The old adage sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me was mentioned as being false. Specifically, and in regard to girl bullying, this saying is exactly backward. Cuts and bruises heal, but internal, emotional scars from being called “fat,” “lard***,” “ugly,” “cow,” “horse face,” “slut,” “whore,” “filthy skank,” and so on reverberate in the minds and memories of girls and women everywhere.
Verbal insults and vicious taunts are hard to forget. And being called cruel and hurtful names can affect a young girl's fragile and developing self-esteem. Being called horse face would make even a pretty girl question her attractiveness, and being labeled a slut can impact the quality of her intimate relationships.
Verbal bullying starts at a very young age and is popular with both boys and girls, but somehow girls seem to hone and perfect the skill. This isn't surprising, considering the advanced verbal skills that girls possess in comparison to boys.
Physical aggression and bullying are more common than verbal bullying in the early years because young children have less developed social skills. When you are three-years-old, it is easier to strike out physically than to craft a clever and insulting verbal barb. Verbal aggression and bullying become more prevalent as girls begin to develop their verbal skills.
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, written by Rachel Simmons, skewers the notion that girls are the kinder, gentler sex. In her book, Simmons examines the dangerous repression that girls face from a society that expects them to be sweet and docile, which can, in turn, cause a “hidden culture of silent and indirect aggression.”
Eventually, as a girl's verbal development progresses, indirect bullying (otherwise known as relational aggression) increases. This increase can be a direct result of enhanced verbal and social skills, but it might also be that girls recognize that relational aggression (gossiping, excluding, and rejecting) results in a higher likelihood of success and a lower likelihood of getting caught and getting in trouble. Why bother calling a girl a derogatory name when you can work behind the scenes to destroy her reputation and know that by doing it this way, you won't be caught.
Research shows that girls progress through certain developmental stages faster than boys because of their relatively more advanced social and verbal skills. And it is, in fact, true that the level of relational aggression escalates as girls get older and verbal and social skills mature. Let's take a quick look at the three types of relational aggression girls use against each other:
Social bullying — This is when a girl is humiliated or demeaned in front of her peers. A target of social bullying may hear insults and put-downs as she walks down the hall, or the other girls at the lunch table suddenly spread out and claim there is no more room. These actions are harmful and hurtful because tweens and teens are desperate to fit in.
Relational bullying — When one girl intentionally damages the social status of another girl, it's called relational aggression. Girls are social creatures who want and need to have friends. A relational bully will do everything in her power to undermine this. She will tell other kids to shun the target, spread untrue vicious rumors about her, give her the silent treatment, and treat her like a social outcast. This is particularly devastating to a young girl's self-esteem because making and developing friendships is an important tween and teen developmental task. Relational bullying is difficult to detect because it's subtle and sophisticated, and it's often done out of earshot of the adults.
Emotional bullying — This is when a girl uses manipulation to get what she wants. She might say things like, “You can't be my friend if you don't sit with me on the bus.” “You can't be friends with me and Sally. You have to tell Sally you won't be her friend.” The emotional bully demands exclusivity from her target and will use emotional blackmail to continue to control her.
Read Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. It focuses on adolescent girls, but with cliques forming at younger and younger ages and girls bullying and being bullied as early as preschool, it's a book worth reading.
Bully girls gossip, tease, taunt, reject, exclude, shun, and form mean-girl cliques. They can make other girls' lives so unpleasant that, years later, when they are adults, they can easily recall every horrible detail. If you recall, this type of female bullying is specifically called relational aggression. Relational aggression is when girls use relationships instead of fists to hurt and humiliate each other. They use words and social exclusion to inflict wounds as painful and deep as a razor blade.