. At least I’m not using last names.
**Stats from CFChildren.org
***You guys, if you can’t rock the Mean Girls references, I can’t help you
Berenstain Bears cover photo from this source