Fourth grade was all wrong. According to the Judy Blume books I was reading, most kids go through their awkward phase sometime around puberty, but at 10 years old, I was a walking, talking pre-tween hot mess. My mom’s hairdresser had given me the feathered bowl cut of a 35-year-old woman, which I augmented by wearing banana clips that I thought were spunky but actually simply emphasized my unkemptness. I was newly diagnosed with bad vision, and the squarish, peachy-pink glasses I wore were too big for my round face. My parents were going through a very long, protracted, ugly divorce, so neither of them paid much attention to me. When I think back on the girl I was, I feel empathy for her for being so lost, but also pride for being such a shy little secret spitfire. Back then I was a target—someone to ogle for being freakish and dorky, a nerdy bookworm who also liked to dress like Madonna when neon and lace were not exactly de rigueur in my Wyoming hometown.
I was teased by my classmates. That word—tease—can connote friendliness and joviality, but the behavior I was subjected to was usually quite malicious. Kids called me weirdo and loser, and those words hurt, but not as much as when boys in my class mimicked spraying themselves with aerosol cans when I got near them—so they wouldn’t be contaminated by my cooties, of course. In retrospect, this actually sounds a little hilarious, but at the time it did a number on my self-esteem. By the time I was a teenager, I believed everything that the dumb boys (and girls!) in my class told me I was: weird, a loser, ugly, fat, and amorphously but irrevocably gross. In the 1980s and ’90s, there were no nationwide awareness campaigns to combat bullying—we just had McGruff the Crime Dog, whose primary purpose was to be America’s much-needed dog in a trench coat trying to keep kids off drugs. When I came home crying, my mom would always give me this advice: “Just ignore them, and they will go away.”
My mom’s thinking was that these bullies really just wanted attentions, and if I validated them by telling them to stop or fighting back—if I reacted in any way that acknowledged that they were hurting me—it would only fan the flames of their ire. That would have been a solid piece of advice if were we talking about random strangers harassing me on the street, but I know believe that it’s terrible advice for tweens and teens. My passivity didn’t get rid of my bullies, it just announced my weakness. Even worse, it made me feel weak, and instilled this idea in me that I should avoid my problems instead of rocking the boat, even at the expense of my own sense of self-worth. This wasn’t a concept I could articulate at that age, but by pretending my tormenters didn’t exist, I was chipping away at my own dignity, bit by bit.
Maybe ignoring some bullies is the right thing to do. But standing up for yourself and being assertive is an incredibly important lesson, and for those of us who are shy, bookish, secretive, or just a little less naturally outgoing than others, it is a struggle to learn how to do it. You need to develop tools to feel good about yourself, and not internalize what bullies might be saying about you. According to most studies, like this one in Psychology Today, bullies will actually single out victims who give off the vibes of lacking assertiveness! By instructing me not to defend myself, my mom was unknowingly encouraging kids to taunt me. That is so messed up! The good news is that it’s never too late to start asserting yourself, and the earlier you learn the better, because unfortunately, there are adult bullies, too.
A piece of good news about how time works is that as you grow older and more independent, you tend to care less what other people have to say about you. This was definitely true for me—I developed better self-esteem naturally by becoming more deeply involved in my interests, like writing and devouring music, which led me to people who were into the same things I was, and they became my support system. I was a teenager in the ’90s, when the culture did me a huge favor by making being weird more acceptable in the suburbs and small towns of America (thank you, Nirvana), and the taunts and teases against me began to taper off. But because of the advice about bullying my mother instilled in me, the words “Just ignore them, and they will go away” have rung in my ears throughout my teen years and beyond, and I’ve had to fight to unlearn them.
One of the most powerful steps I took in combating my own personal bullies was simply building my own confidence. This can be done! I engaged in activities that made me feel good—making fanzines, going to concerts, skateboarding around my little neighborhood—and making friends who had the same interests. All of these things made me feel more like myself, and it began to matter more to me what I thought of the bullies than what they thought of me. I had to be very conscious about recognizing when teasing was hurtful, and figure out how to fight back. When I was 17, my tactic was usually a middle finger and a few clever and snide curses, but I’ve since learned that there are more-practical ways to combat bullies, like maintaining eye contact, keeping your voice even and calm, standing an appropriate distance away from the bully, and using the bully’s name when you speak to them. And, of course, you should always alert a teacher, counselor, guardian, parent, or other adult if the bullying gets to the point where you feel like you cannot handle it.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m talking only about fighting back verbally here—NO VIOLENCE PLEASE—and I’m not talking about returning personal attacks in kind. I just mean asserting yourself and showing that you’re not gonna roll over and take anything that’s doled out to you. I often used humor against my schoolyard foes. In eighth grade—hands down the absolute worst grade for me—a popular girl decided she was going to pick on me for no reason. She was blond, thin, and pretty, and she always wore the types of mall-designer clothes that my family could never afford, so naturally just her presence made me feel incredibly insecure. One day, out of nowhere, she said to me, “Who taught you to put on your makeup? Your MOM?!” The answer was no one ever taught me how, but I remember shriveling up inside myself, whispering “My cousin,” and then immediately feeling shame for my lame lie. Another time, at lunch on the commons, she cornered me near a door—I still remember the super-cool light-blue jean jacket she was wearing—and screamed at me to “BURN IN HELL!” I guess I’ve always had a pretty refined appreciation for the absurd, so this time, instead of trying to ignore her, I shook my hands and arms around like a clown and yelled back, “FIIIIIRE!” And then something amazing happened: Everyone around us laughed. And they were not laughing at but with me. Even more amazing was that my bully started laughing too. All of a sudden we were all on the same side in realizing how stupid, absurd, and hilarious our whole exchange and relationship was. And she never made fun of me again.
I used to be a shrinking violet—I felt so small all the time, so helpless, with a constant gnawing in my belly. But after I learned to stand up for myself, I began to feel taller, surer of step. Now that I’ve been defending myself vocally for many years, I realize that the idea that life gets better isn’t just a catchphrase. It might sound ridiculously simple, but it’s true: Being bullied hurt me at first, but I think confronting it has made me a better, stronger adult. I know how to identify someone who is trying to belittle me, and through a combination of feeling good about myself and developing my loud-and-sassy comebacks, I can stop these kinds of random attacks before they start. Negative words don’t hurt as much when your internal voice is louder than the external ones—especially when that internal voice is telling you you’re great. ♦