Middle school is an awkward time for a lot of girls. At that age, it can be so hard to fit in.
For Anna Thomas, middle school in metro Atlanta was a total nightmare. "I remember a bunch of girls would stare at me at lunch and make fun of me," Thomas, who is now 18, remembers. "People would walk by me and laugh at me." Her humiliation didn't end there.
Her classmates refused to let her sit in the back of the bus, where the "cool people" sat. Every time she raised her hand in English class, kids yelled at her to "shut up." She was called "the weird girl." One girl told her she looked like "road kill."
Thomas says she never did anything to set off these attacks. She just was an easy target. "I was in that awkward stage of growing up," she says. "I was the odd one out."
High school didn't get any easier. In fact, the girls in Thomas' high school were even more vicious.
Before prom, some of the girls sent her text messages that read, "If you go to the prom, you're going to regret it. Your face is going to be so messed up." They came to the restaurant where she worked, cursed her out, and slashed the tires on her car.
Thomas changed schools -- twice. The harassment didn't stop.
So much hatred was being directed at Thomas that she began to hate herself. "I had no confidence because of the way people treated me."
Thinking she was ugly and fat, Thomas began throwing up after she ate. Sometimes she'd throw up 10 times a day. She developed an eating disorder.
To become the fun, popular person all the kids at school said she wasn't, Thomas started drinking. By age 17 she had an alcohol problem and was in rehab.
She was so miserable that she thought about killing herself. "I would go to sleep and wish I wouldn't wake up anymore."
Why Do Girls Act So Mean?
All teenage girls tease each other from time to time. They roll their eyes and make nasty comments. But the girls who were taunting Thomas were especially cruel.
Thomas isn't the only one who's had to deal with mean girls. Some girls are so viciously abused that they don't want to live anymore. Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student, was so badly harassed by girls at her school that she killed herself.
The media is at least partly to blame for these kinds of "mean girl" behaviors, says Charisse Nixon, PhD, an associate professor and developmental psychologist at Penn State Erie. "We are inundated with media images of cruel behavior as funny...with reality television shows that celebrate meanness."
An example is the 2004 Lindsay Lohan movie, Mean Girls. In the movie, a trio of popular girls terrorizes the other students at their high school. "How many teen girls own that movie and watch it repeatedly because it's 'funny?'" Nixon asks.
How Do Mean Girls Get Mean?
Researchers say teenage girls have a few basic needs, which Nixon calls the ABCs & ME. A stands for acceptance, B is a sense of belonging, C is control, and ME is the need for a meaningful existence. When those needs aren't met, girls sometimes do mean things to get them met.
For example, "If kids don't feel like they have control in one area of their life, they are likely to be aggressive to gain control in some other area of their life," Nixon says. The girl who claws her way to the top of the social order dictates who can and can't be part of her inner circle of friends. That power helps meet her need for control.
Girls use name calling, rumors, and general nastiness to help them rise to the top of the heap. "It's such a time of jockeying for position. The person who controls the information is usually the popular person," says Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, GNP, professor of Medicine and Humanities at the Penn State University College of Medicine. She and Nixon co-wrote a book called Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying about ways to prevent teasing, gossip, and other bullying behaviors.
Who Are the Mean Girls' Targets?
The stereotype of the mean girls' target is someone who looks or acts different.
"It could be the girl who is overweight. It could be the girl who is not as attractive," Dellasega says. Another target might be someone who makes a mistake -- like saying "hi" to the popular girl's boyfriend, she says.
Often, though, the nastiness is focused on someone who is just minding her own business.
Thomas didn't say or do anything to provoke the girls at her school. She didn't gossip about them or try to steal their boyfriends.
"The majority of victims are not provocative victims... that is, they are not those annoying kids who continually provoke others," Nixon says. "The majority of victims, instead, are what we call 'passive victims.'" Whether they're provocative or passive, a lot of kids are the victims of mean girls.
Nixon and guidance counselor Stan Davis interviewed about 13,000 kids in grades 5-12 for Youth Voice, a research project that's studying ways to help kids deal with meanness and bullying. They found that about half the kids were being harassed at least once a month.
Mean Girls Go Viral
School isn't the only place where mean girls operate. Today they have a new forum for humiliating their victims: cyberspace.
When Thomas was in middle school, a girl in her class created a MySpace page with Thomas' name and face on it. The girl then sent out nasty messages to some of their other classmates, pretending those messages were coming from Thomas.
In high school, mean girls posted ugly pictures on Thomas' Facebook page. They wrote, "You do drugs" and "anorexic" on her Facebook wall.
Being insulted or harassed at school is much different than being insulted or harassed online. At school, maybe a couple of other people could find out what happened. When something embarrassing is posted on your Facebook or Myspace page, hundreds or even thousands of people might see it.
The Internet also gives mean girls an easy way to hide. "We found that kids tend to think that because they're behind a screen they're not responsible -- that they can say whatever they want," Nixon says.
"What kids need to understand is that whenever they are on the screen, they leave a fingerprint." Nasty or humiliating comments posted today can stay online for years -- even after they're deleted.
How to Deal With Mean Girls
If you're being harassed at school, don't try to handle the problem by yourself. "The best thing they can do is access support," Nixon says. Tell a friend, your parents, or a school guidance counselor. Let them help you deal with the mean girls.
The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem or try to get revenge. In Nixon's survey, these tactics often backfired.
Try not to let the mean girls get to you. Standing up for yourself can show bullies that you're confident and not easily intimidated.
If you can get a few of your friends to stand up against the mean girls with you, you're less likely to be singled out. "There's power in numbers, Dellasega says. "Nobody's going to go after a large group of people."
The problem is, bystanders to mean girl bullying are often too afraid to speak up. "Lots of times they stand or watch, and they might even laugh or agree with the bully because they're afraid they're going to be next," Dellasega says.
If you're worried that you'll get singled out for speaking out, know that you don't have to put yourself at much risk to really help someone who's struggling, Nixon says. All you have to do is be there for the girl who's being harassed. Talk to her at school. Call her at home.
Learning to Love Yourself
If you are being harassed or bullied by mean girls, remember that it isn't your fault. You aren't the problem -- they are.
It took a lot of therapy for Thomas to recognize that she wasn't the person the mean girls had made her out to be. "I was basing my reality off of everybody else," she says. Once she got treatment, "I learned who I really am. I am so much more than all those people said I was."
Now a freshman in college, Thomas has a newfound self-confidence. "I would walk into a room of girls and want to cry and hide. Now I feel like I'm pretty and beautiful, because I am. I respect myself."