It used to be a joke, of sorts, between my brother and me, about my lack of close girlfriends. I’m happy to say that it’s no longer a joke that fits—and to be clear, I always had some female friends, but for a long time, I never really felt like I belonged in a group of women.
Maybe it’s due to growing up with two older brothers, and that awkward transition from being a proud tomboy into, what, exactly I don’t know—me?—but for many years I felt like I was missing something inherent to being female. In high school, when I’d be in a group of girls, I felt like I was playing a role, and not doing a good job of it.
And then, the little betrayals among us girls: the talking behind each other’s backs. The jealousy. The sheer meanness of teenage girls! Is there anything scarier than a teenage girl? I can’t think of a thing. (Oh, wait. I can. THIS.)
I didn’t trust other girls. The same girl that would be nice to me in youth group one Sunday would call me a slut when I passed her in the hallway at school on Monday. When a girl I didn’t know that well would act nice, or compliment me on something, I would be wary, thinking to myself, “What’s the catch?”
Maybe it’s because I was guilty of it, too. One of my deepest disappointments in myself as a teenager was the way I turned my back, and friendship, on someone I’d been close with since I was in elementary school. Maybe not entirely, and I guess she and I could both agree that we had different interests, and different circles of friends in high school, but I remember in junior high, as I started becoming friends with another girl, the little betrayals I enacted upon her. They were so slight, so subtle, that only she and I would be able to recognize them. Now, I’m delighted to say we are close, close friends again—she is more than a friend, she is family—but I saw an ugliness in myself that I wasn’t proud of, and didn’t like. Chalk it up to teenage angst and insecurities, but it still added to my general distrust of the female population.
Were we all poised to attack each other at any moment? And if so, why?
Today I was delighted to read this article by the incomparable Tavi Gevinson, a teenager and founder of Rookie Mag. She talks about why it’s so common for teenage girls to be jealous of each other, and hate each other. I loved every little bit of it. I wish every 15-year-old girl could read it.
But it made me think of these girl problems I used to have. It wasn’t just my crazy, secret competition with another girl in my class, who happened to also play all the same sports with me, was my top competitor for the top grades, and generally just got in my way. My girl problems escalated to serious degrees in high school, when the rumor mill got the best of me, and suddenly I went from being an innocent, smart tomboy to the whispered-about SLUT that everyone had just heard some story about from the past weekend.
Sophomore year, if I wasn’t crying in the guidance counselor’s office, I was busy pretending I couldn’t hear girls exclaiming, “There goes the slut!” as I walked down the hallway, or avoiding a confrontation with an angry girl who’d show up at my locker with three of her friends demanding to know JUST WHAT I THOUGHT I WAS DOING GOING AFTER HER BOYFRIEND.
Look: I wasn’t completely innocent of everything. But be guilty of one thing—just one thing!—and suddenly, everything that’s said about you, high school kids deem to be the real deal.
It has taken me years to get over some of the shit that happened in high school, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t still sometimes get a little angry thinking about it. Once, when I was visiting my brother—and he was in graduate school by this point—we ran into one of the girls that had been mean to me in high school. She said hello to me, and I stormed back over to Jay, saying something like, “How DARE she be nice to me?” He looked at me, took a drink of his beer, and said simply, “Al, get over it. It was high school.”
He was right. But to me, it wasn’t just high school! It was everything. It was how these girls made me feel so, so low. That’s a hard feeling to shake.
I hated everyone. I trusted no one.
Except for my mother. She was the only person—and more importantly, woman, I knew, wholeheartedly, that I could confide in and trust. She wouldn’t betray me; she wouldn’t use my secrets against me at any point. Most importantly, she did not judge me.
As I get older, these are the traits I cling to, and search for, in my female friends. (And, of course, with men, but that’s a whole other issue to tackle, isn’t it?) I found these traits in Diana, my amazing college roommate, who sat on a curb with me outside a fraternity party while I drunkenly and crazily sobbed about how my mother had just died. I found them in Abby, my dear friend I met waiting tables one summer in college, who wouldn’t blink an eye when I told her about some stupid thing I’d done the night before.
By some lucky twist of fate, I went to London, and found this entire group of women who I could laugh with, explore with, and just be me. For the first time, in a group of females, I no longer felt like I was playing a role. I was so lucky to move to Chicago, where one of these girls, Beth, also lived. She has continued to be the best confidant I could ever ask for, and someone I can always trust.
And when I first moved to Chicago, I got a job at a neighborhood bar. As soon as I walked in my first shift, those high school feelings started sparking up again. The entire staff consisted of pretty, hip girls. MY WORST NIGHTMARE. I sat at a back table, filling out my paperwork, and stared, terrified, at one of the servers. She was wearing bright red lipstick, a cute little hat, and was covered in tattoos, walking around like she didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of her.
I was scared shitless. I looked down at my boring outfit and compared myself to her coolness. She terrified me. The other girls, who’d already been working together for a few weeks, laughed together and teased each other. I wanted to die. I would never fit in.
As it turns out, that server was Rachel, who has become one of my closest friends. And it didn’t take long until I was laughing and joking with the other girls. What was I so afraid of, anyway?
It didn’t take too long until I was reminded. On my birthday the following year, I had finished my shift and was having a drink with a guy friend of mine when a new girl, Lauren, started her first shift. I had ridiculously made up my mind already that I wasn’t going to like her, for no other reason than my manager had given her my coveted Wednesday night closing shift. I watched her waiting tables, looking nothing but cute, nice, and eager, and I thought, “Hmmph.”
Oh, Alison. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to come around. She and I had only worked together a few shifts, and I hadn’t talked to her all that much, when one weekend morning, we opened the restaurant together. I didn’t know her at all, but as I was talking to her about making iced tea or something, I saw it in her eyes. Something had happened. Something was wrong.
Next thing I knew, she was telling me about what had happened to her the night before. Let’s just say, without telling anyone’s secrets here, that it was reminiscent of things that had happened to me in high school that sparked rumors. I felt so horrible about my ridiculous, quick judgments of her. Duh. I had been jealous of her! As she talked, and was clearly fighting back tears, I knew we were going to end up being friends. I felt good that she sensed something about me that she could trust. I told her I’d have her back, and I did. And she did the same for me not much later, following me into the bathroom one day when I was crying over some stupid dude.
What's really great about all this is the fact that I could keep going, and going. I haven't even mentioned some of my closest female friends! I'd love to, but I think you get the point, right?
That’s what’s so great about other women. If only you let them, they can be your best allies. And not only that, the best kind of female friends will remind you of what the brilliant, young Miss Tavi said, something that both girls and boys, men and women, can benefit from:
“No one can be a better version of yourself than you.”