by Lillian Mangeau
Lauren Parsekian, co-founder of the anti-bullying non-profit called Kind Campaign, does not look like the kind of girl who would get bullied. She’s tall and slender. Her long blonde hair could belong to a movie star. She’s perky without being annoying and smart without being a know-it-all. So listening to her tell how a group of friends turned on her in middle school and ostracized her for nearly two years is a little surreal.
It started with a rumor planted by a jealous friend at a birthday party in seventh grade. It turned into universal shunning by her group of friends, an eating disorder, and suicidal thoughts. But Parsekian won’t name names or even say what the rumor was about.
“We try and not talk about the details because we don’t want to make it look like we’re still stuck in the drama of it,” Parsekian says.
But she and her co-founder Molly Thompson do talk about the general outlines. They tell their stories to girls in schools across the country. Parsekian and Thompson say telling their stories gets girls to open up about how hurtful teasing and bullying between girls can be.
“It’s almost like a right of passage to be mean and catty to one another,” Parsekian says. “It’s this thing we expect and that we almost laugh off sometimes, but it’s really damaging.
‘She has, therefore I don’t,’ is a mode of thinking common to women ages 12 to 62
Girls and women are often mean, manipulative, and cruel to each other. This kind of nastiness often bubbles under the surface of a sweet exterior and can be easily missed by adults, Parsekian and Thompson say. This can leave girls feeling both attacked and alone and can often lead to girls feeling they have to lash out at each other to protect themselves.
“I don’t think we have to be that way,” Parsekian says. Her goal is to convince today’s girls to do things differently; to be kinder to each other. Parkesian and Thompson ask girls to take a kindness pledge that includes a vow to not stand idly by while other girls are being bullied or hurt. Even if you can’t do anything right that minute they say, you can talk to the girl later, or tell a parent or teacher what is going on.
Kind Campaign started in September 2009, a few months before the highly publicized death of 16-year-old Pheobe Prince. Prince committed suicide after enduring a year of bullying by several of her classmates at a public high school in western Massachusetts.
Since then, the issue of bullying has exploded into the national conversation and Kind Campaign has not been the only organization to take on the touchy issue of teasing and bullying between women and girls. As the founder of the non-profit, I Am That Girl, Emily Greener puts it: “It’s hard just to be a girl in this world.”
The term “girl world” was popularized by writer Rosalind Wiseman, author of New York Times bestseller, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Wiseman posited that things are tougher than they seem for adolescent girls and explained the different ways girls are mean to each other or competitive with one another. Though many of her conclusions about what life is like for girls are now considered common knowledge, they opened new doors for many parents and educators when the book came out ten years ago.
I Am That Girl focuses on facilitating conversations between women about how to be better friends to one another. Greener and her business partner, Alexis Jones, say women often come to relationships from a paradigm of scarcity. That is, if you are pretty, then I can’t be pretty too. Or if you are successful at work then I can’t be successful at work too.
Greener says, “She has, therefore I don’t,” is a mode of thinking common to women ages 12 to 62.
“It’s what’s made the beauty industry so successful,” she says wryly. From middle school on, Greener says, women report being insecure about whether there will be enough to go around. Sometimes they’re afraid of their own success, lest they lose their friends in the process of going after their dreams.
“It’s one thing to have a friend be there for you when you’re low,” Greener says, “but when you’re soaring, that’s when we see friendships get into trouble and the claws come out.”
Greener says she urges women to approach life with the idea that there is plenty to go around. Cheer your friend’s promotion, because you could be next and you want her to raise a glass for you, right? And if she did snag the promotion because she’s working harder or is smarter than you, take it as a learning experience. Rather than wasting time on jealousy, solicit her advice.
Be Your Own Advocate
Young anti-bullying activist Emily Anne Rigal, 18, champions her own model of self-empowerment. Rival is the founder of We Stop Hate, an organization that gathers and disseminates social media created by teens for teens aimed at boosting self-esteem.
“If I was going to explain it to older people it’s just that we teenagers record videos and post them online for others to watch,” Rigal said of the dozens of videos that We Stop Hate has posted on YouTube in the last three years. Most of them feature teens talking directly to the camera saying, basically, “You are cool. Stop listening to anyone who says you’re not. Love yourself and do your thing.”
Rigal’s theory is that if the person being teased or bullied doesn’t stand up for herself, it’s never going to get better.
And to do that, she needs to feel worthwhile. This doesn’t always mean standing up to the bully directly, sometimes it means asking for help from adults or other friends.
As a case in point, Rigal cites her own recent experience of being on vacation with two other friends recently. One friend was feeling like Rigal and the third friend was attacking her by telling her she wasn’t independent enough to start college.
“We were kayaking. I was with my friend who felt bullied and my other friend was in the other kayak,” Rigal says.
“We’re like, ‘You’re going to college and you need to be self-sufficient,’ and finally I turn around and I’m like ‘Oh my God, you’re crying.’”
Rigal says she didn’t intend to be mean to her friend and she didn’t realize the negative impact her seemingly positive words would have. She says she felt horrible when she realized how much hurt she had caused. She’s glad her friend took the scary move of standing up for herself.
“If she didn’t stand up for herself, we wouldn’t have known,” Rigal says. “The person being bullied has responsibility to speak out.”
She’s careful to say this is not a case of “blame the victim.” As a young girl, Rigal herself was bullied. She says no one wanted her to sit at her lunch table, play on her team in gym, or be her partner in class. It was brutal, she says.
Eventually it got so bad that she switched schools. With a fresh start, everything changed. But it took making that big move, with the help of her parents, to change things.
Taking responsibility for the parts of a bad situation you can control isn’t just a message for girls on the sharp end of the stick, Rigal says. Girls involved in bullying, even tangentially, have the option of taking control of their actions.
“Being a bystander is sort of like being a bully,” Rigal says. “You think, ‘I’m not going to say anything mean, but I’m also not going to ask her to sit at my lunch table.’ You’re adding to the problem, because if you did stand up and say, ‘sit here,’ you’re completely changing the situation.”
Kind Campaign co-founder Thompson agrees. She has her own story of being bullied as a teenager. It starts out much the same as Parkesian’s: Another rumor. Another jealous friend. Another year of confusion and angst that got so bad she was afraid to walk down the halls of her school.
The major difference between Thompson’s story and Parsekian’s is that it ends with the nasty friend admitting the error of her ways.
Towards the end of junior year, Thompson remembers walking the hallway and seeing her tormentor. Her heart started pounding. She tried to avoid being spotted. But then something unexpected happened.
“She called my name and she said, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Thompson says.
“She said she didn’t know why she did it and she was sorry. That’s my favorite part to share because it shows how transformative an apology can be.”
The final part of the Kind Campaign sessions now include girls filling out “apology cards” to people they’ve hurt either by direct teasing or by standing by while someone else did the teasing.
These have brought on cathartic tears and renewed broken friendships before their eyes, Thompson and Parkesian say.
‘People often ask, ‘Will bullying ever end?’ Rigal says. ‘I hate that question because it’s natural to some extent. It will always happen to some degree.’
There could be a never-ending debate about whether the teasing and bullying girls do is worse or more damaging than the kind boys do. One thing is sure: it’s different. And it hurts. And no matter how hard these non-profits try, chances are it’s never going away entirely.
“People often ask, ‘will bullying ever end?’” Rigal says. “I hate that question because it’s natural to some extent. It will always happen to some degree.”
The good news is that another thing girls do a lot of—talking— may be the best cure. Whether it’s sharing your story on YouTube, focusing on being nicer to your friends, or apologizing when you mess up, telling other girls how you feel can go a long way to healing the wounds caused by mean words.