I was walking through the mall the other day and stopped in my tracks in front of Wet Seal when I saw a tank top featured in the window that read “You Can’t Sit With Us”. In small text underneath the line was attributed to Mean Girls, a movie from 2004 that explores the phenomena of adolescent cruelty and cliques. It’s a marvelous flick (written by the brilliant comedian Tina Fey) because of its clear-eyed look at young female viciousness and resolution through revenge and redemption. However, its messages of exclusion do not belong on clothing marketed to tweens and teens. Retailers are smack in the middle of back-to-school sales and marketing clothing that glorifies bullying is heartless and wrong. For a moment there it seemed like perhaps America was making progress on rooting out bullying in schools, or at minimum speaking openly about it. Projects like itgetsbetter.org and thebullyproject.com raised the issue, attempting to instill a sense of hope for victims and responsibility in peers, parents and educators. Now my local Nordstrom is posting pro-bullying clothing and accessories available in its teen department on Instagram.
Having been a mean girl and a victim myself, my feelings about bullying are strong. I’ve perpetrated it and received it. Both sides of the equation are absolutely miserable, let me tell you. I joined the mean girls in third grade, and I didn’t leave them until (embarrassingly) I graduated college. At the same time, I never quite fit in at school or was part of a clique or group. I was what I’m going to call a “marginal mean girl”–never admitted to the glowing center of the popular girl clique, I hung around the margins, using cruelty against vulnerable peers to enhance my image and boost my position in the social pecking order. For example, in middle school I shunned the outcast kids by openly making fun of them and excluding them, while finding myself often mocked and excluded by the very group I was trying so hard to enter. As an extreme extrovert whose main need is to connect with people, exclusion was terribly painful. Isolation and loneliness plagued me for all of my school years, and I lashed out because I wanted others to feel as horrible as I did. I needed others to understand pain, to equalize the playing field somehow. I was gifted at inflicting it, which got me into frequent trouble, and isolated me further. I lived in constant fear of rejection, dreading birthdays, holidays, lunchtime and recess where I might be told I wasn’t invited, or receive nothing, or have backs turned on me, or find myself alone. The outlet for my misery was inflicting it on others. Both because treating peers like shit seemed to be the key to becoming popular and unleashing pain on others provided temporary release. Thanks to our ever-more connected world we know more about this problem, and how it can cause suicide at worst.
Shame on adults who perpetuate messages of exclusion and cruelty, targeting youth. Fuck, targeting anyone. And during back-to-school no less, a time of fragile hope and gnawing anxiety for kids caught up in bullying. Yet it’s not only rampant in schools. I worked in a large office several years ago that had a mean girl clique comprised of women over forty with PhDs. They ran the office with their subversive terror tactics, creating a culture of fear and toxic negativity. It was both fascinating and horrifying to watch smart, grown women talk obsessively about being fat, who in the office was fat, who in the office was dumb, and hold closed-door gossip sessions. Leadership turned a blind eye to the problem, and the group continued to amass social capital and unofficially rule the office culture. It sickens me that clothing designers and marketers are creating brands around bullying. When I posted the picture above on social media, calling out Wet Seal for its misstep, a couple of friends urged me to see the hilarious irony, and that wearing something like that as an adult would be cool. My friends, I reject your viewpoint completely because I believe we have a greater responsibility here, kindness. A different friend, sensing my upset texted me a picture of a shirt that read “You Can Sit With Us” from kindcampaign.com, a site promoting kindness in schools. I noted about a week later Nordstrom had removed its pro-bullying clothing post, hopefully because they got a clue. A stronger message would be to pull it from the shelves.
I personally feel I owe a karmic debt to society for the years I perpetrated cruelty on my peers. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to randomly reconnect with people I hurt and apologize. Sometimes I’ve sought people out for this purpose. I know I need to do more in the course of my life, and I challenge myself to treat people well, with kindness, and call out bad behavior when I see it. You can sit with me.