washingtonpost.com
What happens when mean girls grow up?

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Sunday, February 20, 2011; W24

Monika Shreves, a college senior with a petite frame and long, black hair, remembers the first mean girl she met. The girl lived in Shreves's Northern Virginia neighborhood and had the blondest hair and eyelashes Shreves had ever seen.

The two arrived together at Girl Scout camp, and the girl assumed command of the cabin they were to sleep in.

"This is the cool cabin," she told the other girls who wandered into the campsite, looking for a place to throw down their stuff. She'd size up each girl. "You can come in," she'd tell one. "You cannot," she'd tell another.

Shreves and her friends started referring to the girl privately as "the devil child." That same year, Shreves's mom, Christine, was driving Shreves, the blond girl and another girl home from school. All three were in the back seat of the car.

As the car swung into their neighborhood, the blond girl turned to the other girl and asked, "Who would you rather go home with? Me or Monika?"

"You," the other girl said.

Shreves burst into tears.

Later, in college, Shreves was scanning her Facebook page, and the same girl popped up, asking to friend her. Shreves, quite surprised, accepted. A short while later, she wished Shreves "Happy birthday" on Shreves's Facebook wall.

"She was perfectly nice," Shreves recalls over a Caribou coffee in Fairfax.

***

Imagine that Lindsay Lohan's generation of girls has grown up into decent human beings. You'd never know this by watching TV or surfing the countless Web sites where mean is queen. Having exhausted the high school mean girl phenomenon that took off in the 2004 movie with Lohan's Cady Heron, the entertainment and media industries have moved on to mean women.

We laugh at Kim and Phaedra sparring on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" and forward the snarkiest blog posts on Jezebel to all our friends. We buy Kelly Valen's recent book, "The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships," and nod in recognition at her examples of women suffering at the hands of other women.

Undoubtedly, many women would also say, if asked, that they've been belittled or dumped by men. So what's the point? That a woman's slight stings worse? In our current obsession with mean females, do we risk perpetuating the sexist image of the shrew? And what does that do to all females?

To assume that mean girl behavior is just the way women are may be the meanest cut of all, for it ignores something significant: Girls, even mean girls, can -- and do -- mature eventually. Jess Weiner, an author and columnist for Seventeen magazine, knows this firsthand.

She was bullied repeatedly in middle school by a group of girls for three years. The posse, led by one particular girl, egged her house regularly from sixth through ninth grades and left mean messages on her answering machine.

In 2003, at age 28, Weiner wrote her first book, "A Very Hungry Girl," and appeared on "Oprah." Among the many e-mails she received post-"Oprah" was one from her former tormentor, who apologized for her teenage behavior. The woman wrote that her parents were divorced at the time and that her mother's boyfriend was molesting her.

"Her apology freed me to realize that we all suffer in those adolescent years," Weiner says. "No one leaves that period of time unscathed. But we can learn and grow from it and move on to lead engaged, loving, productive lives."

***

We tend to forget that many bullies grow out of bullying. The decline starts in high school. The latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, published in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that in the year before, the percentage of girls who had been bullied on school property -- or had engaged in physical fights -- declined with each grade, from ninth through 12th.

About two years ago, Rebecca Goldberg found something similar at a large Southeastern university. Goldberg, now an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at Mississippi State University, interviewed 202 female undergraduates on what is called "relational aggression." She reported in her dissertation that freshmen were the most aggressive, seniors the least. Several seniors, she said, "looked back four years and said, 'Oh, I was a terrible brat back then.' "

Amanda Judson, a senior at Union College in Upstate New York, wrote her senior honors thesis on the same subject, comparing freshmen with seniors. She reported that freshmen women observed significantly more incidents of bullying than seniors did.

"Indirect aggression was less acceptable to older women because it was no longer the norm," she wrote. "Seniors outgrow this behavior or at least have the ability to recognize it as juvenile."

It's difficult to accept such findings, because there are so many ways today to be mean. The worst, perhaps, is cyberbullying. A woman may not know from whom a hurtful post came. Ill-tempered remarks can be cut and pasted so that an infinite number of people can read them or or text them without forethought. Horrific crimes have been one result, such as the vicious text messages exchanged between two Florida girls in love with the same boy that resulted in one girl killing the other in 2009.

But Peter Picard, vice president for research at TRU, a youth research and polling firm, cautions against assuming that just because meanness gets more exposure, there are more mean girls or mean women.

"I'm sure the mean-girl phenomenon is hyped," he says. "The very design of some of the research is to bring attention to the issue."

Liz Funk, a popular campus lecturer in her 20s and author of "Supergirls Speak Out," a book about overachievers, remembers having "a lovely circle of friends in high school who went to class, didn't get in trouble and could be really nasty at times. People would write the most scathing things on their blogs, and we'd all read them. It was like watching gladiators. But when you get to college, it's no longer appropriate to be mean to girls your age. Most of the mean girls we knew grew up to be normal."

Perhaps older females simply are slier at expressing their aggression. But two friends, Anne and Cole, college seniors from Alexandria, contend that it's more than that.

Anne, a tall, athletic-looking blonde, is sitting next to Cole in a booth at a favorite Mexican restaurant. The two women, who did not want their last names used because of concerns about future employment, attended the same private school from kindergarten through senior year. As early as fourth or fifth grade, "we were part of a strong-willed, alpha female group, 10 or 12 close friends," Anne recalls over queso dip and tortilla chips.

"We were sassy and snappy," she says, turning to Cole, a brunette with big brown eyes and a wide smile, who nodded in agreement.

"You lose some of the cattiness as you get older and more secure," Anne continues. "Instead of telling a girl she made a fool of herself at a party, I might say something like, 'You were so funny.' Gradually, you're able to put yourself in someone else's shoes."

This doesn't happen on the same timeline for all girls, of course, and at college, sorority life can bring out the worst in certain members. Anne and Cole are sharing dip and chips with Shreves, whom they met in college in Virginia, and they urge her to tell the story about an encounter she had her junior year.

"I had just gotten in the bathroom at a bar when someone started banging on the bathroom door," Shreves recalls. "I yelled out, 'Do you have a problem?' but the banging continued. Finally, I opened the door to leave, thinking, What is your problem?

"The girl looked me up and down and said, 'So what sorority are you in?' I told her Delta. 'Well, I'm in Theta,' she said, and she pushed her way past, slamming the door in my face."

"I remember thinking, We're close to being 21. I can't believe people still act like that. You're not going to tell your boss, 'Well, I'm in Theta.'"

***

Mean-girl stories seem to be almost exclusively about white, economically privileged girls and women. They rarely capture the experiences of minorities or the large and growing number of women enrolled in community colleges, such as Marie Diop, 20, who is in her last year at Montgomery College in Takoma Park. Diop, the tall, composed president of the college's student senate, doesn't have the time or inclination to play the mean games she heard about before arriving in this country.

She was 11, living with her parents in Senegal, when her father told her the family was moving to Washington.

Middle school here passed without incident, but high school was another story. A sophomore on her pompom team tried to claim a jersey Diop had received from a football player. A junior girl befriended her, then dropped her for senior girls.

The girl whispered to Diop, "Once the seniors leave, I'll come back to you." She barely talked to Diop the next year.

Last summer, Diop had an experience similar to Shreves's: The girl friended her on Facebook. Well, look who's growing up, Diop remembers thinking. The girl now attends Long Island University, and the two of them chat online.

Diop, who dreams of returning to Africa to build a hospital, says she has learned that if you can endure the taunts of mean girls, you become stronger, your self-worth not tied up in who likes or doesn't like you.

Middle and high school "gave me the guts to confront anybody," she says. "It influenced me to run for my position on the senate ... and get into a circle of girls who have a purpose in life."

Erin Willer, a professor of communications at the University of Denver who studies relationship aggression, calls this the "bright side of social aggression."

***

When the workplace was a man's world and leadership roles for women were few, it was tempting to consider other females the enemy. Competition violated society's idea of femininity, says Goldberg, the Mississippi professor, and women sometimes used covert ways to climb the ladder, stepping on other women in the process.

But the landscape is changing. More than half of managers and professionals are women, according to the research group Catalyst. Women are graduating from medical and law schools in numbers equal to or greater than men. There is less need, even in a recession, to elbow other women out when there are more available seats and when corporations are moving away from competitive models of leadership and toward collaboration.

Young women understand both models -- especially women such as Anne and Cole who grew up playing team sports. Anne, a varsity lacrosse player all four years of college, says her sport boosted her confidence and taught her the value of working closely with, and supporting, her team members on and off the field.

"If a girl gets drunk, I make sure she gets home because I care for her," Anne says. "I also don't want her to get in trouble with the coach, because then we'd all get in trouble."

The Meredith Corp., a $1.4 billion media and marketing company focused on women, has built an entire marketing strategy on forging connections and encouraging collaboration.

A little more than three years ago, Meredith, publisher of 21 magazines such as Fitness and Better Homes and Gardens, hired marketing experts Lisa Finn and Lisa Johnson to ask women ages 18 to 64 about their attitudes and goals. Results showed that slightly more than half the respondents identified themselves as inclusive rather than competitive, motivated more by the desire to interact than impress. The positive characteristics began to be particularly noticeable as young women moved through their 20s and beyond.

Meredith's chief marketing officer, Nancy Weber, and her team named these women Gammas, choosing, with my permission, a designation I had coined for girls in a 2002 Washington Post article, as opposed to my other designation, the Alphas.

In 2008, Meredith released a reporttitled "The Gamma Factor: Women and the New Social Currency." Gammas, it said in accompanying material, "represent a tidal force that is redefining the marketing model. ... Gamma women share and exchange information, ideas, opinions, contacts and recommendations. ... This is in sharp contrast to the 'Alpha' style of communication -- a top-down model of selectively passing along information. While a Gamma's sense of self is guided by her internal beliefs, passions and priorities, an Alpha is driven by external social hierarchies or other indicators of status or popularity."

Asked recently if the Gamma image is still in play, Weber replied: "Absolutely. We check the description regularly. It bears out across the board, and especially now with the downturn in the economy. A mean girl is all about exclusivity. For us, sharing information is the connection."

***

The young women interviewed for this story appear to be acquiring more Gamma-like characteristics as they transition from college to work.

Shreves, who is considering working in public relations, says she met Gammas and Alphas this past summer interning at a public relations firm in Manhattan that specializes in fashion and beauty products. The lower-level employees with whom she worked were "mostly from Long Island, wealthy and fashionable, all very nice," she recalls. "But one of the account managers, in her late 20s or early 30s, stomped around like she was amazing and was very vindictive. She didn't even take the trouble to learn the interns' names."

Shreves had a better experience the year before, working for a small law firm of women owned and run by a woman. The boss "was very commanding and authoritative but not mean," Shreves says. "No one there acted as if they had to stake out their territory. She was such a good role model."

Cole regularly surfs the Internet for inspiring articles. One, written by a management consulting firm, reviewed a study released last year of 72 senior executives. The study showed that leaders who were judged to be self-aware and to work well with their employees delivered better bottom-line results. Cole, who's interested in financial analysis, said she found this to be true last summer while working as an intern for a brokerage firm in New York.

"In the bond market, at the end of the day, you want your client to come back to you and trust you," she says. "And you want your whole team to do well. That's best for the company. ... There are no real-world ramifications for being a bitch in high school. But in the workforce there are plenty of reasons to network -- compensation, for example, and the potential to get a promotion.

"You learn the difference between being straightforward and being a bitch."

Laura Sessions Stepp, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a senior media fellow at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She writes regularly about young women. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com and was online Feb. 18 to discuss this story.

Have you made peace with a mean girl? Were you one in a former life? Tell us your story by using #meangirls on Twitter or sharing in the comments.

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