Yesterday I read an article that flooded my mind with memories. A woman who had been bullied as a teenager had been asked on a date by one of her tormentors, but stood him up. She delivered the news of what she was doing and why via a letter passed to him by a waiter:
Hey, so sorry I can’t join you tonight.
‘Remember year 8, when I was fat and you made fun of my weight? No? I do – I spent the following three years eating less than an apple a day. So I’ve decided to skip dinner.
‘Remember the monobrow you mocked? The hairy legs you were disgusted by?
‘Remember how every day for three years, you and your friends called me Manbeast?
‘No perhaps you don’t – or you wouldn’t have seen how I look eight years later and deemed me f***able enough to treat me like a human being.
‘I thought I’d send you this as a reminder.
‘Next time you think of me, picture that girl in this photo, because she’s the one who just stood you up.
I was bullied as a child for having red hair, glasses and braces and for being too skinny. Although I never turned the tables on anyone like she did, these four attributes plagued me every school day from roughly grades 5-9 (it started in kindergarten but those years were the worst) to the point that on the bus on the way home from school I would review my day by counting the number of times people called me a name or made a cruel remark.
My hair was an unusual color — auburn. I didn’t know anyone with my hair color growing up. The kids with more orange hair didn’t seem to be targets, maybe because there were more of them so they didn’t stand out as much.
It was confusing because growing up, my mom always told me I had such pretty hair and we were often stopped by old ladies while out shopping who told my mom they liked my hair. But among the middle school/junior high set, my hair wasn’t quite as appreciated.
I was called a “red-headed monkey,” or just “monkey.” Kids would say, “Your hair is on fire!” and pretend to throw drinks on me (fortunately nobody actually threw anything on me.)
But mostly I was called “ugly.” It was a universally accepted thing that I was the ugliest girl in every class. I made plans to dye my hair brown when I got old enough, and I also wanted a “face lift.” I thought getting a “face lift” meant getting a brand new face. And the one I had wasn’t working for me.
In eighth grade I was walking down the hall when a big, tall guy grabbed my backpack and flung my stuff all over the hall. Nobody stopped to help except for some teachers.
The year before, some boys took my folders and threw them out the bus window, littering a lawn. The bullies also did this to two other girls (one a friend of mine, one not) and the homeowner got our names from the papers, looked up our parents and called them. Even though we said we didn’t do it, and I think everyone believed us, we still had to pick up all the papers from the guy’s lawn because they were ours.
There are other stories that are worse, but you get the idea. Girls were actually much, much more cruel to me than boys were then. I know that others have experienced harsher treatment, including physical violence. Why are kids so cruel?
I was the last one picked in gym class. In fifth grade we had to decide among ourselves who had to do certain classroom and cafeteria table upkeep duties, and the decision-making kid usually picked me to sweep my class’ area of the cafeteria, like a janitor. It was either me or the other least popular person, an overweight boy who I’ll call Michael C.
The really bad part about all of this is that I became swept up in the ripple effect of this bullying and I, in turn, bullied Michael C. I was super mean to him and I feel really bad about that. As bad as I got it, he got it a lot worse, from everyone — including me. He never teased me; that would have gone against the hierarchy protocol of bullying.
I just typed his name into Facebook’s search bar and the only result is a guy from Philly, so it could be him. He looks to be about my age and he appears to be a hipster artist kind of guy. I threw away all of my yearbooks so I can’t look him up to compare photos, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to contact him and bring up stuff from his past he’d probably want to forget.
I never told anyone about my bullying. I just checked out some old diaries to see if I mentioned anything about it, and I didn’t. I’d write, “Today was ok. I read a book in study hall.” As far as why I never told my parents, I think I just didn’t want to get into it and probably felt their involvement would make it worse.
So, I would have pep talks with myself while on the bus or walking the halls. I told myself that a human being’s face is just the focal point because it primary means for identification, and that’s it. The face isn’t everything. I was still okay even though I was ugly. And that would make me feel better. It’s like I had found a way to resist being completely dehumanized by the bullies.
What’s heartbreaking is that when I look at pictures of myself back then, I have enough distance to say that I wasn’t an ugly girl. I see an awkward girl, yes. But the damage done to my self-esteem made me believe I was ugly. Even today, I’m never pleased with what I see in the mirror and I envy those who don’t have that harsh voice inside them.
By the time I reached high school, the bullying had stopped, and it was a relief not to be under so much stress all the time. But those experiences really shaped the person I became.
And, you know, I think that’s a good thing. Even though I bullied Michael C. myself, I think being the target of bullies resulted in me being a kinder, more empathetic and sensitive person, ultimately. I spent a lot of time alone, so I developed solitary hobbies, like reading, writing and drawing.
And my outsider status sharpened my observation skills to the point that I channeled that into a career as a newspaper reporter when I became an adult.
I still have red hair. It’s so funny to me how red is now a desired color. Up until a few years ago I was still trying to get rid of the red and I’d get blond highlights.
But over the past year, I started embracing it more to the point that I now color my hair to make it even more red.
Fuck you, bullies.