The Mean Girls of my past were not called “the plastics”. They weren’t a foursome either. I won’t share their self-appointed name but it was cringeworthy- and included a synonym for the word “privileged”. Even now, almost twenty years after high school, I get anxious when recounting my experiences with this group – afraid for some sort of backlash or retaliation. It’s as if they still have some sort of invisible power. The effects of ‘mean girl’ cliques has shaped my life in ways that I’ve just recognized over the past few years. And having two girls of my own? It adds another whole layer. A quite scary one.
While I have not had any interactions with members of this group in years, somehow- and much to my frustration, their past actions still affect my life. They don’t deserve all the credit though. It was the collective actions of the mean girls throughout my life that molded and formed my view of things. Of women. Specifically, groups of women. What I saw (and took as “normal behavior”) for years, affected me throughout college and into adult life. It influences where I wish to live and how I want to raise my kids. It influences how I perceive friend groups, and groups of women in general. You may be thinking, “Ok, so was she bullied by these girls? Did they spread horrible rumors about her in a burn book?”. Well, no actually. By textbook standards, I wasn’t bullied - and not cyberbullied either because it didn’t truly exist back then! Thank. God.
Let’s face it, every school has cliques. Every school has a couple of popular kids, whether they happen to be the athletes, the rich kids, the cheerleaders, or what have you. Your school probably had the intellectuals or “Nerds”, the “Band Geeks”, the smells-like-Hot-Topic goth kids, the “Skaters”, a few others, and because #Jersey, we had the “Guido’s” too. I was a cheerleader, and hung out with an awesome group of girls who weren’t bitches or geeks or rebels... “neutrals” if you will. Being a cheerleader meant a lot of quality time with members of this lucky bunch. However, it wasn’t like Cady Heron doing research on the Plastics. I loved cheering and gymnastics and it was a big part of my life, even though my best friends weren’t part of the team.
The ringleaders pulled the puppet strings just like Regina did. Girls like Gretchen were told who they could be friends with dating back to elementary school. Excluding others was a talent. I can remember driving around to decorate the football player’s houses before gameday. We were expected to bake for them too [gag] which is another topic in itself. Girls separated into cars. You know when captains used to pick teams in gym class? Granted it’s P.E. now but I’m keepin’ it straight 90’s over here. Things were all sorts of messed up back then, and the gym teachers would select the captains of the football team or whoever they coached, and then let them slowly humiliate the less athletically-inclined kids by picking them last. Or worse, allowing the captain to mutter “ughhh” combined with an eye roll when someone was forced to join their team. It was sort of the same with cheering. The most popular girls picked who they wanted in their cars, and the least popular girls were picked last or left to figure out which one of them could drive.
The Mean Girls were experts at exclusion, and making people feel beneath them. They would talk about people while they were present, not even having the decency to wait until they were in private. A friend who had a locker next to one of the mean girls withstood constant gossiping, whispers, smirks, and insincere compliments much like the scene in the movie where Regina George tells a girl “Oh my God I love your skirt! Where did you get it?” only to say “That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen” after the girl walks away. Much worse was said, but I’ll spare the details. There’s more ground to cover.
After graduating high school, I found myself joining a sorority in college, which is still a decision that confuses and surprises me to this day. I stepped right into another toxic house (literally, my sorority house) and endured a new level of mean girls. But they weren’t called The Plastics either. They were called “Sisters”. The older sisters made pledges’ lives a living hell for months at a time. We were hazed, yelled at, insulted, and none of it was in private. I remember ordering pancakes from our chef (yes, we had a live-in chef) and another girl stealing them from me. She laughed and said she was late to class and that I could wait for the next plate. Her friends didn’t bat an eye, and I stood there dumbfounded, wondering whether I should tell her off (which wasn’t really an option as a newer sister), walk away, or just wait for the next plate. In college I had plenty of friends. Good friends. Yet I was also surrounded by fake, judgey, pretentious, mean sorority girls. I was better equipped to deal with them, but the constant gossiping and the spreading of rumors had a lasting impact on me. I briefly dated someone that happened to be the ex of a sorority sister. Believe it or not, I didn’t know – Facebook wasn’t born yet (God I feel old). Anyway, what I endured for that mistake was something I’d never wish upon anyone’s daughter. Threats, insults, attempted physical violence – all from a “sister”.
All in all, I had an amazing college experience. I left with friends, a boyfriend-turned-husband, and two degrees. I moved out of the sorority house eventually and met other groups of awesome women. The point is, even though I moved on, I learned their ways. I participated in some ways when it was time to recruit new members. A “normal” person might encounter a group of pretty girls dressed head-to-toe in Lululemon (for me it was Lacoste and Tiffany’s jewelry) and assume they’re talking about something funny- a harmless picture on someone’s phone. But for me, I assume they’re talking about me. That my outfit is ugly, or that my makeup is smeared on my face, or that I’m some sort of loser for standing there by myself. Does it make sense? No! Of course not. It’s not rational in the slightest, but yet those are the invisible scars from the mean girls of my past.
This story isn’t meant to bash these women, some of whom are mothers now themselves. Who knows what they could have been dealing with at the time. They may have exhibited some pretty ugly behavior, but I have to take responsibility where I can. Did I speak up to these girls when they were making fun of underclassman and teachers? (No, teachers were not immune from them). I didn’t. Sometimes we were friends and sometimes frenemies. Many times I didn’t know. Like all the mean girls in high school and college, if they could use you for something (a car, a party, exam notes, etc.) you were “in”. If they had no use for you, you were “out” faster than Heidi Klum could say it. This went for members of their own circle as well. What I hate to admit is that their behavior bled into my own at times. Not often, but even once was one too many.
For the majority of my life, I’ve avoided any major issues with ‘mean girls’. I have lived in Hoboken for years, blissfully removed from them, have held many different jobs, and have had positive relationships with women. So why can’t my brain just remember those? Why do I still feel judged and insecure when I’m at the gym and there’s a group of pretty girls huddled together laughing at something?
At my old gym a couple of years ago, there was a definitive clique of women who trained together. They were in amazing shape, rocked trendy expensive workout clothes, and naturally, hung out in the locker room chit-chatting. They didn’t do anything to make me feel insecure, but at the time it was just my natural inclination to wonder if they were talking about me in a negative way. How can such insignificant ‘it girls’ from so long ago dictate how I perceive situations? Rationally, I know no one is calling me names or trying to exclude me from some secret club. But when a situation arises like recently, where I wasn’t invited to a friend’s birthday party, I started to spin. Does she hate me? What did I do wrong? Did her other friends say that they didn’t want me there? The whole thing was a misunderstanding. Nothing was wrong; no one hated me and I hated the fact that my reaction was such.
When I became a mom, I knew I’d have to make new friends. I didn’t have “mom friends” in town, so I forced myself to attend the new mom group at the hospital. Side note- I love the women who run that group and can’t recommend them (or any “new parent” support group) enough. While I was exceptionally fortunate to find my “mom tribe” and loved being part of my new stroller mafia, I saw the cliques forming. I saw women making lunch plans while other ones absently rocked their strollers back and forth, silently hoping for an invite. Countless times, I witnessed moms make plans after a Mommy & Me class, completely overlooking the woman next to them.
I realize this isn’t necessarily intentional or mean. It’s life – human nature. Heck I’m guilty of it too. As human beings we naturally gravitate to people similar to ourselves. I’ve included and I’ve excluded (sometimes completely unaware). I’m not perfect by any means and the purpose isn’t to knock on mom cliques here or anywhere. For me, it’s to realize why I’ve felt a certain way years after these experiences and not let it affect my life going forward, or my daughters'.
I talk to my daughter about being an “includer”. We’ve read books and discussed kind vs. unkind behavior. Is it enough? No. I’ve seen my daughter play at the park with her little crew, not noticing anyone else but them, and I’ve also seen her alone, trying to play with an established group, getting pushed aside. I know I can’t shield her from “mean girl” behavior, especially with the addition of social media. The mean girls of my past- their ‘power’ dispersed and silently slipped away after graduation. What I don’t want my girls to feel is power over others, or powerless underneath them. I’m praying for a happy medium.
Melissa Goldin-Magee is a New Jersey native who has lived in Hoboken since 2008. She lives downtown with her husband and two daughters, ages 2 and 5. While her background is in Education and School Counseling, she can now be found cooking, chasing kids around Church Square Park, and running late while holding a large iced latte. You can also follow her on Instagram at @whathappenedinhere.