“Fugly slut” was a phrase I picked up while watching the film Mean Girls on television with my sister. She was about twelve and I, nine. By default, books and television would never get censored in our household. It was not until much later that I really understood what it meant; but it wasn’t just a film to me even back then for playground politics has never been just a microcosm. It is what enables the performance of power and socialization into the roles that power dynamics demand from us at a very young age.
Being eight years old is one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. My family moved back to the city we had earlier lived in, which meant changing schools in the middle of the academic year. I spent a lot of hours learning how to spell because I was terrible at it, trying to live with the constant discord at home and waiting outside my paediatric nephrologist’s office. It was a painful and endless battle with my body and mind. I had no friends at school or otherwise and wasn’t able to do well academically either. The presence of mean girls wasn’t a welcome addition to this.
Playground politics at the “sexually latent” stage of childhood manifests itself in physical and superficial appearances, because abstract thinking isn’t supposed to have completely developed in a child’s cognition by this stage of development. When I look back, that’s exactly how it seems. The two girls in my class that everybody seemed to adore and worship, even the teacher, seemed to meet some arbitrary standard of attractiveness that pervades the world of childhood too.
Each day, I would struggle with how different I was, in the way I looked, in my quietness, in my academic and athletic incompetence. “You can’t sit with us” isn’t just a dialogue in a film to me; it has been an everyday reality for a significant part of my childhood. I remember not wanting to be associated with, being bullied and socially ostracized. I remember falling asleep each night wishing I would wake up somewhere else and not having to go back to school. I never felt like I could get any real help or talk to my parents about it and so I learnt to keep mum about way too much from quite early on. Nobody will really help us, my mother’s voice still echoes in my head from the time she used to say it when I was little.
I wanted to be like my sister. Look like her, talk like her, befriend her friends. The sheer impossibility of this consumed me with jealousy and immense rage at myself. Little did I know she was battling with the manifestation of the mean girls phenomenon within her own age group, it was only as we grew older that I learnt how to grapple with the magnitude of its presence. Unfortunately, I also happened to be one of the youngest children in the apartment where we lived, so anybody hardly ever took me seriously and nobody could really protect me. I was always a lemon/tamarind/tangerine; the rules of the game relaxed for me because I couldn’t run fast enough by virtue of being five years old. Once, an older girl who we played with didn’t slow down while she held my hand and ran with me, my feet could not keep up and I ended up skinning my knee on concrete. I remember crying and asking her to slow down; the bruise is still a shadow on my left knee; over the years, it has healed from looking like a chocolate chip cookie to a butterfly to just a faint scar of a memory. Somebody had to carry me home that day; “Ayyo, what happened?” said our neighbour’s sympathetic voice, as she leaned over her balcony ledge lined with potted cacti.
Mostly, I was an indoors-y child who hid under the large dining table with my dolls and our private tea party. Occasionally I would peep from the windows at children skating outside on Saturday mornings, only to retreat back to my hiding place. I wore pink not just on Wednesdays, but almost all the time, I gravitated towards this colour almost instinctively but it didn’t allow me any access or an entry point into an exclusive clique of girls. My sister seemed to be doing much better by having tastes completely opposite to mine. I talked so little, most people assumed I knew just as much and had little to contribute to any conversation. ”Your daughter is too quiet, she needs to talk” was a phrase my mother grew quite familiar with as everybody who ever taught me reinforced this idea.
It was only once I was a teenager that I started talking, really talking about how I feel and what I think. It took me about fourteen years of my life to feel brave enough to do that as I’d silently fought my battles until I learnt I could make friends.
A friendship I developed as an adult has grown rife with animosity but in a moment of tenderness, she calls out to me and in memory of better times, we sit together in a circle in the hostel’s inner quad, under the canopy of fairy lights at midnight. It’s fesitive, warm, fuzzy and bittersweet. There’s mellow and sentimental music drifting along with the smoke from sugary coffee in paper cups as multiple conversations encircle me. It isn’t really a circle, that’s impossible and it’s real that smaller sets of people are talking even in this arrangement. A couple of people beside me talk about how nobody really stays, how nobody can really ever stay. On the other side of the circle, there’s talk of a movie that makes you feel through and through. This moment could possibly be a scene from a film like that, I think.
Some of these people sitting along with me were the mean girls who would have bullied me in school. I often wonder if those girls ever stop and realise, if they even had a sense of the magnitude of damage they were doing or if they have grown to realise it at all. Probably not. I thought I had transcended that, that I had made peace and learned how to befriend people despite their meanness but it’s still very personal and difficult for me. It brings back a flood of unpleasant memories and I try to see these people sitting here just as people. Make allowances for all of us, even myself. Think of who messed up so bad that we feel the need to do this, in turn.
I’m no Cady Heron, and thankfully, “fugly slut” never became a part of the vocabulary I used to describe someone. I’m still learning how to live with the anxiety I learned to internalize at home and school and on some days, it gets really difficult but at least, I didn’t turn into a Plastic.
Being eight will probably be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but even then, I knew I wouldn’t always be that small and helpless. That year, I discovered I could write poems when we lost our dog to an accident one morning; the going got tough and I had nobody to confide in. The year after, I picked up reading and books couldn’t always be replacements for friends I didn’t have but it made feel less alone and powerless, at least. It taught me how to be less and less apologetic for being me and being incapable of being mean.
Written by Priya Tripathy
Image by Radhika Aneja