Girls’ Studies: Mean Girls and Frenemies

This feels like a deeply personal post, and usually when I write something like this, I connect it to a book and I spend a few weeks or more crafting it into an essay with a purpose or a message.  Today, I’m just answering the following questions for my class.

What group were you in as a girl? Who did you fit in with?
Did you have a frenemy? Do you continue to have frenemies?
What about crushes?
Respond to any (or all!) of these questions.

These questions are hard because of my perceptions of myself and the fact that I changed groups a few times over the years.  When I lived in California, I felt as if I were friends with everybody, and when I returned to visit a year or so after having left, everybody remembered me as friend with a Mexican girl who didn’t speak English.  They said I was her best friend, and I didn’t even remember her well.  I remembered that I was trying to be kind and make her feel comfortable, and because my parents taught us a little Spanish at home, I attempted to use it with her.

When I moved to a Navajo reservation, I was a “smart” kid for a year.  I ended up skipping to another grade for math and reading times, and then going back and forth between the two grades.  My friends were the smart older kids that I met.

Once I settled in the rural town where I spent most of my schooldays, I had several groups.  The one year that sticks out is sixth grade.  That was a tough time for us girls.  We had a large group in our class who all tried to hang out together, but inevitably, one ringleader would wreak havoc by starting secret clubs and leaving people out.  When a new girl named Hallie moved it, she was shunned.  She wasn’t well dressed or groomed and came from a rough family situation.  I befriended her, but the ringleader told everybody that if they talked to her they were out of the group.  I ignored her.  The others obeyed, giving Hallie nasty notes and shunning her on the playground.  She broke down and told our wise teacher, Mrs. Frazier, who stopped class one afternoon and called out the offenders one by one.  She had Hallie out in the cloakroom (which led out to the playground; it wasn’t weird to be in there!) and called out each of the “mean” girls to speak about the situation and hopefully make amends with poor Hallie.  As members of our group got called out, the whole class sat tense and silent, occasionally whispering or nudging us and saying, “You’re next.”  They pointed at me.  But I never got called out.  I was the only one who didn’t get in trouble; I had been nice to Hallie.


I changed groups in junior high, again befriending new people who had moved in.  We also began to have boys that were friends, which was fun.  In my senior year of high school, I was with roughly that same group, expanded a little, when I ended up with mono.  I missed several months of school and could barely function.  My two best friends came over once, and when I returned to school, they had other friends.  I felt left out.  And then, one of them had a boyfriend for the first time.  But trouble struck when he saw that I was being left out and befriended me.  (I was seriously eating lunch with the guidance counselors everyday because I had no friends.)  When this boy started paying attention to me, she, of course, was very upset, and I ended up dating him instead of her.  I am sure this story has many sides, which you are not getting from me, but the narrative from the outside essentially runs like this: “I stole my best friend’s boyfriend.”  That isn’t how I see it, but it certainly seems to have happened.

In a funny twist, I became closer to another girl who had lived near me since we moved in, and she would hang out with this boy and I.  They ended up getting married!  (We just passed him around, apparently.)

My experiences show the varied interactions that girls have with each other, and the complications that arise when boys are involved.  I was never the mean girl, and I was never the popular girl.  I was a smart girl and an awkward shy girl.  I did date a lot, but I never hung out with the in-crowd.  Since high school, I’ve felt free to become more than these labels of “shy” or “smart.”

Interestingly, nobody in high school labeled me as smart.  When senior personalities for the yearbook came out, I was given “Biggest Brownnoser.”  That still hurts because of how genuine I really was.  Perhaps I should just be glad I got one of the personalities.  I tried to be kind during those years, but apparently nobody saw it that way.  They thought I got good grades for ingratiating myself with the teachers, but the teachers were kind to me and they understood me and they saw who I really was.  They even ate lunch with me when my friends rejected me.

Do I still have frenemies?  Yes, there have been some strange incidences with other women which I cannot fully explain.  I had a best friend several years ago, but one day, she became angry with me (for seemingly no reason; I have no idea what really happened on her end), and she yelled at me and accused me of strange and horrible things.  We never were friends after that.  She started ignoring me, even when I tried to speak to her in public.  (I wrote a little more about this experience here.)  More recently, another woman accused me of embarrassing her publicly at our church, but I didn’t and I still don’t know what she thinks I was trying to do.  We tend to try to avoid each other.  These were uncomfortable situations, and ones that I can’t really explain.  I truly try to be kind and nice to other people, but every so often, they will have an extreme reaction to me, and I have to assume that it is their problem and not mine.  Maybe my perception is skewed, but I can’t continue to focus on people who end up causing problems in my life.

Well, that was a rambling post.  I hope there’s something in there worth taking away.  I do notice that my stories of friends tend to paint myself as a victim.  Was I really?  Or am I just remembering things conveniently?  Perhaps we learned today that I might be an unreliable narrator.

52 thoughts on “Girls’ Studies: Mean Girls and Frenemies

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  1. This sounds so sadly familiar. Female friendships and rivalries (love the term frenemies – so apt) are part of growing up a girl and of course becoming a woman. And they are always in a state of flux. This book was recommended to me: by another mother when I was at my wits’ end with my daughter and her friend/enemy group (which always seems to be arguing with each other and generally being hideous). I must admit that I always sought to play with boys because I couldn’t cope with the mental games involved in female friendship and I still gravitate that way. Though as I’ve got older I have been fortunate in gaining a few very lovely female friends whose friendships I know are everlasting. Well done for resisting the temptation to join the club and be nasty to others. As someone who was bullied very badly by a clique of girls, led by one particularly nasty one, I would have appreciated someone like you by my side.

    1. I prefer men sometimes, too! But as I have gotten older and settled down, I have found a really nice group of female friends that I couldn’t live without. I want to read that book. It was mentioned in our readings a lot this week. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Great post! We’re all unreliable narrators, in a way. I read somewhere that memory is in part fiction, because we can never recall how something happened perfectly. (I think it was an episode of radiolab).

    1. “Memory is in part fiction”–that is so true! I was just thinking back through my own memories: the times when I’ve felt wrongly accused by friends, the times when I found out later I was totally oblivious to a problem, the times when I was misunderstood. I wonder how some of my old friends remember those times.

  3. It sounds like you had a mind of your own as a kid and that often transforms a teenager into a victim, but the luckier of us only become stronger because of it; growing into individuals with a well-defined personality. Too bad it takes years to understand it though 😉

    1. It really does take years so grow into who we were meant to be and feel comfortable with it. I wish my grownup self could go back and reassure my younger self.

  4. My sister used to pick on (bully) me it ended in high school I guess, but I have forgiven her and we get along fine now.

    1. I am glad to hear that things are better now. I was a “mean girl” to my sisters too because I am the oldest, but I am so glad we are such good friends now. I think sharing clothes and bathroom with somebody can make me a little meaner. 😉

  5. Awesome post, Emily! I love reading some of these more personal stories, so thank you for sharing. 🙂 If I ever received a label in school it was “goody two-shoes.” No one ever said I was a brownnoser, but I almost never misbehaved and I got near-perfect grades. In high school, I suddenly rebelled against being “the perfect one,” but that’s a story for another time.

    1. Me too, Ariel – this sounds so much like my own story growing up. 🙂 How I HATED being thought of as a goody-goody but I didn’t know how to be otherwise.

        1. Ha ha. I would be very curious to hear your story someday 😉 I also tried to shed the goody goody image (in my 20s)…did some dumb things but being a mom now is a very comfortable place for me to be, as I am expected to be good 🙂

  6. This is such a fascinating post and the subject of female friendships continues to fascinate me. I’ve “only” experienced one group trauma (during elementary school) and the most hurtful experiences all took place with my closest friends. Maybe that was the problem. If I stop to think about it I think the underlying trigger for most of those difficult moments was this feeling that we were losing our space to be who we really were. We didn’t have the freedom of believing “This is you and this is me and we don’t have to be Siamese twins.” So when one of us wanted to stretch beyond the other person we would simply “break up.” My best friend in high school “broke up” with me when we went on to separate colleges…she had wanted to reinvent herself as the cool girl and I guess I was holding her back. Anyway, I am so thankful that things are less complicated now as an adult. My circle of physical friends is really small now anyway, as we are still relatively new in our town and we work from home and it just seems so much harder to find good friends at this stage in life. Most of my closest friends are from college, whom I still keep in touch with over email.

    1. How interesting! What you describe about “breaking up” with your close friend reminded me of the reading I did this week for this class. Part of it compared close female friendships in our youths to romantic relationships, where the feelings can run so deep and then lead to heartbreak.

  7. Emily, thanks for tracing your various roads taken and how people have meandered in and out of your life. I was interested in the “brownnoser” comment, as sometimes people get painted with a brush unbeknownst to them, often based on gossip, hearsay and/ or misconceptions. David Brooks wrote about the Greek term Thumos, which has no English counterpart. He said Thumos means recognition and belonging and he used the example in high school, the kids that have it most difficult are those who do not belong to some grouping of people. They are the ones who tend to need a thicker skin as they can get ostracized. You mentioned feeling very left out after your return from mono. I remember when I had mono, I had to miss the better part of my baseball season and I felt very left out, as well.

    Through thick and thin, I have been blessed to have three grade school friends that we can spend hours talking with when I return home. I have had a mixture of others, but they fade in and out, as you describe. I guess the best we can all do is be true to who we are and treat others they way we want to be treated. If we do that, things will tend to take care of themselves. By the way, I only know you by your words, but you are definitely alright by me. All the best, BTG

    1. BTG, thanks! I think you are right about thicker skin and the idea that maybe we all feel left out sometimes, especially after going through something that others haven’t experienced. Friends do come and go, and I love it when those memories are good instead of painful.

  8. I was the kid who was left out and shy in elementary school, and didn’t become as sociable as I am until high school. It was the people willing to befriend me in my shyness that helped me open up. I’m sure your friendliness helped others too.

  9. Thank you for sharing this. I’m seeing that a lot of people can relate like this, and I’m right there with you. I’m curious to see how much of a blogger community also identifies with that same personality. Curious.
    I had three different high schools, and by the time I reached number three I wasn’t a very cuddly person. But I did want a friend who understood me – so badly.

  10. Insightful post! It actually reminds me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Helena’s “twin cherries” speech. I was a nerd in high school (surprise, surprise) and a theater dork, and an undercover rebel. But I was really lucky to have a couple close friends who’re still in my life.

    Grade school was another (miserable) story.

  11. Loving your post – brings back the good and not so good memories – thanks so much for sharing your stories:) I went to 7 different schools in 12 years – 5th grade was the worst because I was going through the ugly duckling stage – girls were just nasty! 7th and 8th grade were defining years for me in hanging out with a group of girls and starting to like boys. I did not care for High School and the group of girls I did hang out with were all in-betweeners. I lost touch with that High School group when I had to grow up pretty quickly – almost lost my mom at 19 and took care of her until I was 29. You could say I am in that selfish phase of my life and living the life I want now:) Happy Weekend!

    1. Enjoy this “selfish” phase. It sounds like you deserve it. And I can’t imagine changing schools so much. I moved a lot when I was little but settled for the last and most formative parts of my school years. And yes, girls can be extremely nasty. The readings I did this week talked about how we expect girls to be quiet and nice; therefore, they suppress their anger and take it out on each other in mean ways. It seemed plausible.

      1. I watched boys growing up – maybe girls should punch each other in the arm every once in a while and then like 5 minutes later slap each other on the arse or grip a shoulder in a loving manner – ha!

  12. You lived on a Navajo reservation? I’d like to hear more about that sometime.

    As for me, I moved so often because my dad was in the military that I’d just be friends with whichever group would accept me at the time. In sixth grade I was friends with the “other new girl,” in 7th grade I was a loner, in 8th I was part of the “good girls” group, in 9th and 10th I had one close best friend, and in 11th and 12th I just sort of talked to a variety of people. Interesting to look back and note patterns like this, isn’t it?

  13. I love having relationships with women! I have a long term boyfriend but nothing beats the understanding between best friends. I was lucky enough to have five best friends since I was a toddler. Even though we are separated by several states now we still support and love eachother! I’ve never really had a problem with women except my step mom, but I’ve diagnosed her as clinically insane so I try not to hold it against her

    1. It is somewhat of a relief to hear about good experiences with girlfriends! I am having those now that I’m older, but those younger days were tough. I want to move to your neighborhood!

  14. I really enjoyed your post. You sound alot like me when I was in school. I was smart, but not the smartest and I wasn’t ever in the “in crowd”. I like what you said about you not being a good narrator. I think your wrong, your told it like it was. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Even if you are not as reliable a narrator as an author would pen, (and maybe you are, by the way) the emotional truth of your mini-memoir resonates with me. I remember dealing with the same sorts of issues growing up, and when I hear my friends talk about their daughters having these kinds of experiences in 5th and 6th grade, it brings it all back to me. One book that really helped me process it in middle school was a “throwback” to my younger years. I’d read it as a grade school student, but it sat in my bookshelf and was waiting for me to re-read it. Although I have sons, (and this topic is certainly relevant to boys, too) I have 7 nieces, and I’ve given each household a copy of The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.

    Funny how a simple message that tells the “truth” of the experience, if not the specific details, can comfort you.

    1. I am glad it resonates with you. Those years are so hard! It seems like all girls have horrible middle school years. I’ve actually been thinking about the Estes book because I’ve never read it, but I have her book The Moffats waiting to read with my daughter right now. We’ll have to get The Hundred Dresses too. I’ve heard it’s good. And how lucky your nieces are to have you!

  16. I really enjoyed reading your post, it reminded me of similar experiences that I had growing up. I switched groups frequently as well and it was always interesting to me how quickly those friendships could dissolve. In fifth grade I was in the “popular” group of girls and I remember that they got mad at me and started to ignore me because I went to go play kick ball with all of the boys while they went to sit on the grass and talk about the boys playing kick ball. Society continually punishes those who go against the norm. Its so ridiculous that friendships end over such trivial things.

    1. It is ridiculous! I think your story highlights the power relations at play in girl groups, though. It seems like they wanted to punish you for fitting in with boys and getting attention that they perhaps wanted for themselves. Instead of celebrating you and using your status to lift themselves up, they instead rejected you in order to maintain power. So interesting!

  17. I think the problem lies when we take the blame for others’ actions and reactions. You have no control over that, and can only be who you are. Girls during puberty follow strange rules (and changeable ones) and there’s just no sense in it. Grown women who are still acting like that deserve our cold pity but are best distanced from. No one has the energy for mind games these days!

    1. I agree! I like the point you make about blaming ourselves for others’ behavior. There is danger in doing that and in basing our self-esteem off of what others think. It has taken me a long time to see this and change the way I think about these situations. Excellent point!

  18. Emily, your post may seem to ramble in some respects. Although, you may have learned more about yourself and relationships in your life. I find it interesting and it may encourage others to do something similar in their own lives.
    I also found it instructive to read your comment about being called a brownnoser and how it has a lasting hurtful sense to you. I recall an exasperated family member saying to me when I was a young boy: “why do you have to be so useless!” It really stung then and the emotional intensity is still vivid – even if I no longer feel useless. So, a ramble maybe. But readers might just be receiving it well.

    1. Thank you, Simon. You make an excellent point about rambling and how sometimes we can find identification just through stories told, without the fancy writing to tie it together under one big “Truth.” I am sorry about the “useless” comment. It is amazing how much words can hurt and that we remember them so long because of their power.

  19. I was sort of outside of all of this in high school, because I had a close group of girlfriends in grade school but ended up basically getting dumped by all of them through middle school and had no friends at all in high school, except one girl for one semester. I hated every minute of high school, but it wasn’t so much for being bullied as being ignored.

  20. Being a senior in high school, I can definitely relate to your experiences of being shunned by your friends. All of my best friends had made new cliques and I was the odd one out because I never fit in with any of them. Now it’s just me floating with individual close friends, but never any “groups.” It’s really difficult, but I don’t think I mind it very much. It just makes things like social events a little harder. P.S I think it’s horrible that your yearbook had a section labelled specifically for “brown-nosing!”

    1. No kidding, right?!? What idiot thought of that category? Anyway, I hope things get better for you. Your situation sounds a lot like mine, and things got better!

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