I am in the classroom, twelve years old, cheeks burning. ‘Haven’t you started yours yet? I’ve had mine for ages.’ She laughs scornfully at my unwomanly state. My tormenter is resentful of the fact that I’ve made friends with ‘her’ best friend. Any opportunity to make me feel insignificant or immature she seizes on, with a daily barrage of snide remarks. With hindsight, I see she was the immature one, but it didn’t help at the time. Girls are apparently made of sugar and spice and all things nice, so why is it that they often form into bitchy cliques, behaving incredibly cruelly to their peers?

Is there something in the make-up of girls that makes them more prone to this behaviour? Developmental psychology reasons that at an early age girls absorb from their parents, peers, and media images that they are supposed to be “nice” and “sweet.” They are not encouraged to resolve their differences through fights—as boys often are, they must hide them and not rock the boat. Girls are more likely to taunt, stare at, or exclude the offending girl from the group, tell lies about her, or threaten to withdraw friendship. This is not attention-grabbing behaviour, so it often goes unnoticed.

Ironically, because girls tend to put more store in close friendships than boys (who have more of a pack mentality), their aggression towards other girls (but not boys) often involves threatening to and actually destroying relationships. The high value they place on friendship and having another girl as their bosom buddy leads them to shut out the best friend who displeases them, even though they will fiercely protect her from being taken by intruders.

Another trait is to temporarily include a third person into their pair so both can score points off each other only to reject the third later. This happened to me twice, which Oscar Wilde might have observed looks more like carelessness than misfortune, but one of the times was at university, when you hope everyone’s gone past that stage. Sadly these patterns of behaviour last into adulthood for many girls. Perhaps they are mirroring events that they have encountered at home. Their controlling trait masks their own insecurity, because bullies are ultimately cowards.

Nowhere are the mores of society more blatant than when reflected on a programme like Big Brother. Often the rival camps in the group will be centred around one strong female who will gather a small circle of acolytes. They will victimise one of the other girls for being tarty or sluttish, while at the same time batting their eyelashes at the boys themselves. The others join in, mostly for fear of being the target. The ‘racism row’ surrounding Shilpa Shetty on this year’s ‘Celebrity’ version overshadowed the fact that this was ordinary mean girl behaviour with an added veneer. Shetty herself didn’t pick out the specific racist slant, it was their rude unpleasantness in general she objected to. On the main programme in the summer the producers seemed to make an inspired choice to go for an all-girl house, although within a week they were factoring the boys in, relentlessly pursuing any whiff of sexual activity. If it had stayed an all-girl house it would have been a unique social experiment.The previous year Jodie Marsh, self-promoter extraordinaire, had appeared on the ‘Celebrity’ version. She was voted out first and cried during her post-eviction interview describing the experience as “horrific” and her housemates as “vile jealous bullies”. A few months later, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman Phil Willis questioned Schools Minister Jacqui Smith as to whether Marsh should be permitted access to schools in promoting her BeatBullying work, branding her blog as “the language of an
appalling bully”. Smith responded that it was a decision in the hands of individual headteachers, but the BeatBullying website no longer lists Jodie Marsh as a supporter. Clearly not learning from her mistakes, in May 2007, Marsh was interviewed by journalist Jody Thompson. Disagreeing with Thompson, Marsh said of her on camera, “I actually wanted to punch her in the face. Lesbian, blatantly! That short hair! And butch, looks like a man . . . She was a bitch from hell, she was a complete cow”, much to the fury of gay right groups. The clip was broadcast on MTV.

Is it getting worse due to the media increasingly putting airbrushed visions of ‘loveliness’ everywhere, thus setting girls against each other? Or has it always been this bad? Pretty girls are rarely as unpopular as ugly ones. Girls seem to have a greater need to fit in – knowing that their looks are what attract men, at least that’s the view perpetuated from everyone from the media to retailers – they can focus mainly on external, more shallow qualities. In any group of girls, there seems to be a jostling to determine who is the most desirable. Even if there are no men around, they need to establish themselves as the top dog, the most attractive prize should a male become available.

Channel 4 screened a pair of documentaries four years ago, ‘Boys Alone’ and ‘Girls Alone’ about two groups of eleven year olds left in a house without parental supervision. The boys ran wild, inviting comparisons to Lord of the Flies, yet they trashed the house rather than each other. The girls were less messy, ate better meals and even created some activities such as fashion shows, but they still formed rival camps, ostracising certain girls for ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. One locked herself in the bathroom, having been voted the most unpopular by the others, two left the house early. Educational psychologist Dr Jack Boyle, writing about the programmes in The Scotsman observed that the difference between boys and girls on their own is emphasised by their treatment of the cat and the use of the trampoline. The stray cat was petted, fed and left alone by the girls. The trampoline was only used occasionally, often by a child looking for some solitary relief. With boys, both the trampoline and the cat would have been the centre of action. He noted that while the girls were prone to attacking others through ‘gossip and grudges, they also offer comfort and intimate reassurance, interpret and anticipate others’ feelings, seek the group good and play constructively. Girls alone in adult life cope pretty well because they benefit from the reassurances of intimacy. Men on their own do badly because watching football is a distraction, not consolation. The absorption with fashion may be a small price to pay.’  Perhaps it’s naïve to say it, but he might have a more romanticised view of girls than they do themselves. Any female who has been on the receiving end of ‘gossip and grudges’ knows that they can cause irrevocable damage to self-esteem.

Most people don’t have the Big Brother style experience of being put in an unreal, intense situation for a limited period of time. Going to college or university but can create the same feelings but is a watered down version. I did have something akin to it, working with a group who hadn’t known each other previously at the Edinburgh Festival. One of the other two girls in the cast ‘bagsied’ the other girl as her friend, ensuring they were always together and I was an unwelcome addition to be sniggered at. It was an awful situation, especially as we had to share a room; I developed a skin allergy because of the stress and was more miserable than I’ve been almost at any other part of my life. While I’ve remembered it vividly ten years on, I’m sure she was barely aware of her behaviour. The inability of bullies to see the effect their behaviour causes is one of its most distressing aspects.

Most incidents of physical violence between groups of young people happen with males although there was an incident in a suburb of Washington D.C. about five years ago where three teenage girls pulled another girl out of her car at a red light punching and stamping her to death, ending a fight that had started earlier at school. This is quite clearly distressing, headline-making behaviour, but what about the long-term effects of the cruel words and taunts that generally tend to be the preserve of women and carry on into adult life? Girls who have been taunted and bullied throughout their school years can experience serious depression and social anxiety for many years subsequently.

When boys’ physical aggression becomes violent, parents, teachers, and even the law can intervene. At least boys learn when they are going too far. But girls’ aggression—what psychologists refer to as relational aggression—is insidious. Rarely do outsiders step in. And sadly, the female victims who do confide in their families or teachers beg them not to intervene, worrying that it will be even worse for them if an adult approaches the bully. Dawn-Marie Wesley, 14, took her own life in British Columbia, Canada in 2000 leaving behind a note to her family that referred to the bullying to which she had been subjected: “If I try to get help, it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted, they would get suspended and there would be no stopping them.”

Rachel Simmons wrote Odd Girl Out in 2002 after visiting thirty schools in the States and interviewing three hundred girls aged nine to fifteen in focus groups and individually to find out more about relational aggression. It revealed that girls as young as four were bullying, threatening, and shutting out other girls from play groups. Simmons addresses the issue from both sides—the “queen bee” taunters and the dejected outcasts. She urged that girls be taught to recognise their anger and not to hide it under the pretence of nothing being wrong or being superficially nice. Next, girls should be taught how to communicate their feelings to the perceived offender in non-threatening, assertive language, much as most boys seem to do naturally. “I don’t like that” or “That really hurt my feelings” can open the door so that the other girl can apologise and make amends. Also, girls need to know the long-term harm their behaviour can cause.

In principle, this sounds fantastic, but it’s a very long term strategy. Many women in the workplace, for example, bully younger women because they were bullied in their turn. And so the cycle goes on. The problem needs to be addressed in the media and in all the reality shows that clog our screens. Although just this past week, the youngest competitor on the X Factor talent show and former favourite to win Emily Nakanda, 15, has been removed from the show. She’d been portrayed as a serious, sweet girl miraculously recovered from major surgery until mobile phone footage came to light showing her attacking and taunting another girl in a ‘happy slapping’ incident. Perhaps it is inherent in girls’ natures to bitch and snipe, but if it is shown to be as unacceptable as using a racist word, it might diminish.