When it was first published in 2002, ''Odd Girl Out'' set off a debate on the culture of bullying and the 'hidden aggression of girls.' In a newly revised and updated edition, author Rachel Simmons revisits the topic in a digital world where is not uncommon for a girl to say, “I don’t exist if I’m not on Facebook.”
When it was first published, "Odd Girl Out" lit a fuse in the culture, setting off a passionate public dialogue about girls and bullying. Parents and girls who had struggled without recognition suddenly gained a platform, language, and community. Now, this thing that had lived in the shadows had come to light.
Although I wrote the book as a journalist telling a story, I ended up becoming part of the story itself. "Odd Girl Out"’s publication launched me on a book tour that never quite came to an end. I began working with schools, families, and youth professionals to fight the bullying epidemic. I became a classroom teacher and cofounded the Girls Leadership Institute, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls, schools, and families skills for healthy relationships. I wrote two more books: "Odd Girl Speaks Out," a collection of girls’ writing about bullying and friendship, and "The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence."
When I first wrote "Odd Girl Out", there was no texting, no Facebook, no cell phone cameras, no video chats. Today, girl bullying has gone digital. Cell phones and computers have become a new kind of bathroom wall, giving users the ability to destroy relationships and reputations with a few clicks. Social media has been a game changer, transforming the landscape of girl bullying.
Technology has also altered girls’ everyday relationships, indeed girls’ very sense of self. It is not uncommon for a girl to say, “I don’t exist if I’m not on Facebook.” Many girls sleep with their cell phones on their chests, waiting for them to vibrate with news in the night. They treat their cell phones like extensions of their bodies and are inconsolable if they lose access. In 2010, the average teen texted three thousand times per month.
There is now a seamless integration between girls’ virtual and real lives, and this new era of BFF 2.0 has brought both blessing and curse. On the one hand, cell phones and social networking sites like Facebook allow girls to connect in exhilarating new ways. On the other hand, Facebook makes many girls anxious, jealous, and even paranoid about their friendships. Girls have instant access to photographs of parties they were excluded from, or conversations they were not invited to join. Cell phones are posing thorny new questions about friendship, such as: Is my friend mad at me if I text her and she doesn’t reply? Why is she texting while I’m talking to her?
Mean girls sell
This new edition guides readers through the sprawling world girls now inhabit online. In two new chapters, I explain the ins and outs of cyberbullying. I also explore the more common cyberdrama, or day-to-day conflicts and confusion that social media can ignite. I share concrete advice on how to guide girls through the new challenges they are facing.
Still other changes have evolved within the hidden culture of girls’ aggression. As the issue of girl bullying has risen to new prominence, it has attracted a more troubling kind of attention. Reality television show producers discovered that mean girls sell, and they churned out scores of programs featuring breathtakingly aggressive females.
These programs rewarded their stars with book deals, product lines, and other spoils of celebrity—and gained a rapt teen following. The scramble to commodify the mean girl trickled down to even the youngest consumers: children’s television programming began to highlight an array of snarky, sarcastic girl characters. As a result, girls now observe ten times the amount of relational aggression on television that they see in real life. In an analysis of television programs, researchers found that the meanest female characters on television were frequently rewarded for their behavior.
Invariably, these changes in the culture inflect girls’ relationships. With more aggression to absorb, there is more to mimic. When aggression is sold as entertainment or an accessory to friendship, it is harder to define the behavior as problematic. Girls perceive an incentive to claim power through aggression. More than ever before, girls face pressure to be and act and look in ways that undermine their healthy development.
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In my travels over the last ten years, there is one comment that I hear almost everywhere: girl bullying is not only meaner; it’s younger. While three-year-old girls have always used relational aggression (the use of friendship as a weapon) to control their peers, today’s girls seem to reach developmental milestones sooner. Namecalling, exclusion, and popularity wars start as early as kindergarten. It is unclear if girls are mimicking behavior they do not really understand, or if we are now noticing what was there all along. Still, the age creep of girl bullying, even if it has yet to be backed up by research, is difficult to ignore. Parents cannot wait until their girls are in elementary school to educate themselves and their daughters about aggression and bullying.
Not going away
Not all the changes of the last decade are troubling. There has been remarkable social change. The number of researchers studying girls’ aggression has skyrocketed. Scores of studies have been completed and published, providing the first critical mass of research on girls’ psychological aggression. Today, it is harder to argue that the cruelty of girls is a trivial phase, rite of passage, or “girls being girls.” Just a few years ago, the term “relational aggression” was largely unknown. Now, training to understand and intervene in girls’ aggression is increasingly common in school districts across the country.
State and federal governments are also taking notice. By early 2011, twenty states had passed legislation requiring schools to create anti-bullying policy (my father, a state legislator, is the primary sponsor of Maryland’s Safe Schools Reporting Act). The federal government launched Stop Bullying Now, a wide-ranging, multi-agency initiative to reduce bullying in schools. And news media is also taking notice: after several tormented children and teens committed suicide, the plight of bullied youth and their families became breaking news. National news programs like NBC’s Today and CNN’s American Morning led with stories of peer assault, cybercruelty, and bullying among teens. The unwelcome attention this exposure brought to school communities put others on notice: crises that were once private community matters could wind up leading a national newscast. The issue’s new prominence has inspired more parent advocacy and increased vigilance among school administrators.
There have also been some surprises along the way. I have noticed increasing numbers of boys and their parents gathering in the audience of my talks. After student assemblies, boys wait in line along with girls to ask me questions. They share stories of being targeted by a class’s “mean girls,” or admit to “acting like mean girls” themselves. Research confirms a shrinking gender gap in behaviors like relational aggression, especially by the time boys reach middle school. These behaviors are clearly not owned by girls, and adolescent boys are telling researchers that relational and social aggression—actions that damage friendship and reputation—concern them more than physical intimidation.
More in books
It is unclear if the incidence of these behaviors is higher today, or if we now have a language to name what is happening. Researchers who once asked boys only about physical violence are now reframing their questions. Although it is true that girls disproportionately engage in some of these behaviors, it is also surely time for boys to have their say. In the meantime, this book may be written about girls, but many of its stories and strategies apply to boys and girls alike.
Despite the extraordinary changes of the last decade, girl bullying looks a lot like it always did, and it is far from over. Every day, girls eat lunch in bathroom stalls because they are too afraid to sit alone in the cafeteria. They sit in class, anxious and panicked, obsessively wondering who will play with them at recess. They open their cell phones to screens blinking with venom. They also struggle to confront toxic friends and speak their truths. As ever, girls need our help and support.
By now, I have spoken to tens of thousands of people. Many enjoy my advice, but most want to hear stories. They are curious about the other parents and girls I have met: How did they feel? What choices did they face? How did they overcome their struggle? The hidden culture of aggression in girls can be a hurtful, lonely place. But it is in others’ stories that we can hear and see ourselves. We know we are not alone. We know, too, that there is hope. We know it will not always feel the way it does right now.
In this new edition of "Odd Girl Out," I am proud to share all that I have learned with you. The stories, including yours, must continue to be told.
Excerpted from "ODD GIRL OUT," Revised and Updated, © 2011 by Rachel Simmons. Reproduced with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive