It started in the 4th grade, at least so far as I remember. Some of it was typical elementary school girl drama – fighting on the playground, friends switching loyalties, complicated wars involving spies and double spies. It was hard to know where anyone’s loyalties lay, but they often came out during a game of kickball or when you wanted to play on the Big Toy. Girls are warriors – they are cunning, careful, quick and smart. They know how to find the weakness of their enemies. Their words are carefully chosen to cut each other just right. This is how it begins: on the playground. I have no idea where we learn it from, but we are good at it. Too good.
I don’t know why the playground stuff was something that, though it hurt at the time, I can shrug off as being “girls being girls.” It is what it is. There were other acts, though, that are still with me 24 years later. Acts that seemed more intentional; more designed to hurt me (isn’t premeditated murder the capital crime?). Acts that feel more like bullying than the others.
I got made fun for being fat a lot. I wasn’t. I was a pretty average pre-pubescent girl growing into herself. I was taller than the other girls. I was one of the first to get breasts. I didn’t really pay it any mind until the day I found the note in my locker.
Two things you need to know for this. 1) I was in a best friend war. My best friend, Amy* had been hanging around a lot with Susanne. I was losing Amy to Susanne. 2) For most of my young life, I had gone back and forth with a boy, Zeke. We rarely had crushes on each other at the same time, but we had traded the crush back and forth since nursery school (and would do this into high school).
The final battle in the friendship war took place at my locker. It was well played and amazingly cruel. I got to my locker to find a note I thought was from Zeke. It started out as a love note. I don’t remember the first part. Here’s what I remember — the words that are still with me long after I left my hometown, “I love the way your fat thighs rub together as you walk down the hallway… Love (NOT), Zeke.” There was a large shiny heart sticker with a line through it next to “his” signature. I tried really hard not to cry. I grew up with a lot of boys and I knew that crying would show my weakness. I looked down the hall to see Amy and Susanne standing together, staring at me and giggling. I was crushed. Amy had betrayed me, Suzanne had won. I was alone in the world. Also, I was fat and no one would ever love me because of this. I know this sounds totally melodramatic, but do you remember being 10? It’s all so big, so huge, so awesome and so hard.
The fat taunts continued. Maybe they had always been there, I just didn’t hear them until they were shoved in my face. Now I couldn’t not hear them. They were everywhere. I remember getting them when I was in plays – I would come off stage to the comments, I would hear them whispered, occasionally they were yelled at me. It happened in class, it happened on the playground. The teasing continued through middle school. By the 8th grade, I was hearing that it was amazing I could climb out of my window at night because I was so fat (I think I told a story once about how I had done that, but I didn’t go anywhere, I just wanted to be outside). The firemen would never be able to rescue me in case of a fire. I shouldn’t wear bathing suits; it was grotesque. I was 5’8” and 132 lbs. I was also too pale, unfashionable, dumb at math and had bad hair (the final one is true, but it was 1992 – who didn’t have bad hair?). In middle school, most of this was from one girl. One girl who made me want to stay home from school sick. Her presence drove me to avoid my friends, to try to stay home from parties because I knew, I just knew, the fat, ugly and nasty taunts were next.
I never knew why she hated me so much. She would say awful, awful things to me behind my back (designed to get back to me) and in public. The gossip and back stabbing and picking on me got so bad that I became totally isolated. I spent the summer between 8th and 9th grade watching tv, alone (some of this was my fault, my reactions to the taunts and meanness were dumb and mean as well). I tried to transfer schools so as to not face all of the people I felt had turned against me and were now hanging out with the queen of meal girls. Fortunately, she left instead and the larger sea of high school allowed me to find friends and turned down the volume on the others who mocked me (though I could still hear them).
I have seen a discussion online about there being a difference between teasing and bullying. I agree there is a boundary between the two, but it is small and can be crossed over in a second. I wasn’t beaten nor was I picked on by “everyone.” I had friends, for the most part (most of us were picked on, but at least we had each other). Yet these experiences with the “mean girls” have impacted me for the last 20 years. When I was 19, my boyfriend caught me throwing up after eating an entire box of Chewy Chips Ahoy. He asked me why I was torturing myself and I thought about it for a minute. Then it all spilled out: the harassment, the mocking, the meanness. It took years to get over the bingeing and purging, and even today I have a problematic relationship with food and my body.
This summer, I was in my hometown at the pool. I got out of the pool and sat down, only to notice that the girl from middle school was two benches away from me. I picked up my bag and practically ran out of the pool. I’m 34 years old and I ran away from a middle-school bully. It was so embarrassing, to realize that she still can make me feel like a scared little girl – that I still allow myself to feel that way.
Why do I feel the need to share this? Because those things were probably so small to the others involved and to the adults around me, but they have affected me into adulthood. I developed an eating disorder and ulcers and I still struggle with my body image every single day.
The stories we hear about bullying in the media are about kids who are picked on every single day, kids who are afraid to go to school, kids for whom it gets so bad that they lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel and end their lives. For each of these stories, there are thousands of other kids who are being tormented on a lesser scale. Bullying doesn’t start big. It starts with one kid calling another a name. It starts quietly.
Actually, it starts with parents or other adults making remarks about the weight, weaknesses, intelligence, appearance, athletic ability, perceived sexual orientation or whatever else of the people around them (or the people on TV). Then the kids see that behavior is sanctioned and they follow suit. The behavior gets explained away: it’s no big deal, boys will be boys, girls will be girls. Kids develop body image issues in silence. They start to starve themselves or purge what they have eaten so the mocking will stop. They do whatever they can to be what others see as “normal.” Kids will twist themselves into a knot to fit in. When they can’t, they start to hate themselves because of what others say they aren’t – smart, athletic, fashionable, straight, White, good public speakers, or conventionally good looking – or because of what they are – smart, artistic, a person of color, queer (or perceived as such) differently-abled, a kid with a learning disability, or poor.
These kids that have been picked on may not show outward signs until much later in life. They may hide it well. They may use it as a reason to become the next Bill Gates or an amazing musician. Or they might break. They might take it out on other students. They might develop an eating disorder or start acting out with drugs or sex. They may decide to take their own life.
The kids who picked on me are having kids now. I hope and pray that they are kinder now than they were – that they are raising their kids to be full of love for the people around them. Because until we as adults stop trash talking others, until we stop judging people on how fat or thin or smart or stupid or rich or poor or whatever, we will keep creating bullies. We will keep allowing kids to be bullied. We will be complicit in teen eating disorders, drinking problems and teen suicide. It is up to us, the adults of the world, to start treating each other better. That’s how we stop bullying. It starts with us.
It starts with us teaching children that they are beloved creations of God and behaving as though we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image. That all people are worthy of God’s love and our love. We have to learn to love each other no matter what — fat, thin, smart, not as smart, athletic, uncoordinated, straight, gay, bi, trans, people of color, melanin-challenged — the list goes on and on. I am loved. You are loved. We are loved. That is the truth of it, and we are called to live out that truth.
We were created by God to love and be loved. When we mock others, when we aim for the jugular, when we allowed our children to mock or to beat people up, we are violating creation, violating God’s law. We were created for so much more than petty mocking, envy and hate. Live into that creation. Live into love.
*All names have been changed. Some of these people I have forgiven. Amy and I came back around to each other later in school and I got to see she was just taken in by a very strong personality, and she was struggling just like me — like so many young people are. Others I am clearly still working on forgiving. Also, I know I was a jerk too. To those I took it out on, I’m really, really sorry.