An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
“I got off on manipulating people.” — Rebecca
I’m one of four kids. Middle-kid syndrome is totally real. You need attention and feedback and you get off on interacting with other people. My strategy was to project confidence; I was a people magnet and I got off on manipulating what I attracted.
I had been president of my class every year. One year, there was this girl I did not like running in the student-body elections. I knew she had a crush on my boyfriend. So, I took the ballots. I knew the guidance counselor wouldn’t question me, and I walked in to his office and said, “Well we have a tie, it’s between Anita and three others. I think you should let me interview them and then I’ll just pick who’s best.” He was like, “That’s fantastic!” I held interviews and obviously Anita was not in that student body. That gave me such a high.
I charmed all of them. I even had teachers pull me aside and say, This boyfriend isn’t for you!” or “You need to apply to better colleges.” It was power. But I was never satisfied. I always wanted more. Once I said: “I need keys to the school because I’m planning all these events,” and the administration was like “Okay, here are the keys to the school.” I didn’t realize that the way I acted was bad — I thought I was deserving.
We called ourselves “the Crew.” We made T-shirts with our nicknames on the back. There were seven of us, and some people would come in and out. I always had a “number two” but it would change depending on who made me upset or who someone was dating. If they dated someone I didn’t like, I’d switch them out.
In Alaska, we didn’t have a lot of brand-name shops. But still, we had a uniform. For the guys, it was Abercrombie sweaters with Timberland shoes and for girls, we always had infinity scarfs, little shrugs, and Ugg boots. I always wore heels. The first day of AP history I went up to the teacher and I was like: “Hi, my second period is all the way across the school and I can’t make it there in time in heels, so I need to leave two minutes early … every day.”
He just laughed and was like: “Sure … whatever. As long as you’re a good student.” I bet he was thinking: “Who is this girl?”
I copyedited the school yearbook. There was a girl who kind of looked like a horse, so I changed her quote to say, “I stay fit by eating oats and grains.” One of my friends photoshopped her face to make it a bit longer. We didn’t admit to any of it, we were all innocent like, “She said that!” The principal told her mom: “I’m sorry, that’s just what your daughter’s face looks like.”
I remember thinking, Oh my god this turned out way better than we could have ever imagined. It gets better. When the school gave out the copy of the yearbook they attached the stickers with an instruction to put them over a picture on page 28. That just made it worse: Everyone went to that page thinking, huh!? Why do we need to cover this girl’s face with a sticker? and then they’re like, oh.
Looking back I can see that I was trying to fit in. I kept checking boxes. My mom was a cheerleader in high school and she still had her uniform. So I became a cheerleader, too. I dated the captain of the football team and I don’t even think I liked him. I felt so alone. I would reach out to people and I could never find somebody to click with. I was perceived as this perfect person but I never felt that way.
I ended up having to get a restraining order against my college boyfriend and he was a star college-football player, honor roll. He sure checked every box. It was the first time in my life that I was the one in a situation where people didn’t take my word, where people didn’t believe me.
Now I’m friends with people I would never have talked to back then. For example, I would not have given my fiancé a second look all those years ago. I thought all boys have to be exactly a certain height, their jawline has to look a certain way … If I met him in high school I would have been like, “Wow, that is not what I imagined for my Christmas card.” Now I’m like, “Wait a second, Christmas cards are sent out once a year, you have to spend every day with this person.”
“My high-school self haunts me.” — Jordan
I just got an invite to my high-school reunion and I’m like, I can’t see these people, they all think I’m evil. At the same time I think I should go and show them that I am compassionate, that I am capable of remorse.
I had a lot of very wealthy friends and they had a lot of very, very nice things. My family couldn’t afford to buy that stuff and I’d be bitchy about it. I had temper tantrums, like, “Why can’t I have a Juicy Couture bag!” We hung with older guys and we thought we were better than all the other girls. Freshman year, my friend had a big party. But instead of inviting our friends in our grade, we invited all seniors. We thought we were so cool to be the freshman girls having senior boys over.
We got addicted to the attention. Senior guys were ditching their friends to hang out with us. We loved that these guys would drive us everywhere, and invite us to their parties. It was this special attention that me and my four or five friends in my grade got. Nobody else got to say that they were hanging out with this group of older people.
One girl wanted to be my best friend so badly. We messed with her. Like one day we said: “Tomorrow we’re all going to wear these outfits.” We’d tell her to wear it too, and then wear something else so the girl would be mortified. I think you feel invincible when you know you’re popular.
It was tradition that the boys would make a March Madness bracket with the rankings of the hottest girls. You would secretly want to be on it, because then the guys would notice you. It was so screwed up. Over the years, us girls started making our own bracket. But it turned really mean. It would be like, pitting two girls who liked the same guy against each other, or a girl versus her ex-boyfriend. And there was a younger girl who was very promiscuous, and she would sleep with all of our guy friends. We were like, “Screw her! She’s ruining our friend circle.” So we made a bracket that was all of the guys, versus her vagina. Obviously her vagina won.
So many copies of this thing got printed. Have you seen that scene in Mean Girls? We went to school with thousands of copies and we threw them everywhere. That thing went in bathrooms and empty hallways. We had each other’s backs because we were all guilty. So we didn’t get in trouble.
Two of my friends were really beautiful and they got guys left and right, and that was a little bit of an insecurity for me. I think I peaked in senior year at high school, when I finally had my braces off and grew breasts. If a guy liked me and gave me attention it didn’t matter if I liked him, that was enough. I dated very terrible boys.
I’d think … I can’t wait to go to college! But you get to college and you have to do all this fitting-in work again. You finally made this status in high school, you have your friends, you have the popularity, and then you get to college and you’re like, none of it matters.
I went to a private college. My dorm mates made my high-school friends look poor … These people were, like, heirs to major corporations. Some were models. They had all this money and they were perfect looking. And I would just feel like crap. I couldn’t keep up. I called my mom crying every day, saying these girls are mean, these girls are terrible, and I’d think: This is karma! I was evil and now girls are being mean. It hit me, Oh my god, trying to be cool in high school didn’t make a difference. I feel completely on the outside. That was a huge self-awareness year.
My high-school self haunts me. Facebook memories come up and I am reminded of mean comments and pictures. Sometimes my friends tag me in them! I delete them. When my friends ask why I say: “I don’t want people who are friends with me to see how terrible I was.”
“I have a meanness inside me.” — Chantal
When me and my sisters recently watched Mean Girls, they were like “Oh my gosh, you were exactly like Regina.” I was the mean girl in my sibling group too. I think I was born that way. Mom tells stories about my older sister trying to baby me. I would scratch her face and bite her. She still has scars.
I grew up in a small town where everybody knew everybody. In high school, there were three or four of us in this group we called the Beautiful People. We wouldn’t associate with anyone we thought was ugly, had ugly clothes or ugly hair or pimples on their face. We were catty. One time somebody wore the same shirt as me. I was furious. How dare they? So we started spreading rumors about her copying us all the time. I don’t think she wore that shirt ever again.
There was a girl who stunk. We nicknamed her Fred. She had to be the only one who didn’t know how bad she smelled. One day we just decided to bring her deodorant and leave it in her locker. There had to be at least 12 — or more — deodorants in her locker when she got back from gym. I don’t think Fred said anything to anybody. She faked a stomachache and went home crying. The deodorant disappeared from the locker.
There was another girl. Her name was Angelique. She was kind of heavy, but super nice. She was always following you around, trying to be you, trying to fit in. I couldn’t stand her. She was that little puppy that you don’t want. Some of the things I did, I look back on and think, I can’t believe it. I was a bitch.
I recently reconnected with a girl I was mean to in middle school. She was bigger and goth which was obviously not cool. So, we would make fun of her. When we recently met up I felt so guilty. And I learned that she had a really hard life with alcoholic parents, her grandma was raising her, and I was just judging her for her body and her clothes. We laughed about it, but I still feel a lot of guilt. She had a rough life.
I was insecure. Right around middle school everybody started going through puberty except me. I didn’t have super-crooked teeth but they were crooked enough to where I noticed. I smiled with my lips closed. I think I acted out of defense: I was going to point out someone’s insecurities before they discovered mine. I still have that guard up. I don’t trust other women. My friends are my sisters. I know they have to love me. Sometimes I think maybe it would be healthier for me to make close friends. But every time I’ve tried, I’ve just felt this meanness inside me, like I’m acting.