There is a scene in Mean Girls where one of the girls in the popular clique tells the new girl that she’s pretty. A compliment to make her feel welcome? No, a trap — to see if The New Girl has the unmitigated gall to agree that she’s attractive.
I think the truth of this scene flew over the heads of most men. Their interactions and politics are different — straight-forward. Men — boys — know where they stand with one another. If a guy is your friend yesterday, he’ll be your friend tomorrow — barring a major betrayal or running over his dog. They certainly don’t slowly torture members of their group longterm.
Girl Politics are different. There can be seismic shifts over seemingly minor incidences such as wearing the wrong outfit or smiling too long at the wrong boy. Often what is said is very different than what is meant. Someone showing compassion can be garnering information to use against the unwary girl who she pretends to comfort.
And the girl on the outs is often the last to know. She finds herself second guessing comments that would be clearly malicious if they were not said with sincere smiles. If she responds to what she senses beneath the surface, she is labeled paranoid…she has also given them ammunition.
Do I speak from personal experience? Sure — from both sides of the Tug of War. Then again, most women can tell you a few tales from the front. The cruel comments they cried over, the cruel comments they doled out.
I remember being 14, looking into a mirror and wondering why my ex-best friend called me ugly and everyone laughed. I saw a pretty girl in the mirror — not that I would ever be stupid enough to tell people that — but maybe I was missing something. Did I have too many freckles? Was 113 pounds too fat? Maybe if I had the right clothes? Should I fight with this girl? Should I pretend like I was above it all? (The truth is that once you were on the outs any decision or change was a bad one. You had to find a new group.)
Years later these girls go into relationships and the men in their lives wonder why they are always looking for hidden meanings. Why the woman in their life cannot take a compliment at face value — and why all the questions this woman asks seem to be trick questions with no right answer. And sometimes they wonder why their girlfriend can be sweet to someone’s face and tear them to ribbons secretly. They weren’t privy to the early training.
As a rule, girls become women and it does get somewhat better. We do learn to become loyal friends and we do, hopefully, gather up the tatters of our self-esteem, but those memories are always there; even more so when we see our daughters and the girls around us going out into the world — sweet, innocent, looking for acceptance… We hold our breath and hope it will be different. We hope that if the world has to teach them humility and knock them about, that the wounds will be more on the outside–bruised skin is sooner healed than are the countless tiny wounds that are bled out in confused tears late at night.