“Hey! Come sit with us.”
“Yeah, what’s your name?”
They beckoned to me with coy smiles, their perfect hair glistening as vaguely predatory glances crossed their eyes. They were looking for fresh blood. Whether I’d become one of them or a new victim, I, the new girl, had to be evaluated.
I’ve always been curious about human behavior, hence why I became an anthropologist, and I definitely couldn’t pass up this chance to see what the mean girls clique would do.
I’d never been popular. In elementary school, I was a Yankee whom the Southern kids were quick to mock for the “funny way” I talked and my bookish ways. I also had the misfortune of having braces and glasses, along with an awful haircut by a shitty hairdresser that my mom kept dragging me to. I had a slight speed impediment and a tendency to over-blink. Although the bullying never reached dangerous levels, my friends tended to be people I chose rather than people who chose me, and my girl friends were quick to dump me when boys or richer girls told them to. In middle school, I became the target of a successful gossip campaign by a local preacher’s boy. I was a pariah, blessed only with the friendship of a kind girl named Jasmine. But that’s another story.
Even after that passed and people forgot about me as they got wrapped up in the next story of the week, I was not well known, let alone well liked, by the high school masses. The mean girls tittered at my clothes, boys never asked me out, and my political science teacher mocked me for my progressive politics.
Then, my parents announced that we were moving to a new city. Although I was said to leave my friends, I also was excited about the prospect of a clean slate. With better hair, a new wardrobe, contact lenses, my speech impediment fixed, and all the beauty knowledge from my Seventeen magazines under my belt, I felt empowered to start anew.
Sitting in the car as we dropped my brother off at elementary school, I had such anxiety that my stomach was in agonizing twists. My stop was next. A new high school, with so many new opportunities. I was wearing a cute top and my best flares. My makeup and hair looked great, and I had my new backpack and binders ready to go. And yet my dread of a repeat of my faux pas, of the fickle friends, of the smear campaign would not settle.
Oddly enough, it melted away as everyone’s intrigue over the new girl slowly boosted my confidence. Boys looked my way. Teachers smiled as I raised my hand. I felt tidy, pretty, and confident.
Then lunch hour came. And as I lugged my pitiful plastic tray of questionable food through the lunchroom, there they were. The popular girls, their sadism barely concealed beneath their mascara. And they looked at me with simpering smiles and enticing eyes, wanting me to join their ranks. If I passed the test.
I ate lunch with them. I saw the wary eyes of the 95 percent of the lunchroom pass over us, watching to see if I’d join them. If there’d be a new mean girl. And I thought about whether or not I could actually be popular, to hold that level of power. Life would be so much easier.
And yet the decision was even easier. Because the girls were boring. They had nothing of interest to say. You’d think mean girls would be full of fascinating gossip and elaborate plans to maintain and achieve the power they hold. But they’re not like the admittedly likable titular characters in Mean Girls. They were entirely absorbed with their own position, but not with any level of self-recognition. They were full of remarks about other people, but nothing with any level of juiciness, let alone insight. They were simply…there.
That’s when the truth hit me. Mean girls aren’t the sole executors of high school dynamics. They’re the figureheads of everyone else’s power play. Even the people not welcome to sit at that table were part of it. Anyone can be a bully, but not everyone can be popular.
I passed the test. The girls liked me. I met their qualifications. And the next day at lunch, they invited me to sit with them again. And I politely declined. Their eyes turned dark, but they didn’t question it.
And they never bothered me again.
High school wasn’t too bad for me. Truth be told, I somewhat distanced myself from it. I never went to pep rallies. I skipped prom. Looking back, I wish I’d been more involved, like I missed out on something essential to the life experience. And yet, I’m glad I declined the temptation to fall in with the mean girls. I went on to earn my master’s in anthropology for my thesis examining bullying culture in schools, and I’m an avid anti-bullying activist.
In short… My life is so much better because I decided not to be popular.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.
Liked this piece? Buy me a coffee.