“You can’t sit with us.”
It’s one of the most recognizable quotes from recent movie pop culture.
In the 2004 film Mean Girls, a cliquey group of high school girls, The Plastics, ostracizes the new girl in school when she falls for a boy. (Said boy happens to be the ex-boyfriend of Plastics leader Regina.) In another display of girl-on-girl meanness, Plastics member Karen utters the famous quote when Regina rocks up to the lunch table wearing sweatpants, a practically unforgivable offense. So-called friends apparently aren’t immune to shunning each other.
Mean Girls paints a hyperbolic portrait of what happens in high schools all across America, especially where girls are concerned. It seems exaggerated and campy, but is it really? When we look out into communities of grown women, are we seeing the same story arcs playing out? If so, what’s it going to take to change the classic Mean Girls narrative?
My viewpoint is colored by my own upbringing, experiences, and privileges. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be someone else. I don’t purport to have all the answers or know how to solve all the problems. But I do have some ideas.
It’s worth prefacing this with the acknowledgment that I’m not a mental health professional, sociologist, or women’s issues expert. I am, however, a woman who’s lived through my fair share of Mean Girls moments. My clients are approximately 95% female, and I’ve seen the issues they’re struggling with. I look out into the world and see the same marketing and deceptive advertising you do.
Here’s a challenge: Watch one television show on a network with commercials or ads and count the number of times you see a product or service specifically marketed to women. Of those instances, how many are related to “improving” physical appearance? Liposuction and other cosmetic surgery, weight loss programs and supplements, and beauty products are just the tip of the iceberg. Flip through a magazine, and you’ll see the same.
Everything is telling us, subliminally or overtly, that if we just tried a little bit harder and spent a little more money, we’d be prettier, more pleasing, and more acceptable.
Then again, don’t try too hard. It’s like an impossible game of Goldilocks where we can never seem to get things just right.
It’s no wonder that women and girls are experiencing unprecedented levels of body shame, dysmorphia, and disordered eating. The focus on bodies and appearances has become an obsession, and the constant scrolling and voyeurism allowed by social media only stokes the flames.
According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, an estimated 8 million Americans have an eating disorder. Seven million are women, while 1 million are men. (This problem is not isolated to females.)
Girls are affected by this messaging, too. The National Eating Disorder Association, in 2012, reported that as many as 42% of girls in 1st to 3rd grade want to be thinner. And there’s a positive correlation between the amount of time spent on social media and the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
There are many more girls and women who will struggle with subclinical disordered eating patterns, low self-esteem, and low self-worth.
Clearly, females are under pressure.
Media and advertisers are putting this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” double standard on women.
But they aren’t alone.
We’re doing it to each other, just like Mean Girls.
Let’s Change the Story
I have to wonder if it happens because “that’s the way the world works for women and girls,” or so we’ve been told? Has it become, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Because when I look out, I also see goodness. And support. And a sense of community and cooperative instead of competition.
Part of changing the narrative of mean girls is awareness that the more we buy into the story of bitchy, catty women or mean girls, the more that’s what we’ll find examples of in the world.
Put another way, we have to opt out of that narrative, and it starts with how each and every one of us talks about ourselves and others. Let’s talk about others and ourselves with respect. Disengage from gossip, nitpicking, and looking for the flaws. Stop buying trash magazines or consuming other media that perpetuates the mean girls storyline. Just like yoga or playing the guitar, this takes practice, and the first step is to simply get aware. It’s something that I’m challenging myself to do better with every day.
Like removing junk food from our diets, it’s not enough to just opt out of the mean girls narrative. Something nourishing must go in its place:
Seeking out stories of women lifting each other up.
Finding women to connect with, either online or in real life.
Discovering opportunities to work together by combining our strengths and supporting each other.
One of my favorite proverbs is, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It beautifully puts this culture of competition and getting ahead into a whole new perspective.If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
The really heart-warming part is there are more and more opportunities to go together every day. Women are starting to see how powerful it can be.
My hope is that the next time a girl walks through the cafeteria, she’ll hear, “You can sit with us,” instead.
About Steph Gaudreau
Steph Gaudreau helps people get stronger so they can reach their full potential and live a life they love. She’s the holistic nutritionist, weightlifting coach, best-selling author, and photographer behind the popular blog Stupid Easy Paleo. Check out her chart-topping podcast, Harder to Kill Radio, or pick up one of her books, The Performance Paleo Cookbook and The Paleo Athlete.