THE SOUND OF A GIRL'S VOICE
I was worried about Emma. She'd been at my girls' leadership camp for three days and had barely spoken. She was twelve, with dark hair and soft, downcast eyes. Even though she sat with the other girls at meals, I couldn't tell if she was really making friends. She was short and quiet and easily invisible.
One afternoon, I led a lively discussion about bullying among girls. A few hours later, after swimming, there was a knock at my door. It was Emma. Delighted, I started to welcome her, and before I could finish my sentence she was telling me a story, something she had kept so secret she was afraid that even to greet me might change her mind.
It was Valentine's Day in fifth grade, and Emma had driven her best friends crazy with her crush on Zack. She hoped he knew how she felt, prayed for a card from him, doodled his name inside her notebook.
It was also the day after her best friend sat their clique in a circle at lunchtime and gave them each a grade out of one hundred. It was a weekly ritual that Emma anticipated with a mixture of dread and hope. Each time, she hoped she would make it out of the sixties and into C range. Yesterday, she'd gotten a fifty-nine, a point below passing.
Today, when she went to her locker during social studies, the curling, shiny red paper was there, protruding out of the locker door. Slowly, she opened the card. "Dear Emma," it read, "I love the way your fat spills over your jeans when you wear those tight shirts. Will you be my valentine? Love, Zack."
She looked out my window, then back at me.
"I can't stop thinking of that image, over and over again," she told me. Emma had been making herself throw up ever since.
I began consoling her frantically, but she only nodded. I wasn't entirely sure she could hear me. By dinner, I knew it didn't matter. Emma was talking and laughing with the other seventh grade girls. The next day, she began raising her hand in discussions. When it was time for the girls to run their own discussions, Emma convinced her group to return to the topic of girl bullying. She served as the moderator. Then, standing before more than thirty people, Emma told the other girls exactly what had happened to her.
To write Odd Girl Out, I met with hundreds of girls in groups. We'd sit on the floor in a circle, cross-legged and munching snacks. I figured girls would be more comfortable talking together about bullying, meanness, and conflict. I thought they talked about it all the time.
I was wrong. When I asked them questions about direct confrontation, there was silence. A hand crept into the air, and a girl confided her fear of losing friends. Another confessed she might say something she didn't mean. The others stared at her, hesitated, then raised their hands and started talking. Whispers skittered through the room.
It soon became clear that most girls thought they were the only ones afraid of losing friends, the only ones who felt like their world might end if they did, the only ones with secrets about being bullies and victims, with knots in their stomachs as they entered the cafeteria and wondered where to sit.
As their voices grew more confident, their relief was palpable. They hadn't talked about this at all, and it thrilled them to realize they weren't alone. Sitting with the girls, watching them watch each other, was one of the most exciting parts of the Odd Girl Out project.
I invited young writers to tell their stories of bullying and friendship because I wanted girls to talk directly to each other about the hidden culture of aggression. I wanted to give every girl a chance to be a part of those discussion circles.
In Odd Girl Out, I explored how our culture affects the ways girls show their anger. Through powerful messages sent by parents, teachers, friends, and the media, girls learn that anger will not be tolerated; that they must sit quietly and behave like perfect little angels; that they cannot be ugly to anyone; and that breaking any of these rules will bring swift, severe punishment.
But much as girls try, bad feelings can't be wished or forced away. As a result, many girls hide their anger, using body language (the silent treatment), relationships (ganging up and threatening not to be friends with someone), and indirect aggression (rumors, gossip, the Internet) to express their true feelings. Others stifle their feelings, becoming depressed, cutting themselves, or developing eating disorders.
When girls are mean to each other, most people shrug it off. Determined to keep its girls "sugar and spice and everything nice," society turns a blind eye to girls' aggression. "Girls will be girls," they say. Or, they cluck, "It's a phase all girls go through."
As a result, most girls suffer alone. Their situations aren't addressed, their pain is private, and their problems hidden. Now, that's changing. We're starting to think about what girls do as "aggression," not just a "rite of passage." Odd Girl Out and Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabees began building a public consciousness of what it means to be hurt in social, relational, or indirect ways.
We must continue that process, this time in girls' voices. Girls need to tell their own stories, to each other and to the world. This book is intended not only to help girls but also to be a powerful declaration, a kind of petition signed by girls.
My strongest memory of being bullied as a third grader was the feeling that no one had ever gone through what I had. If that was true, then it also was true that I was a loser of epic proportions, and that what happened was clearly my fault. Those feelings of responsibility marked me deeply. They had a huge impact on my self-esteem. I know I ended up writing Odd Girl Out because of them.
But I hadn't just been a victim. I did something terrible to a close friend when I was fourteen. As the years passed, I buried the memory deep inside my mind. I lied to myself and others about who I was, convinced I had never been anything but nice. Later in the book, I'll explore how hiding a real, human part of my personality damaged my ability to have healthy conflicts with my friends and nearly denied Anne the dignity of an apology.
When you realize the confusion, panic, pain, hurt, and anger you experienced is something that millions of other girls have gone through, it changes things. First of all, it's a lot harder to blame yourself as a victim. Second, when you understand your situation and see it as something relatively common, it gives you a context for your pain, not to mention some perspective. Finally, if you were a bully, understanding that aggression is normal can help you take responsibility for your actions and grow as a person in significant ways.
Telling her story freed Emma from silence and shame. It gave her back some of the joys of girlhood that had been taken from her. I know I can't erase the searing loneliness of being an odd girl out. Yet I hope this book will give girls a sense of community, an opportunity to share strategies and solace, and most of all, the knowledge that even the worst kind of heartbreak improves with time.
What Girls Do
A shake of the head, a roll of the eyes
The rumors the lies
They no longer play on your pride
But rip you up inside
This is what girls do
This is what they say
It is like this every day
The mothers reply
But that is a lie
Walking in the hall
Taking in it all
All alone no one home
Kids shouting, kids staring
All this torture I'm bearing
No one caring
Growing from the Pain
Grammar school is where aggression all began for me. I went to a little Catholic private school, in a little "dandy"...