by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Adolescent girl-on-girl bullying in America has dominated the news headlines  following the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince, an Irish student new to South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. After briefly dating a popular football player, Prince endured months of hallway and Internet slurs from a cabal of seven other girls before hanging herself in mid-January . Debates rage about teacher, student and societal culpability, with at least one anti-bullying consultant, Barbara Coloroso , blaming administrators at South Hadley High School. Other experts are shining an intense spotlight on the myth (or reality) of mean-girl female violence .
These public discussions, coupled with another dominant news headline about girls – the indisputable fact that girls academically outperform boys  at the secondary and collegiate levels -- highlight the unique, complex pressures on girls in America today.
A politically incorrect reality that became obvious from my work as an editor at Seventeen Magazine is that adolescence generally presents more paradoxes – and thrills – for girls than boys. Girls’ bodies change  and mature earlier and more dramatically than boys. Girls confront the intoxicating power of femininity and sexuality  while simultaneously absorbing the reality that rape, unwanted sexual attention, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases threaten them far more dramatically than their boyfriends. Drilled into girls’ psyches are incessant feminist messages that good grades, starting positions on varsity sports teams, Juilliard-level piano skills, and high test scores are critical to even the playing field in a world riddled with gender discrimination and lingering, latent systems and networks that favor y-chromosomes. A combustible cocktail for any humans, especially ones with less than two decades under their Bebe and Juicy Couture belts.
Slice of life example: Two days ago, my preteen daughter offered to venture out into our urban DC neighborhood in search of a birthday cake for her eight-year-old sister. What a wonderful growing-up-girl gesture, I thought: she’s demonstrating maternal and independent instincts simultaneously! Surely applying to medical school would soon follow. After reminding her to take her cell phone, I wished her good luck and went back to reading Stop Bullying Now! .
My ambitious, nurturing daughter came home an hour later, furious, tearful and cowed. At the corner bakery, after a long wait during which the clerks stared over her head as if she were not tall enough to merit service, she finally had the chance to explain to an older female employee that she was looking for a birthday cake for an eight year old. She knew exactly what she wanted: chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. The employee sold her an overpriced chocolate cake covered inside and outside with coconut. After paying, my older daughter examined the cake box and complained. The employee chastised her by saying “You should have known that German Chocolate Cake means it has coconut inside.” She refused to refund her money.
Then on the short walk home, carrying the cake she knew her little sister was eagerly anticipating but would definitely despise, tears tracking her cheeks, an older man came out of his townhouse. With a sickly smile he asked her to “come inside for a Band-Aid” since she had clearly hurt herself. Thank god she scowled and refused the offer, or we might still be conducting the Amber-Alert manhunt today. This all took place in the space of sixty minutes, fewer than two blocks from our home. My daughter had done everything right. Yet she had been humiliated, taken advantage of, and threatened by adults who should have protected and encouraged her.
My point: in a society that asks too much of grown women, expecting us to be grateful to earn 75 cents vs. every dollar our male colleagues make, to raise smart, polite, healthy, law-abiding children without ever utilizing a babysitter, daycare provider or television, to wear skirts long enough to thwart sexual harassment and rape attempts, and to miss only six weeks of work following childbirth, we need to examine more carefully what we demand of girls. We adults know all too well that our culture requires us to be superwomen. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously many of us seem to pressure our daughters to be perfectionists as well – earning high grades, excelling in academics and athletics, exploring their femininity and sexuality (but not too much!), nurturing their friends and siblings in preparation for future roles as caregivers. We give our daughters lofty goals but our society offers little practical support, guidance, protection or sympathy.
I don’t argue that the seven South Hadley High School girls who attacked and tormented Phoebe Prince should be exonerated. Our society must hold any abuser, no matter their age or gender, responsible for their actions. And it doesn’t hurt to raise the bar for parents, teachers and administrators who ignore or encourage bullying. But during the debate over how this tragedy occurred, let’s not overlook the immense, contradictory landmines facing all adolescent girls today -- victims, perpetrators and bystanders. Let’s focus on devising support and solutions to eradicate the pressures driving some regular girls to become mean girls, turning against each other, and ultimately hurting not only their victims, but all of us.
Also on Mommy Tracked: Do Mean Girls Grow Up to Become Mean Moms?