“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
I remember teachers drilling this into us at primary school and getting us to repeat it like some sort of crazed mantra. Looking back at it now, what a load of proper bollocks. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was called paki, nigger, wog, Gandhi and ‘but but ding ding’ every day I then had to make out like it was totally ok because, you know, no one had thumped me. When I did get the occasional thump – and therefore thumped back – I got into trouble as the kids would tell the teacher about my misdemeanour but I would feel too ashamed to admit the whole thing was racially provoked. This was at the age of seven.
Still, despite this, my overriding memories of primary school were of being pretty happy, playing, having friends and having the luxury of knowing that I would be destined for other things as my parents had already told me I’d be attending a private secondary school in town vs attending the local comp.
One thing, however, that started at primary school and ended in 2014 was the acceptance of being – for want of a better word – bullied. At primary and secondary school I felt like I deserved to be teased and ridiculed. After all, as a skinny, glasses wearing, ugly Indian girl I always stuck out like a sore thumb. I would be embarrassed around older girls – assuming they all thought I was a twat. At secondary school girls would push past me in the corridor, whisper and laugh. I remember being spat on when coming out of a maths class but didn’t tell a soul (until now). As Facebook is now so prevalent in life I’ve found myself being transported back to that time and remembering again all the nasty bitches who went out of their way to be – well – bitches. Don’t get me wrong, 98% of school life, particularly at secondary school, was amazing and I loved it. House Captain, chair of the school council, tuck shop worker, orchestra and choir member are just some examples of the way I wholeheartedly threw myself into school life.
But the patterns that started in primary school meant I never really stuck up for myself at high school which, in turn, meant the same thing at University and finally in the workplace.
Why am I thinking about all this again now? Because my beautiful, clever, talented, funny, kind, loving, caring six year old daughter seems to be starting on the very same journey. Last week, her teacher told me that Diya and her two friends had had a disagreement, which escalated to the point of all three of them crying and being very upset. When Diya arrived home she sobbed for 15 minutes, which is very unusual for her. Rather than telling her to ‘just ignore it’ I am determined to equip her with the skills she needs to stand up for herself as well as ensuring I build her self-confidence and self-esteem every day so that she doesn’t fall into the same trap that I did – the trap of believing she deserves to be taunted or treated badly.
Coincidentally, the next night I came across a post on the fabulous A Mighty Girl which refers to relational aggression “a type of bullying which can include the threat of removing friendship, ostracism, the use of rumors or gossip to damage reputations, and other forms of social exclusion. Studies have found it to be more common among girls than boys and it can appear in children as young as three.”
What’s particularly interesting to me is that firstly this sort of subtle, ‘under the radar’ bullying that has doubtlessly existed for centuries is now finally being recognised and – at least in the US – addressed in schools. Secondly, it is the fact that it is being recognised as being more common in girls – NOT because girls are just born with a ‘bitch gene’ as society would have us believe – but, of course, because girls are more socially developed and more verbal than boys of the same age.
And yet we are still constantly bombarded with the notion that somehow it’s just what women do; schools are telling us ‘that’s just what girls are like’ which validates the behaviour, we see media stories day after day of women who keep up the façade of being colleagues but secretly hate each other – Tess and Claudia pitted against each other just as ALL female judges are on X Factor and so on.
Socially, it seems it is almost expected that women will be jealous of each other. I remember a comment a male friend made once when I said I’d really enjoyed the company of a woman I’d been introduced to that evening. He was shocked. Why? Because the woman was beautiful and intelligent and, for some reason, he thought that would mean I’d automatically hate her.
I’ve seen this school girl behaviour time after time in the workplace (admittedly I work in PR). The Queen Bee lords it over all the other women in the office, spreading rumours, undermining them based on their weight or how they dress, generally being nasty and mean. And whilst the women carry on like this what happens to the men? They get paid more money, that’s what. They get more positions on the board. They get to call 40 year old women ‘girls’. Finally my tiny mind has made the correlation between the way we are conditioned to behave as young as six years old and how we end up not being equally paid or respected. And what does happen when a woman stands up for herself in the workplace? I don’t need to tell you….we all already know.
Which brings me to why I think Taylor Swift is (currently) a great role model for young girls. Contrary to the opinion that she’s basically just created an uber-famous, exclusive in-crowd, I believe what she’s doing is showing girls that they can be part of a gang who celebrate and support each other. Apologise when they’ve done (tweeted) something they maybe shouldn’t have and revel in each other’s achievements. Yes they’re all beautiful but I don’t really have an issue with that. I believe (and know) beautiful women can be kind too. Rather than supporting the notion that women tear each other down to make themselves feel better (going back to relational aggression), she’s actually making it clear that we’re stronger together and bad or mean behaviour is just not OK.
Now I’ve just got to show my daughter what is truly means to be a good person rather than a ‘just a girl’.