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Why Pretty Girls Can Be So Vulnerable to Bullying

Beauty brings undeniable benefits, but there's a flip side.

Phoebe Prince/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Phoebe Prince/Wikimedia Commons

On January 14, 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in her family’s apartment in South Hadley, Massachusetts, following a relentless campaign of taunting, gossip, and bullying by other teens at her high school. Phoebe’s body was discovered by her 12-year-old sister, and one of her last text messages began with the phrase: “I can’t take much more.”

Phoebe was a pretty girl who had moved to South Hadley from Ireland a little more than a year before her death. The bullying began after she had a brief romantic fling with the boyfriend of one of her principal tormentors. The five teenagers who orchestrated Phoebe's persecution were eventually convicted on charges of criminal harassment and sentenced to probation and community service.

The most consistent flavor of the insults hurled at her was that she was a “slut” and an “Irish whore.” As it turns out, looks and reputation for sexual fidelity are prime targets for women engaged in competition with each other for romantic partners.

Unfortunately, the tragic story of Phoebe Prince is not an isolated incident. Fifteen-year-old Cora Delille of Ohio killed herself in exactly the same way following an almost identical campaign of gossip and harassment in 2014. In 2017, 10-year-old Ashwanty Davis hanged herself in her Colorado home after being bullied for weeks. Only a few weeks after Ashwanty's death, 13-year-old Rosalie Avila of California suffered the same fate—suicide by hanging after being ostracized, gossiped about, and bullied.

“Mean Girls” Are More Than Just a Stereotype

It has been well-established that men are more physically aggressive than women. However, women are much more likely to engage in what is called indirect “relational” aggression, and gossip is often the weapon of choice. Consequently, women are more likely than men to ostracize others, a sex difference that shows up as early as age 6.

Writer Danielle Herzog related her anguish upon hearing about the “mean girls” in her daughter’s kindergarten class. According to her daughter, the mean girls would tell her that she was "ugly" and exclude her from games because “they didn’t like her clothes.” Herzog’s anguish eventually turned to embarrassment when her own mother reminded her that she had made one of her best friends cry in first grade by telling her that she would only be her friend on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, because “she was not important enough to be all five days.”

The motivation for relational aggression can be as trivial as simple boredom, but it more often transpires in retaliation for perceived slights, envy over physical appearance, or romantic competition.

Beauty in One Woman Can Bring Out the Beast in Others

The fact that highly attractive adolescent girls like Phoebe Prince are at greater risk for victimization is consistent with the notion that mate competition is a primary motive for such behavior.

Women are aware of how easily many men are drawn to physically attractive potential partners, so it follows that they are the ones who can have their reputations savaged through gossip as a way of making them seem less desirable as girlfriends, preventing them from establishing a network of friends and allies, and keeping them socially powerless. In one junior high school, two girls circulated a petition after a cute new girl moved in. The petition was signed by boys who promised that they would “never go out with the Megawhore.”

If all else fails, direct physical intimidation can make pretty girls afraid of turning their beauty to their mating advantage. Recently, four Russian girls uploaded a video of them forcing another girl to drink from a mud puddle, because she was “too pretty.”

Less attractive women are also bullied, of course, but usually for other reasons. A girl not perceived as competition in the mating market may be as likely to be ignored as she is to be bullied.

A forthcoming study by social psychologist Tania Reynolds and her colleagues confirms that women are more likely to spread malicious gossip about other women who are either attractive or who dress provocatively—in other words, women who might distract the attention of potential partners. The fact that the peers who bully attractive girls are generally at least moderately attractive themselves is no coincidence, but rather a reflection of the bullies' recognition that they are likely to find themselves in romantic competition with the targets of their aggression.

Psychologist Gail Gross, an internationally recognized expert on bullying, summarized the relationship between being attractive and being bullied as follows:

"It is important to note that not only are the weak targeted, but often a girl that is considered to be too pretty, too smart, too nice and therefore making the other girls feel inferior. In fact, bullies may describe a target as 'too full of herself.' And, because of the competition and striving for popularity as well as positions of power, peer groups may form alliances to cast out and isolate the offending girl."

There are endless examples of physically attractive girls being bullied by other girls, and parents regularly share such stories on social media. One North Shore Chicago mother of a girl who modeled professionally spoke of the frequency with which her daughter has been told that she is ugly and that she should kill herself. Swedish supermodel Paulina Porizkova reports that she was bullied mercilessly throughout her childhood. Model/actress Brittany Mason, a former “Miss Indiana,” thought about killing herself to escape her peers' gossip and bullying: At a homecoming rally at her high school, for example, a group created a poster with her picture on it and waved it around while chanting, “You are ugly.”

Regardless of the trigger for relational aggression, the goal is almost always the same: to exclude competitors from one’s social group and damage their ability to maintain a reliable social network of their own.

As it turns out, this is a highly effective way of hurting other women. Because women invest more in building friendship networks, the disruption of these networks and other social connections is all the more crushing. Beauty can be a curse as well as a blessing: It bestows some undeniable advantages on those who possess it—but it can also paint a target on their backs.

Facebook image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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