Until fifth grade I'd grown up in a close community inside Washington, D.C., and attended a small public neighborhood elementary school. I had many friends of different races, nationalities, and economic backgrounds. I was part of a clique but I was friends with lots of students. The summer after fifth grade my family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I attended a well-respected, private all-girls school. My experience there was extremely difficult. I had my first miserable tray moment when girls wouldn't let me sit at their tables. The popular girls were catty and mean-spirited. I returned to Washington the next year and enrolled in another private but coed school and the girls were just as bad. Very quickly I lost any remaining sense of self-confidence and became terrified of becoming a social liability. As a result, I became a keen observer of what would keep me in the group and what would get me tossed out.
My experience is hardly unique. Was it so bad that it contributed to my getting into an abusive relationship in high school? I believe it did. I craved validation from other girls; I had looked around and realized that I had to have an insurance policy that would keep my social status secureand the easiest way to do that was to have the right boyfriend. He was "right" to the outside world, but behind closed doors he was mean and abusive. I had no idea what to do.
I was no one's idea of a likely target for assault and abuse. I was a competitive athlete. I had a supportive and loving family. I didn't abuse alcohol or drugs. So what was going on? There are three answers. One, like so many girls, I was amazingly good at fooling myself. I'd convinced myself that I was smart, could take care of myself, and could handle any situation. I denied that I could get into situations that were over my head, even when I had clear evidence to the contrary (like being abused by my boyfriend). I was so confident, I'd walk into incredibly dangerous situations because I wouldn't admit I was in danger. Two, like a lot of girls, I felt powerless when threatened. I now know that even highly articulate girls become voiceless when faced with the threat of sexual harassment or violence. These are the girls who won't tell someone to leave them alone because they're afraid they'll be labeled as uptight, a bitch, or because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Three, once I was in the relationship, my assumption that having a boyfriend would increase and secure my social status was correct. The relationship made me feel mature, confident, and assured of my place in the social hierarchy of the school.
When I first conducted surveys of the girls I was teaching in Washing-ton, D.C.'s, private schools, 23 percent reported experiencing sexual violence, including abusive relationships. Like me, these girls attended excellent schools and were given every opportunity to be confident young womenyet they were vulnerable to the same kinds of violence. (A national survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2001 confirmed the same one-in-five figure.)
After hearing so many girls say the same things, I began to wonder: Where did they learn to be silent? Where did they learn to deny the danger staring them in the face? When I asked them, a common theme came out immediately. Our culture teaches girls a very dangerous and confusing code of behavior about what constitutes "appropriate" feminine behavior (i.e., you should be sexy, but not slutty; you should be independent, but you're no one without a boyfriend). We like to blame the media and boys for enforcing this code, but we overlook the girls themselves as the enforcers.
Clearly, girls are safer and happier when they look out for each other. Paradoxically, during their period of greatest vulnerability, girls' competition with and judgment of each other weakens their friendships and effectively isolates all of them. This is what the power of the clique is all about, and why it matters so much to your daughter's safety and self-esteem.
Excerpted from Queen Bees & Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman Copyright© 2002 by Rosalind Wiseman. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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