Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body (Eph. 2:25).
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a Lutheran high school. The students I met were genuinely nice kids and the faculty and staff were Gospel-minded. The school facility was beautiful and many parts of the school had recently been renovated and improved. Unfortunately, however, one of the areas had already been defaced. When I was in the girls’ restroom, I saw that someone had written in one of the stalls slanderous things about another girl. It was clear that someone had worked hard to erase the damage, but the victim’s name and the message were still quite intact. I started thinking about the victim and I wondered how it felt for the young woman to see her name and the derogatory attacks every day. I imagined the effect was made far worse in that everyone else saw the smears all the time, too.
It may or may not surprise you that this happened at a Lutheran high school. But you may be surprised to learn that such behavior is considered extremely harmful to the healthy development of teenage girls. “Bullying” has become a sort of buzz word these days for people who work with and for young women. Books like Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman and Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons have opened up the path to exploring this phenomenon. More recently, the movie Mean Girls shed light on the hidden, but dangerous ways girls relate to one another.
The truth about female aggression is difficult to quantify because so much of thgis behavior occurs “below the surface.” The National Youth Violence Prevention Center reports that 88 percent of junior high and high school students admit to witnessing bullying in their schools. The bullies are out there, whether adults see them or not. Bullying is more likely to occur among younger teens. While boys are more often physically attacked, girls target one another with rumors, sexually derogatory comments, and rejection. While boys tend to choose strangers as their targets, girls bully friends.
Bullying is a type of game between adolescent girls. The loser is disliked and shunned; the winner sees her victim brought low. The tools of winning include dirty looks, name-calling, rumors, humiliation, and exclusion. Much of this “game” is played without adult intervention because it is so subtle, which is not to say it is without aggression. Quite the opposite: Simmons writes that girls interact aggressively with one another in one of three forms: relational aggression, indirect aggression, and social aggression.
According to Simmons, relational aggression occurs when a girl uses her relationship with another female as a weapon. This includes spilling secrets, silent treatments, or threatening to end the friendship. Indirect aggression involves spreading rumors and engages the help of other girls to target the victim. Social aggression is a form of bullying which hopes to damage a victim’s self-esteem and her social status.
Most women, young and old, understand this kind of behavior, and may recall times when they were either the victims or the aggressors in the bullying game. If you work with teenagers in a school or a church setting, you have most likely observed female bullying occurring among your students. The game may seem harmless, but when one considers all in this world that longs to lap up the souls of broken teenagers, the stakes are terribly high. For more on addressing this issue in a Christian framework, see Luther’s Large Catechism discussion on the Eighth Commandment, and the Apostle Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians, chapter 2. And remember, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). Because Christ does it for us all the time.
Sarah Weider serves as a counselor for Lutheran High North, St. Louis, Mo. She lives with her husband and two children in St. Peters, Mo.