Thursday, October 20, 2011

Making It Better Together: A Personal Narrative of Bullying

                                                                         When I was a young child as young as a kindergartener, I was teased because of my weight. I have always been a fat person. Our society, which values thinness and devalues fatness, lead to even my five year old peers tearing me down. Five years old is a delicate age. One is barely able to take in the world and express oneself verbally. To be so bombarded with messages that one is not good enough, pretty enough, or thin enough is not a good thing. 60% of all children bullied are bullied because they are fat.

In fact, the notion that one should go on a diet starts as young as age five and eating disorders start that young as well. There is probably a high correlation between starting school and this statistic. Young people are like a sponge for all that is in our society and since they are too young to be able to properly filter the information and have the higher reasoning skills (which develop much past age 18-- and only fully matures around age 25) and critical thinking to dismiss it. So this means they are more likely to hurt each others' feelings with negative junk they take in and spit out.  

Children are sensitive because they have not yet developed all the self-esteem, self-confidence, self-assuredness, positive self-image, self-efficacy, and self-actualization they will need in life. In fact, that is one of the main goals in a child's life-- to develop those exact qualities and learn to be self-contained. In early life it seems many children learn to put each other down in order to build their own sense of self and power, instead of getting that intrinsically from the inside out. 

Sadly, there are many adults who never learn these skills and have the low self-confidence and body image that goes with it. Into adulthood many people in our society continue to suffer with low self-esteem and low self-image. They continue to listen to society's negative messages instead of being able to filter them out and realize their own worth and value despite what others may think or say. In general adults learn tact and learn to be nice to each other. Adults learn how not to be mean and rude as they develop genuine care for others outside of self. On the other hand, children are often selfish by nature-- as they work to meet their own needs in their process of growing up. Unfortunately, emotional abuse and verbal put downs do continue into adulthood for many and some don't know how to handle it and it can drag some down. But adults in general have more tools to help them get through these times such as support networks, therapy, friends, faith communities, family, co-workers, or social ties. Adults also learn coping skills so they can cope with challenges and separate what others say from reality. Whereas this is very difficult for children to do because their brains have a hard time with this skill and they take a lot personally and internalize it. In general kids are not taught effectively enough self-soothing skills, coping methods, how to self-regulate their emotions and feelings, or how to assert and advocate for their own needs. Kids are often not affirmed or encouraged nearly enough by adults in their lives. Kids are thought to be resilient and tough, when in many cases they are not. Children need the protection of adults..... but often times they are left lacking. 

I recall the teasing I endured for being fat, growing not stopping, as I progressed in school. From kindergarten to elementary school it grew by leaps and bounds. I was never in the "popular crowd" and had very few friends. I would say I was more a loner who had a few acquaintances here and there. As a child I was more an observer than a joiner. There was another fat kid who I remember started hitting me. He would make jokes and then punch me on the shoulder. Even when I asked him to stop he kept doing it. Apparently the oppressed sometimes become the oppressor. Those bullied can become bullies. Those abused or neglected at home can act out their pain through hurting others. This kid even told me if I ever told anyone he would hit me more. But one day I did tell my Mom who called our teacher. The teacher played it off as if it were no big deal and supposedly spoke with the kid hitting me. But the hitting still happened sometimes. Eventually the kid stopped bothering me but he probably moved on to some other seemingly-helpless target.

I remember always being picked last to play on sports teams during P.E. And kids rolling their eyes and groaning at me because I wasn't fast enough or good at sports. P.E. teachers never made anything better for people like me. It was embarrassing and made me feel bad. Why did I deserve that just because I happened to be fat? I remember a really rude kid who bullied everyone around him calling me "butt nugget" and "fat-so" when we got on the bus together at the end of the day to go home. The bus driver never said anything to him even though he harassed everyone. Who would think a fourth grader could be a terrorizer? But it happens. And tyrants like that get away with it if no one tries to stop them and they face no consequences for their actions. Little kids can't stop it. It's up to adults to stop it. 

I remember early in life my grades were not so great-- average. My self-esteem was not so great either. In general I was a happy child but I wasn't as fulfilled as I could be. I felt left out and ostracized. As I transitioned to middle school my grades got better. I started to come into my own and realized I was capable of doing good work. Getting on the Honor Roll became an avenue of self-esteem for me. I had friends here or there but none of them stuck around too long. One became more popular and ditched me for in-crowd girls. One was not so popular herself but the first chance she got to tell others bad things about me she did--spreading rumors. I began to get teased for not wearing the right clothes. There were two girls who were best friends who would follow me around on the playground and sometimes after school when I was walking home and make threats to beat me up. They never went through with it but it was scary to me.

My family was never rich or big into labels. We did not shop at Macy's or any department store for that matter. We shopped at thrift stores, way before that was a cool thing to do. We bought our shoes from Payless. I wore multicolor cotton clothes-- for little girls, instead of jeans and more expensive clothes teenagers were supposed to wear according to the other kids around me. That is the funny thing about middle school-- mine had 5th-8th grade all together in one school. Some kids were 10 years old going on 15. I was content to act my age. But there was a toll to be paid for it. I was teased for not wearing the right clothes and being "poor." One day I was walking home from school and some boys threw rocks at me. They were big rocks and I was scared. I ran as fast as I could up the hill to my house and luckily did not get hit. But it was very traumatic. 

Around sixth grade is when I developed a crush on a neighborhood boy. He had returned the feelings but because he was much more thin, into sports, and popular, he told me straight to my face he would only date me if I wasn't fat. He would flirt with me but when push came to shove our relationship never progressed past that. As a twelve year old with her first big crush, I did the thing twelve year old girls do, I wrote down all my feelings in a journal. 

I wrote extensively about how I wanted to date this boy but that I had to lose weight in order to get him to want me back. I have re-read all my childhood journals since and it breaks my heart. Most of them are filled with page after page about the deep desire to lose weight-- as if my weight equated to my ability to get a date, be happy, or my self-worth. As if my life would only begin once I was thin-- or that I would only find romantic love if I lost weight. I thought that no one would ever want to date me if I were fat. This was a notion drilled into me by the messages of society which would filter from mass media, TV, magazines, and into the mouths of all of those around me. It had to be true, right?

Unfortunately, my younger sister ended up giving my journal to this boy I had a major crush on. Apparently she had a crush on him too and his influence over her skewed her judgment. After reading it he gave it back and told me flat out that I "disgusted him" and he no longer wanted to be friends with me. I was completely crushed, defeated, humiliated, and mortified. It was challenging to pick myself up from that and move on. But I did. 

Later in eighth grade, students would come up to me and say I was the "waterfall girl." I didn't know what they were talking about. I asked once and someone told me that this boy I had had that crush on years ago now had spread a sexual rumor about me that in my journal I wrote a fantasy about having sex with him under a waterfall. I reported this to a counselor and they called him into the office. We sat across from each other as the counselor asked him if he would at least say sorry to me. He said he didn't want to and she didn't make him either. The principle told me that because they couldn't prove it wasn't actually in my journal they couldn't do anything about it. I felt abandoned. Later on I found out that sexual rumors are considered sexual harassment and the rumor he spread about me didn't have to be proven true or not-- he had no right to do that without any consequences. Adults who could have made a difference in my life let me down. 

By the end of middle school I was becoming known as a geek. I was smart and it showed. I never got into trouble, got the highest grades in my classes, and had one or two friends who were also high-achieving. Although we scored top scores on all our assignments, we were all the bottom of the barrel of the school in terms of social status. So if I wasn't being teased for being fat, it was because I was poor and didn't wear the right clothes and that I had no friends and wasn't popular enough. Others seemed to think that I was so pathetic I had to make up stories about having sex with boys, and even something that was a sense of pride for me-- my grades, made me a moving target. But all of that didn't stop me from continuing to be myself.
My mother raised me to be that way-- to be myself no matter what. She has since told me that she read the experts before she had me and they all said self-esteem was the number one thing to instill in your children. So my mother tried the best she could to shield me from the crap this would had to deal out. Of course she couldn't always do it but at least I had that foundation and unconditional love and support. 

Eventually I lost weight and then gained it back-- plus more. I started caring more about my appearance and I did start wearing jeans even if they were off brand. I developed my own style. When I entered my freshman year of high school things took a down turn-- and my grades started to slip. I had made a lot of new friends but they were a crowd of rockers, skaters, punks, and goths who hung out on the outskirts of the school. Many of them were in the out-crowd too. Sadly many of them had suffered abuse, turned to drugs, and were involved in partying and having promiscuous sex. Being the strait-laced goody two shoes I was-- and continue to be til this day-- I didn't quite fit in even in the out-crowd. But as the natural helper I was I got sucked into trying to help them through their problems. Along the way I developed unreciprocated crushes and got way too enmeshed and over-involved in these kids’ lives. But at least in a high school of over 4,000 students I wasn't really noticed enough to get teased very often. 

There was one girl in one of my classes who did bother me. She would pick on me and try to intimate me. She would threaten to beat me up sometimes too. I went to my counselor at school and told him about it. He called her in and spoke with her and the bullying stopped. That was the last bully I can recall bothering me in high school. 

Eventually I figured out that it didn't matter if I had no friends at all, I had me. I was going to be the best friend I would ever have in life-- to myself. I decided I needed to live life for me and not for anyone else. My grades went back up and I continued to dress however I wanted to, hung out with acquaintances here or there, and spent many days hanging out with myself and having lunch with teachers.

I came out as bisexual when I was 15 years old. All of my friends were supportive and most of them came out as bisexual later on. We were all part of the Gay/Straight Alliance at my school, which at the time was called "Rainbow Pride" club. The club was a huge source of support for me and allowed me to feel encouraged. It became the start of my activism as I helped educate students and teachers alike about homophobia and how to support LGBT people. At least 70% of all LGBT youth face bulling in some form at some point and many are bullied for being perceived as gay or for not conforming to socially constructed rigid gender roles. 

Sometimes I felt the pressure though to not out myself. As a feminine person no one questioned that I was straight. I had people come up to me and ask on occasion if I was gay, and I would simply answer "no" knowing that I was bi -- what we call "half gay." Haha. It took me until I was 22 years old to figure out that I don't like men-- I just like masculine women. Anyway, the gay/straight alliance was what made high school bearable and allowed me to carve myself out a little place to be myself, be accepted the way I was, and advocate for myself and others. 

Since graduating college I haven't faced formal bullying. Kids grow up and mature. They develop those higher reasoning skills and well, manners. They know it's rude to call someone fat, although I have since embraced the term and actually find nothing wrong with being fat. In fact, I now feel quite the opposite about it. I like being fat and I think it's attractive in me and in others. But it really doesn't matter what shape or size or color one is. We're all human beings and deserve respect regardless. Difference shouldn't be derided-- it should be celebrated and embraced. That is a value we must teach young people. 

Many adults figure out that they don't have to put others down to feel good about themselves and they move on from that type of behavior. When a person becomes more secure in themselves they often have no reason to pick on others. Once in a college class some boys in the back of the room supposedly made some rude comment about my girlfriend and I who were taking the same class together. We would hold hands and kiss sometimes. Apparently other women in the class stood up for us and told them to keep it to themselves. I've been told people stare at me sometimes when I am with my current partner or talk behind our backs. However, I have never been called a "dyke" or anything like that to my face. I live in the SF Bay Area and feel pretty safe being openly gay and using public displays of affection with my partner. I am lucky because I know others; especially masculine women and gay men do receive a lot more harassment. 

The most harassment I get nowadays about my weight seems to be from my doctors who need to learn a thing or two about the HAES (Health at Every Size) movement. No one ever complains about what I wear-- I actually get a lot of compliments about my fashion now, even though many of my clothes continue to come from thrift stores. I also get a lot of respect and admiration for the fact that I am smart. In grade school being smart makes you a nerd, in life, being smart makes you cool.

When I was a child ways I fought back against bullying varied. Sometimes it was to be direct with the person and ask them to stop. That didn't always work. Sometimes it meant telling a teacher or counselor. In most instances that stopped the behavior once the teacher/counselor spoke with the student and warned them of the consequences of bothering me again. I also found ways to try to avoid people or find people to hang out with that made it less likely to run up against bullies-- such as not being alone or hanging out with teachers. I was open often times with my parents too about whatever was going on. They did not always know what to do to make it stop but they tried to help me and support me. I eventually was able to join the gay/straight alliance, which helped me feel supported. Later in life I also learned how to prevent bullying on a larger level-- by educating, raising awareness, and advocating for the LGBT, POC, and disabled populations within my school through formal methods. I even won a scholarship for service to the LGBT community in part because of that work. 

Since high school I have continued my advocacy for all kinds of causes and populations. I consider myself an anti-racist activist, a fat-positive and fat acceptance activist, feminist and women's rights activist, LGBT rights activist, a youth rights activist, a poor-people's advocate, among others. I have particularly dedicated my efforts to the LGBT community and have done so in a volunteer and professional capacity. 

In the past three years I have volunteered my time to do LGBT 101 workshops at Castro Valley High School during the Days of Diversity every March. I was asked to speak to any LGBT topic I wanted to and I chose to do an overview of LGBT terms in the introduction, but then get into the nitty gritty of the main issue facing high school students right now: which is bullying. 

I give the students facts and statistics about just how many LGBT students are being impacted by bullying. I talk about how many LGBT students feel harassed, are physically assaulted, feel their safety is threatened, don't show up for or drop out of school, are kicked out of their homes, become homeless, engage in substance abuse, are the target of a hate crime, or attempt suicide or complete suicide. So many young people want to ignore the reality but I make sure they hear the truth. So many are quick to downplay it and say it doesn't happen at their school but I challenge them on that notion. 

I talk to them about the phrase "that's so gay" and how that impacts others and the use of the word "fag." I teach them effective tools for confronting others when they hear these words and phrases. I empower them by letting them know that they are responsible to each other and their community and it's up to them to create an atmosphere where these types of put downs are not tolerated, are unacceptable, and become "uncool." That is the point at which grim statistics become something we all can do something about and reverse the tide of negativity.

I attempt to get the students to get in touch with their own experiences of bullying, of being teased, put down, made to feel inferior, etc. This helps them feel empathy for others who may be in a similar situation. When they can make that connection to people those folks become less otherized and less different. They can see those people are more like them. Empathy is very important to develop in young people. As empathy is built up people are more likely to have compassion for others, to stick up for others, and are less likely to harm other people. Since the teenage brain is not fully developed complexity is hard to come by and ethical reasoning and decision making is more of a challenge. Empathy is the bridge to break through the stereotypes as it is a universal feeling. Almost all people are capable of developing it, even children. We have to start early in teaching children to put themselves in other people's shoes and remember to treat others how they want to be treated.

The complicated matter is that children's brains are not fully developed..Their frontal lobes still develop until they are 26 years old. This is a little known fact, but true none-the-less. From my research about that area of the brain it impacts ethical decision making, emotional development, higher moral functioning, decision making skills, judgement, creates a lack of complexity, and leaves youth without a proper grasp of the full consequences for actions taken. without the complexity necessary youth stereotype very easily. They are in often in a toxic pressure filled environment that sends them messages to fit in at any cost. Their normal stage of development is partly about exploring who they are...and identity formation. This is natural for them so they are already doing that. But they are thrown in a situation where they don't have many options in terms of identity. Being themselves is often frowned upon and many kids become insecure and self conscious. Difference is what becomes a target because of the pressure to fit in and the lack of complexity in most youth's thought process. This leads to many developing a low self image and can lead to further issues with bullying as people struggle to gain popularity by any means necessary. Given the lack of youth's abilities in making good decisions based on sound judgement, and understanding fully the consequences and impact of their actions on themselves and others.. this is the recipe for disaster we see today.

We don't give kids the tools they need to navigate their everyday emotional lives and express their feelings in healthy ways. We don't embody children with self esteem or self determination so they feel a lack of control and power..and feel that one upping another is the way to get it. In a system where people are made to feel inferior
youth are bound to develop maladaptive behavior. We can't change the brain development of youth, but we can support their development.. and help them develop prosocial and protective factors to counter act risk factors. This would include teaching them empathy and healthy ways to express their feelings. It would mean giving them a proper outlet for their feelings and helping them to solve interpersonal conflicts in healthy and effective ways. We need to support developing trust with youth so they feel they have someone to turn to. It means training students to be upstanders instead of bystanders. It means training teachers, administrators, and counselors to prevent and intervene in bullying. it would take a lot of work...and resources, time, energy, and money. But whatever it takes, it would be worth it.

We can all help create the positive environment that will welcome people no matter what their differences are. Instead of picking on people because of those differences-- or letting it slide when we see others do it, we need to stop it by confronting it and also working on prevention. Everyone plays a part and we cannot allow words to be a vehicle for oppression or actions to bring others down. If we ignore injustice we become part of the process of it perpetuating it. It is our own actions, adults and students alike, that can help put an end to bullying and create a culture of support and positivity for our young people to flourish in. 

A couple of years back a person from the past sent me a message on facebook. It was no one I recognized. She explained back in middle school she used to tease me and she said she wanted to apologize and let me know it had nothing to do with me-- that she had been going through a hard time and just found people to lash out on. I replied telling her not to worry, not only had a moved on from the bullying I had endured in school, I didn't even remember who she was. Haha! It was wonderful to know that someone would go out of their way to apologize for something like that... but even better to know that I have truly come out the other side of bullying-- a survivor. I have more self-esteem and self-confidence than most people I know. I truly love myself and it shows. I shine from the inside outward and I don't let others drag me down. I have learned how to fight through adversity and take on challenges to better myself and my community along the way. 

Some have called to criminalize bullying and lock up all those who are guilty of it. However, I caution against that. While it is important that we enforce and put into action all laws that protect youth against bullying and to pass a nationwide federal policy against bullying, making bullying a crime and locking kids up isn't a good solution to the problem. As far as legislation goes, it is great to have social and school policies that are supposed to protect students against bullying. However, the problem is when they are not enforced. We have to make sure they are implemented vigorously and enforced. Every one of us must work to make sure these policies work for students. This means that teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, the school board, and students themselves must work together to implement and enforce policies to protect students. Everyone must be held accountable to each other to make sure bullying is prevented and stopped. 
In addition, zero tolerance policies at schools can do more harm than good. Many kids who bully do so because they themselves are in trouble. Whether it's because they suffer from low self-esteem, they are being bullied themselves, or maybe even abused or neglected at home, we need to get bullies the help they need and in the process stop bullying. Also encouraging conflict resolution and restorative justice programs at schools as well as peer education and support groups can help. Give students opportunities to come together and learn how to express themselves, communicate in healthy ways, and solve their conflicts without negativity. We can teach youth to be part of preventing and stopping bullying. We need to provide more social workers and counselors for kids at school. We need to train every adult and every child so that they become change agents and so they feel confident that they can intervene to resolve situations should they arise. 

Furthermore, as adults in children’s lives, whether parents, guardians, teachers, social workers, therapists, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, mentors, etc. we can instill kids with self-esteem. If we help children develop good self-confidence, acceptance, and to love themselves the way they are at any given moment, we teach them a lifelong skill that will sustain them. When children have self-contained self-assurance they are less likely to seek outside sources to make them feel better about themselves or feel more powerful. This means in both situations, whether kids attempt to get what they need from tearing others down or look to others to validate them, they will be less likely to do so. They will instead get what they need from inside of them, reinforced by caring adults. Children who can validate themselves and who see their intrinsic dignity, worth, and value are more resilient and less likely to become bullies. In addition, children who are taught this are more likely to stand up against bullying and ask for help to combat it. Children need to be taught that the highest value is to respect oneself and then others. With this in mind it will be easier for children to stick up for themselves and each other and not give into peer pressure to accept teasing, taunting, put downs, harassment, mean jokes, threats, physical assaults, and cruelty in any form. 

No matter what method of fighting bullying we use, we need to do something! From my own story of bullying I experienced one can take inspiration in overcoming it and combating it for future generations to come..... We can no longer allow children to take their own lives because they can no longer take the pain of rejection and abuse. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem but due to their lack of higher reasoning skills, young people being targeted and bullied have a hard time seeing a future. They are wrapped up in their suffering and they just want it to stop and many don’t realize that death is as permanent as it is. We have to make bullying stop together and share the burden to prevent and end bullying. Let's all dedicate ourselves to doing something to prevent bullying and stop it whenever it does occur. We are all capable of making it better today and for tomorrow too. Ensuring safety for all children and youth starts with our actions.