Tag Archives: bullies

Bullying Part III (or, all hail Margaret Atwood)

10 Oct

This will be the final instalment of my totally unplanned Bullying Trilogy (seriously, it started out with me just wanting to talk about clothes).

After I made my last post talking about how I was bullied in my teens, my friend Audra asked if I’d read this 2011 article from New York Times, Bullying As True Drama. In fact, I had read it when it first came out and hadn’t really given it much thought. Re-reading it, though, I found myself nodding and muttering, yes, yes, yes under my breath.

So much of this article hits home for me. This part, for instance:

Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators. For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.

Or this:

While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.”

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.

And especially this:

“Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish.”

Like I said in my last post, bullies can smell a victim. The minute that you admit to yourself or to others that you’re being victimized, then I guarantee you that, barring serious intervention, the bullying will get worse. To make matters even more difficult, many kids (and adults) don’t realize that they’re bullies; this behaviour is so ingrained in our culture that it seems downright normal. I’m certain that most of the kids inflicting “drama” on others have, at some point, been on the receiving end of “drama”. To them, it’s an unpleasant but ultimately unavoidable part of life.

We also need to realize that the ways in which bullying happens have changed; it often occurs online, or through texting; it’s not always public. This, then, is where I think David Dickson, chairman of the Bullying Prevention Initiative of California, really misses the mark with definition of bullying as happening, “typically in a social setting in front of other people“. That definition certainly doesn’t hold true today; in fact, I’m not sure that it’s ever been accurate.

One of the best literary instances of bullying that I can think of is the torment that Elaine Risley goes through at the hands of her so-called “best friends” in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Though all three of her friends are party to the bullying, few outside of that group know what’s happening. In fact, Elaine is pretty clear about the fact, were she to tell anyone about being bullied, she would feel as though she were breaking some kind of sacred code:

“Whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important… to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin.”

A few adults in Elaine’s life seem to have some inclination as to what’s going on; she hears the mother of one of her friends saying that she deserves to be bullied because she’s a “heathen”, and, several years after the bullying occurs, Elaine’s mother makes a vague reference to the girls giving Elaine a “bad time”. Those instances aside, none of the grown-ups seem to know or understand the severity of what’s happening. The three girls are at Elaine’s school, and one of them is even in her class, but none of the teachers seem to notice that anything is amiss with their relationship; even her peers see only a group of “best friends” and nothing more.

Based on all the above, I wouldn’t say that Elaine’s bullying is public; in fact, her tormentors are very careful to maintain the façade of friendship that they’ve built up. Does that mean that it’s not bullying?  Elaine is certainly emotionally, mentally and physically scarred by what she’s going through; not only are her self-confidence and happiness eroded to the point of non-existence, she also begins experiencing symptoms of severe anxiety such as fevers, stomach aches and tendencies of self-harm (among other things, she begins biting her fingers, and pulling patches of skin off her lips and the soles of her feet).

Another important thing to note is that, much like the girls mentioned in the Times article, neither Elaine, her friends, nor the adults in her life ever use the term bullying. Instead, they use euphemisms like giving her a hard time. At one point Elaine’s mother even tells her not to let the other girls push her around, and not to be spineless, as if that’s any kind of helpful advice. So the message that Elaine receives both from her “friends” and the adults in her life is that the way she’s being treated is her own fault.

This, then, helps explain why, when the balance of power shifts between Elaine and her “friend” Cordelia,  Elaine begins to bully her back. While Cordelia spent most of grade school bullying Elaine, Elaine turns around and spends much of high school treating Cordelia equally terribly. In her mind, though, she’s not a bully; she can’t be, because, in Elaine’s eyes and the eyes of the world, her “friends” from elementary school weren’t bullies either.

At one point, when things are at their worst, Elaine’s mother says to her,

I wish I knew what to do.

And that, that right there, is often the hardest pill for both adults and teenagers to swallow – the fact that when bullying or “drama” occurs, the adults involved often just don’t know what to do.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that part of the reason teens started using the term “drama” to sort of re-brand bullying was the realization that, possibly for the first time in their lives, the adults around them had no clue how to stop them from hurting. So the term “drama” isn’t just a protective mechanism for the kids themselves; it’s also their way of protecting their parents and teachers, a way of reassuring them that it’s okay that they have no idea how to help because it’s nothing, just drama, and their help isn’t needed.

Matt and I were both bullied when we were younger, and because of that we’ve talked extensively about what we would do if Theo was ever bullied. I would like to say that we’ve come up with an awesome plan but, really, we haven’t. If things were ever to get really bad and Theo were to express a desire to change schools, Matt would prefer to go ahead and do that, whereas I would rather that he learn to work things through with his peers rather than running away. Of course, Matt doesn’t know what he would do if things were equally bad at Theo’s new school, and I have no idea how Theo is supposed to learn to rationally work things through with a bunch of hormonally-crazed teenagers.

I think, though, that at the end of the day that Times article has it right; instead of focussing on the “negative framing” of bullying, we need to work towards teaching our kids what healthy peer relationships look like and how to be good digital citizens. We need to teach our kids empathy and the ability to recognize when “drama” has gone too far. We need to find ways to empower our kids instead of making them feel weak or victimized.

I know, I know, this is a lot of talk without a lot of substance to back it up, but hey – I’ve hopefully got a few more years to figure it out. And while I’m teaching Theo how to be a smart, confident, independent person, I’ve got him to teach me how to be a thoughtful, wise and effective parent. So far, I think we’re both doing a pretty okay job.

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Bullying (or, nolite te bastardes etc.)

7 Oct

I’ve written on here about some of the less-than fun stuff I went through as a teenager, but I think that last night was the first time that I’ve ever publicly referred to it as bullying. And now I kind of want to talk about it?

A little bit of background:

I’d had the same group of friends throughout most of elementary school. The five of us had been pretty tight, spending every recess and lunch hour together, pairing up for science projects and book reports. On the weekends we would force our parents to shuttle us around the city for various playdates and sleepovers.  I’d known them for so long that I couldn’t imagine ever not being friends with them.

Then, one mid-day recess in seventh grade, my friends told me they had to talk to me.

We sat in a circle on the schoolyard pavement, near the edge of where the grassy field began. It must have been October or November, because I remember that the sky was grey and there was a chill in the air. My friends started out by saying that they’d been talking about me, and had realized that they collectively found me annoying. They told me that they’d come to the decision that they didn’t want to hang around with me anymore, and asked me to stop joining them at lunch and recess. I tried to argue with them, then tried to bargain, but it was pointless; their collective mind was made up.

Basically, they broke up with me.

What had already been a difficult year went from tough-but-manageable to downright miserable. Even before I was de-friended, I was already being picked on by my classmates for my bad skin, the way I dressed, and the nerdy things I liked. Now, not only was that all still happening, but I suddenly had no one to protect me, and no one to tell me that I wasn’t an ugly pathetic loser.

As the year went on, the kids who made fun of me became braver, making more and more publicly humiliating comments about me. One kid said that I didn’t need to use whiteout, because I could just use the pus from my pimples – the teacher laughed at that along with everyone else. Another kid wondered aloud why my clothes were so terrible, since my father was a lawyer and could almost certainly afford something better than ill-fitting sweatshirts and track pants. Boys from my class prank-called me in the evenings, pretending to ask me out – then repeating everything I’d said on the phone the next day to the rest of my class.

I didn’t tell my parents what was happening because I was embarrassed, although they must have noticed that I wasn’t being invited to my friends’ houses anymore. I didn’t want them to know how much of an outcast I’d become at school, because it seemed like it was mostly my own fault for being unlikeable. Anyway, I reasoned, even if they did know, what could they do?

When I started high school, I chose a school that almost none of my classmates were going to. The only person from my class who was coming with me was the girl I’d become close with in 8th grade, so that was fine. I figured that this was the perfect chance to start over. No one at this huge new school knew me, or knew my past; I would walk through those front doors in September as whoever I wanted to be.

I didn’t get to start over, though. Does anyone ever really get a fresh start? I still had all the problems that had led to being teased in the first place: bad skin, the wrong clothes, and geeky interests. Even worse, the last two years had left me with zero self-confidence, which meant that I was constantly second-guessing myself. Because of this I had a hard time making friends, and when I did I was clingy and jealous. I was even more of a mess when it came to boys. Boy, was I ever.

Bullies can smell a victim, and I was soon back to being the butt of the joke. I went to an arts high school where I majored in dance, and the girls in my dance class were saccharine sweet to my face (most of the time), but made fun of me as soon as my back was turned. By the end of the year I was so tired of it that I transferred out of dance class and instead majored in visual art, where I was surrounded by pretentious art school kids, stoners and comic book nerds – on the whole, a much nicer group.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I was totally friendless. I mean, yeah, I had people that I hung out with – a pretty big group of friends, actually. But even within that group I was teased. Early high school was pretty much just as shitty as late grade school.

My later high school years were better, and the same goes for university. I moved out east for school, made some great friends, and became the stunningly self-confident adult you see before you today. Things are mostly totally fine now. I am mostly fine now.

What’s strange is that now I’m friends on Facebook with a lot of the people who made me miserable (maybe some of you are reading this now – hi guys! kind of awkward! sorry!). We’ve never talked about or even acknowledged what happened; after half a lifetime of not knowing these people, we mostly just “like” each others’ statuses and comment on photos of each others’ kids. Initially, I felt awkward having them back in my life, mostly because I worried that they were still judging me and still finding me wanting, but now we’ve settled into a sort of comfortable camaraderie, reminiscing about our collective school days as if we’ve been friends all along.

Maybe they’ve forgotten what happened, or maybe it just never seemed like a big deal. Maybe they feel bad.  Maybe I’m the one with the problem. Maybe they were right, and I am a pathetic loser. Maybe they were dealing with their own stuff at the time and didn’t realize how much it sucked for me. Most likely it’s a combination of most of the above.

I find that when I talk about what happened, I use a lot of euphemisms; I’ll say that I went through a tough time when I was younger, or else that I had a bad year the year I turned 12, or any other number of variations on the same thing. I’ve been hesitant to use the word “bullying” when talking about my own circumstances, for a couple of reasons:

1. Was I even bullied? I mean, yes, I was teased, but does that count as bullying? When does it cross the line from normal kid behaviour to bullying? Or is bullying so pervasive in our culture that it now seems normal?

2. Weirdly, I feel anxious about what the people who are my friends now will think of the fact that I was such a loser. There’s a part of me that thinks that they’ll start to reconsider our friendship, start to notice all of the less-than-stellar components of my personality.

3. Saying that I was bullied is admitting that I also became a bully later in high school. I made fun of people, talked behind their backs, told secrets. I was even party to making a girl cry in 11th grade chemistry class. I was mean, and I liked being mean.

I do think that it’s important to start a dialogue about this, especially in reference to the first point. In the wake of Jennifer Livingston’s on-air response to an email criticizing her weight, in which she refers to the man who sent her the email as a bully, there has been a lot of discussion about what qualifies as bullying, and whether or not it was the appropriate word to use in that instance. David Dickson, chairman of the Bullying Prevention Initiative of California, says“Bullying, normally, is what someone, in a very mean spirited way, continually and on a repeated basis, does to another person, typically in a social setting in front of other people…It was a stupid letter he wrote, but he commented privately.” 

Now, I’m not an expert on bullying, and none of the definitions that I’ve found online have really been satisfactory, but it seems wrong to ignore this entire discussion just because what happened doesn’t fit Dickson’s fairly narrow definition of what bullying is. Whether or not the letter sent to Livingston was public, it was certainly hurtful and unnecessary, especially considering that she’s likely spent a lifetime of facing comments like that. Also, it sucks to have a so-called bullying expert be so condescending and dismissive, especially when bullying in our culture is so often dismissed as kids just being kids (or, in this case, fat ladies just being too sensitive).

Maybe Dickson wouldn’t consider what I went through to be bullying. I mean, sure, it was public, and it was often mean-spirited, but maybe it wasn’t very mean-spirited, or maybe it wasn’t repeated or continual enough. Maybe it was just teenagers being dicks to each other, and I’m just an oversensitive lady-type. Usually writing things out here makes them clearer (and hey, it’s cheaper than therapy), but this time it just makes them seem murkier and more confused. Was I the one with the problem? Were they the ones with the problem? Was I undeserving of friends? Am I still?

What I do know is this: I’m tired of pretending that nothing happened, and I’m tired of feeling like I did something wrong and have something to hide. I’m tired of waiting for all of my friends to discover that once-upon-a-time I wasn’t cool, and then to high-tail it out of my life – so take that, brain, a pre-emptive admission of uncoolness. Most of all, I wouldn’t want any other kid to feel as shitty as I did.

So yeah. Can we talk about this?

Me at age thirteen, centre, with my cousins and sister.