Middle School and Mean Girls: What a Bad Feminist Knows About Being a Good Girlfriend

Originally published August 2014

It’s a relationship unlike any other—the one you forge with another woman.

Author and professor Roxane Gay takes on a slew of women-related themes in “Bad Feminist,” a collection of essays released last month—among them, our portrayal in reality television, the future of reproductive freedom, and the fairy tales we pretend to see in erotic literature like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But it’s her list of rules on how to be friends with other women that rang particularly true.

These relationships with women—they’re not easy. Often, they begin with a sibling. Or we see them modeled by our mothers, sharing drinks on the patio while we tore up a Slip ‘N Slide in 1970s backyards everywhere.

My friendships with girls and then with women have been an integral part of my life—as much as I would like to believe I can handle the big and the little that comes my way, I often find myself craving another voice in my head, besides my own. And preferably, someone with much more common sense than I.

I moved a fair amount as a kid—which meant I was always having to make new friends. It’s helped, in adulthood, to have had so much practice. And thanks to Facebook, I’ve re-connected with friends from as far back as 2nd grade, through my middle school, high school and college years. Add to that the friends I have made in two states while raising a family and even those I only know online. These girlfriends—and you know who you are—are women that time or distance can’t shackle. I will hold them in my hearts forever. And it wouldn’t matter if I saw them last month or last year—when reuniting, tears would flow, laughs would heal, love would abound.

My only daughter walked out the door this morning to begin 8th grade—perhaps the most harrowing of my entire childhood. I’ve spent a great deal of time fretting through her middle school years. Is she making friends? Are they being nice to her? What happens when or if her group of friends begins to gently push one out of the circle? Oh my God—there they are on Facebook, without her. Is she being shunned? It was one of my girlfriends who thankfully got in my face to point out I was projecting my experiences onto my daughter.

One of Gay’s rules for being friends with another woman: speaking truth to power. “Tell your friend the hard truths they need to hear. They might get pissed about it, but it’s probably for their own good.”

Thank you, friend.

When re-reading Gay’s rules, I found that most apply to girls as well. It’s these rules that could be of use when navigating middle school and mean girls. I’m not going to regurgitate the list—I’d rather you buy the book and give Gay a few well-deserved dollars. It’s a profound read. But consider a few of these gems:

“If you find that you are feeling bitchy, toxic, or competitive toward the women who are supposed to be your closest friends, look at why and figure out how to fix it and/or find someone who can help you fix it.”

Girls—and I’m talking to the “mean” ones here—if you find yourself getting drawn into the fifth circle of Hell that is, “I need to treat someone like shit to feel better about myself,” make a beeline to your mom, your dad, a teacher, a social worker … an adult that can help you discover the coping tools you need to improve your self-esteem without tearing someone else down. Girl power only works when girls support each other.

“Want nothing but the best for your friends because when your friends are happy and successful, it’s probably going to be easier for you to be happy.”

Your girlfriend got the lead in the play? Someone got the Lululemon jacket you’ve been coveting? Celebrate and support the achievement. She’s got your back when it’s your turn to shine.

“Don’t let your friends buy ugly outfits or accessories you don’t want to look at when you hang out. This is just common sense.”

See that first rule I talked about. It applies to fashion sense, too.

“Don’t tear other women down, because even if they’re not your friends, they are women and this is just as important.”

I’ve truncated this rule a bit, but this is the essential truth, and it applies to girls as well. Sweet, sweet young ladies—be kind to each other. Be gentle with your words. There’s a long road ahead for each of you, and that road is immensely more gratifying and enjoyable when these girls that surround you now are women that are rooting for you in the future. It’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole that’s being popular, but it’s an empty satisfaction. You don’t have to be 45 to know the difference between a friendship that offers nothing and another that offers everything.

Be smart, be safe and embrace the world that is out there for the taking. My love to middle school girls everywhere.

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