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Interview with Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out
Rachel Simmons graduated from Vassar College where she studied political science and women's studies. A Rhodes Scholar, she began her research on female bullying and the psychology of girls while at Oxford University. She has worked in politics in Washington, D.C., and New York City. She is a national trainer for the Ophelia Project and lives in Brooklyn.

Boys act out or get into fights to show aggression. Girls don't have the cultural consent to express anger in this way, so they express it in covert but damaging ways—the dirty looks, the taunting notes, total exclusion from "the group." Every generation of women can tell stories of being bullied, but Odd Girl Out examines and explains this problem for the first time.


Q: One of the grievances among the girls you interviewed is that girls "never forget." One girl stated that "Boys duke it out. Girls, they don't finish [the fight]. It grows bigger." Would it be better for girls to "duke it out?" Or do girls prefer "nice abuse" to outright aggression?
A: Most girls long to have the kinds of conflicts they witness boys having. They want to be told something to their faces rather than be cut out of a group without a word. Part of the reason girls "don't forget" is that they don't have the opportunity to express their anger in a healthy, fulfilling way. Girls feel that in order to be "nice"- something most parents and teachers expect from girls-they cannot be in open conflict with others. They must be "friends," at least externally, with everyone. As a result, girls often repress their anger or allow it to emerge in indirect or covert ways. When girls cannot assert their feelings directly, resentment often lingers, leading to grudges and, in some cases, future acts of vengeance.

Q: There seems to be no specific target for this aggressive behavior. It could be directed towards an unpopular girl, a new girl, or even a very popular girl—the simplest comment, whether malicious, thoughtless, or even innocent, can provoke a well-strategized and sometimes global "attack." Is it fair to say that, regardless of the "just do it" girl power promotions, society's influence on proper "good girl" behavior drives relational aggression and will continue to do so—perhaps indefinitely?
A: Absolutely. When I first set out to write this book, I assumed girls punished each other according to an unfortunate teen logic. What I expected was that the uncool, the overweight, the differently-abled would be punished. What I found was a far different landscape of female anger. Because females are expected to be caretakers in our society, the challenge of negotiating the impulse to anger and the obligation to sacrifice one's needs for others is significant. In my interviews, girls told me that expressing anger would result in the loss of their relationships with others. The prospect of solitude terrified them, and it was, moreover, a major violation of their caretaking roles. "Nice" girls, they told me, have lots of friends. They don't get in fights. As a result, much of girls' aggressive behavior goes underground. The fear of confrontation makes anger a circular issue that increases the scope of the conflict and causes girls to use relationships with each other as weapons against each other. Although the weak will more often be preyed upon, relational aggression targeting has less to do with an external characteristic than with a conflict that has not been addressed directly and openly.

Q: Is there some advice for parents and girls on how to deal with this type of relational aggression? That is, advice which doesn't simply advise a girl to "ignore it," and that helps a parent approach a teacher who may not believe that another child can be "manipulative, competitive, and underhanded?"
A: Actually, I think it's a real mistake to tell a girl to ignore what's happening to her. Girls can't ignore it. When a girl is being targeted, it is pretty much the only thing she can think about. After I interviewed each girl, I asked her what she wished her mom or dad would have done to make her life easier. Overwhelmingly, the girls said they wished their parents had not trivialized their pain. Don't tell me that it will pass; that it's a phase; that she's "just jealous;" that I'm taking things too seriously; that they're just joking. Honor my pain for what it is - devastating." It's hard for a parent to just listen and hold their daughters. But that's exactly what the girls told me they wished for.

Approaching teachers is no easy task. We don't have a language to talk about these behaviors, so parents are often forced to speak in derogatory terms about other children's aggressions, saying a child is a "liar" rather than saying she is engaging in an act of social or indirect aggression. Because alternative aggressions, as I call them in my book, lack a public consciousness, it is important for a parent to be calm in her approach to a teacher. It is very easy, in these situations, to get pegged as the "hysterical parent" who is overreacting to her child's social misfortune. Once that happens, well, a lot of teachers just turn off. Try to interview the teacher about what is happening, about how much she can see; ask if your child can switch classes (switching desks is often futile since girls can send mean looks anywhere they want), because a great deal of social chemistry, particularly in elementary school, forms along classroom lines.

Q: In your book, you list incidents of young girls "steering clear of the details" and apologizing to end fights just for the "relief" of having it over. This is, as you say, because girls feel a "prime directive" to maintain a relationship "at any cost." You interviewed quite a few adults who either suffered from or delivered this type of aggression in childhood. Are they continuing this behavior as adult women and/or do they still suffer from the effects of being a target or perpetrator?
A: One of the hardest things for me as an interviewer was to listen to the stories of adult women. These women, in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, still carried with them the vestiges of victimization. They told their stories with unusual clarity; they could remember the clothes they wore, the food they had eaten, the words they spoke on the hardest days of their girlhood. These women reported a life filled with troubled relationships with other women. Most difficult for them was trusting other girls or women afterward. Even when the women had close friends, they reported not being able to shake a nagging feeling that these friends might at any moment and without explanation, abandon them. These interviews in particular saddened me because they pointed to the great rift among women that I have long heard about but never experienced in my personal life. Women are the ones who say that women never help each other in the workplace, that they can't be trusted, and so on. I think the genesis for these adages is the experience of girl bullying. When these episodes go unexplained and unaddressed, it is not difficult to understand why a girl would grow into a woman skittish around others of the same sex.

Q: This book is groundbreaking in its subject matter, but it is only the beginning of a new stage in female-to-female relationships. Where, Rachel, do we go from here?
A: Now we act. We ask society to accept alternative aggressions as a valid form of aggression deserving the same attention more conventional kinds of aggression receive. One of the ways we can do this is to modify harassment and anti-bullying policies to reflect the new research on girls. Most rules in use at schools deal with physical and direct aggression-the behaviors disproportionately engaged in by boys. We need to amend those rules to include acts of ganging up, sustained negative body language, rumor spreading, and so on.

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Rachel Simmons

Rachel Simmons

Odd Girl Out
Odd Girl Out

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