The Friendship Doctor

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Middle school frenemies: Why are girls so mean?

Middle-school can be gruesome for girls (and their mothers!)

Any mother knows that middle-school can be a rough time for young women. Dara Chadwick is a freelance journalist and writer who spent a year chronicling her Weight Loss Diary for Shape Magazine. That experience and her interviews and discussions with her readers led her to reflect on the effect that mothers have on their teen and tween daughters' body image and sense of self. She wrote You'd Be So Pretty If (Da Capo Lifelong, 2009) to help shape her daughter's "future relationship with her body" and that of other young women.

An entire chapter (Chapter 7) of this engaging book is focused on "Mean
Girls and Frenemies." Since middle school can create many friendship challenges for young girls who are becoming women, I was delighted to talk to Dara about some of her findings.

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Q. Why do young women focus conversation and gossip on each other's body size and shape?

In middle-school, especially, I think it's almost a defense mechanism. Everybody's body is changing, and they're all changing according to their own timetable. Some young adolescents look like grown women, while others still look like little girls. At this age, it's natural to worry and fret and wonder if you're normal. Gossiping is a way to find out.

Another characteristic of young adolescence is to not want to be different - to not want to stand out - from your peers in any way. Girls seek reassurance that they're OK and that they're just like everybody else. Finally, for some girls who are truly insecure, gossiping and "body bullying" is a way to assert power and dominance - to secure your place in the pack, so to speak.

Q. How do moms and the media contribute to this problem?

The media floods girls with enhanced and digitized images of models and of their favorite celebrities. Naturally, these images can cause girls to think that they can and should look like these enhanced images do. It's so important for moms to help girls realize that these images aren't real. In my book, I talk about teaching girls to look at media images the same way they'd look at art in a museum.

Sure, an image may be beautiful, but it's just a representation of one photographer or one magazine's idea of what beauty looks like. It's not a real goal that girls can attain with enough effort or self-control. It's also helpful for girls to see the level of re-touching that goes on in magazines. The Dove films at Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty are a great conversation-starter about what's real and what isn't.

Q. How can moms help build resilience among their daughters who will face these challenges?

It starts with being accepting of and kind to your own body. There's no denying the importance of friends in a young tween or teen's life - peers are a huge influence. But moms shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that they're no longer important. Our daughters are watching us and listening to the things we say about ourselves.

The thing that most surprised me in talking to the girls I interviewed for my book was how beautiful they think their moms are. Now, imagine how she feels when she thinks you're beautiful, but you do nothing but put yourself down. Not only is it hurtful, it's also teaching her not to trust her own feelings about what beauty is. Speaking kindly about your own body and treating it well with healthy eating and exercise also gives her permission to do the same for herself. From you, she can learn that it's OK for a woman to like her body. I think it's important to watch the way you talk about other women and girls, too. Snarky comments, criticisms or even compliments based purely on appearance or weight loss send a message to girls.

Q. What were some of our own memories of adolescence that you brought to the book?

Eighth grade was hands down the worst year of my adolescent life. My daughter is in eighth grade now and it's been fascinating to watch how her experience is unfolding. For me, I was just so uncomfortable in my own skin. I've always had curves and muscles, but I so wanted to be like my friends who had more boyish frames. In retrospect, my discomfort with myself often came across to others as aloofness, and I struggled with that at times.

By high school, I'd lost quite a bit of weight and found my niche on the cheerleading squad. But the weight loss didn't bring the body confidence I thought it would. I remember once that on career day, a representative from a modeling agency came in and spoke. There was a girl in my class who was quite tall and very pretty. The representative asked her to walk across the room, which she did with absolute grace and confidence. The representative then asked, in a totally smarmy voice, "Are there any cheerleaders in this room?" All heads turned to me immediately and she asked me to get up and walk across the room, too. I knew I was being made fun of and I remember it as being one of the most uncomfortable body image moments of my life. The outward appearance of cute little cheerleader didn't match the inner feelings. I try to remember that disconnect when I'm talking with adolescent girls.

Q. Under what circumstances should moms intervene in an obviously toxic teen friendship?

If your daughter is being teased, excluded or "toyed with" for lack of a better term, I think it's important to help her see that the behavior is really about the "friends" who are treating her this way and not about her. One of the best things you can do is help her develop multiple friendship groups so she can see that with her own eyes. If school friends are behaving badly, having other friends at dance class or at basketball who like her and treat her well helps her make that connection.

It can also be helpful to talk with her about what might be behind their behavior (for example, are they jealous? Not feeling good about themselves?), but only if it's something she's interested in talking about. Mostly, moms can help by being a sounding board if she needs to talk, by supporting her efforts to develop healthy friendships and by sharing stories of their own adolescences - if she wants to hear them, of course.

 

Have a question about middle school friendship? Dara or I would love to answer it. Write to Irene@TheFriendshipBlog.com

 

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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