“An all-girls’ school?”
“So… no boys?”
This is an actual excerpt of a conversation between my friend and me that took place during recess, our little fifth-grade selves both reeling at the fact that I would attend a small, private all-girls’ middle school. I truly didn’t think much of it at the time, and I’m glad that I didn’t. I was basking in the rays of innocence, excited to not have to deal with annoying boys for three years. No “cooties.”
Sixth grade flew by, and I remember each day feeling like summer camp. There were field trips, art projects, and lots of performing skits, concerts, and dances. I made some of my best friends during sixth grade, and I remember blissfully thinking how much it would have completely sucked to go to another school.
Seventh grade was a different story. When I returned to school after summer, I was puzzled. Some of the same girls I’d been rolling down the school’s grassy hill with that spring had come back with liquid eyeliner and tanned stomachs. And suddenly the innocence I’d known for sixth grade—and my whole life—evaporated. Cliques quickly formed, and making daisy chains and lanyards in the garden during breaks was no longer cool. The girls who’d changed were constantly huddled together and whispering, bent over their phones texting boys they’d met that summer. They straightened their hair. They laughed at everything. I wondered if “everything” included me when I sulked quietly by them in the hallway.
I wish I could tell my seventh-grade self that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. That I didn’t have to change to be like those girls. That the world does not have awards for those who grow up the fastest, who can get a text back from a boy first. That being pretty is not a goal to work towards. Because I fell into these traps swiftly, and I felt that spiral of insecurity throughout my last two years of middle school.
And I think the all-girl environment I was in worsened this experience for me. Once I started comparing myself to that clique of girls, I started comparing myself to every girl. I began absorbing societal beauty standards through magazines, TV shows, and movies, as preteen girls do, and basing the way that I saw these girls around me off of their looks. I truly believed that if I wasn’t pretty, I’d get left behind—and it had already happened once to me, so what else would I stand to lose if I couldn’t catch up?
In eighth grade, I remember the meanness. There were glaring looks during P.E., and endless snarky comments about girls’ weights, personalities, and styles. I’d quietly observe all of the talking-behind-the-back on the sidelines, and sunk into thinking that all of my friends were doing the same thing to me.
We all know that middle school is known for being awkward and uncomfortable for everyone. But the vulnerability I felt during these years still haunts me, and I ache to reach out to all the seventh-grade girls stuck in the same position that I was in those years.
I don’t know if not going to an all-girls school would have changed my middle school experience all that drastically. But one thing I do know is that we have to start teaching empowerment to girls at a much earlier age. The weight of the world is hitting us younger and younger as media access is becoming so much easier for kids. I worry that the rapidity of this digital age will catch on to kids even younger and encourage them to grow up even faster.