Bullying and Girls: Cliques and Control

Perhaps you read the news story about thirteen-year-old Megan Meier, who was an overweight, unhappy middle school girl. She met a boy named Josh online, and he began expressing an interest in her. Once Megan was involved emotionally, he started sending her hurtful e-mails and eventually dumped her viciously. She became so distraught that she hanged herself in her bedroom closet. After Megan's death, it was learned that "Josh" didn't even exist. He had been invented to taunt Megan.

What happened to this sad young woman is unconscionable. Unfortunately, many other middle school students are also subjected regularly to personal assaults of various forms. This harassment doesn't usually result in death, but something does begin to die inside these girls and boys. I have seen it firsthand, having taught science and math earlier in my career to 230 seventh and eighth grade students every day. The challenges these kids faced from their peers were very familiar to me. My students arrived at the beginning of the year hoping and praying for the best. Their adolescent hearts were pounding with excitement and expectation, but mostly they were afraid. Some had been abused for years and were scared half to death. They were thinking, Will others like me? Will they laugh at me? Will I have any friends? Their parents were wondering, Will they make the right friends?

For girls, the issue of what to wear is pivotal in surviving the dog-eat-dog world of middle school. The clothes a girl wears are the admission ticket to cliques that can protect from ridicule and relational bullying. A mistake at this point can be catastrophic. Cliques are governed by rigid rules and can be most unforgiving. Even the color choices become important. Writer Vanessa O'Connell describes the rules this way:

Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has studied teenage behavior for 14 years, says she has seen an increase in "bullying related to clothes." She attributes that to the proliferation of designer brands and the display of labels in ads. In the more than 20 states where she has studied teens, she has been surprised by how kids revere those they perceive to have the best clothes. Having access to designer clothing affords some kids "the opportunity to become popular—and that protects you and gives you social power and leverage over others," she says. . . .

In one study, more than one-third of middle-school students responded "yes" when asked whether they are bullied because of the clothes they wear. Susan M. Swearer, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, surveyed a total of more than 1,000 students at five Midwestern middle schools from 1999 to 2004, with about 56% of the sample female. While the prevalence of fashion bullies was greater in wealthy cities and towns, where more designer clothing is available, she found the problem is significant in poorer communities, too.

Teens and adolescents are expected to wear not just any designer brands but the "right" ones. "The better brands you wear, the more popular you are," says Becky Gilker, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Sherwood Park in the Canadian province of Alberta. "If you don't wear those things you get criticized."5

"Friends and enemies" will be the key to everything for your daughter in the middle school years and beyond. Remember that her brain was wired for intimacy with others during infancy, and now in puberty she yearns for close relationships with her peers. Intimacy is the air she breathes and her reason for living. That's why when adolescent friendships go sour and rejection settles in, emotional crises are inevitable.

5.Vanessa O'Connell, "Fashion Bullies Attack—in Middle School," Wall Street Journal (October 25, 2007); D1.

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

Group Created with Sketch.