Disclaimer: For the purpose of this story, all names have been changed. Interviews have been edited and condensed.
At some point, everyone has been the Mean Girl. Perhaps more seared into your brain, though, were the times you were The Target. As all stories go, there are so many layers. A million sides. But not everyone tends to share theirs. We spoke to four former Mean Girls — all decidedly good humans now. Below, their reflections, regrets and what they’ve learned.
I was just home for a wedding where I saw a bunch of my high school friends. We were reminiscing about high school and were like, ‘We were terrible. What was wrong with us.’
There was this one girl in particular, Dana Smith.
She was so nice. Quiet. Runs the other way when she sees us now. She was in and out of our group but we always felt like we had to invite her to things because she was a friend of a friend.
For senior year homecoming, I was allowed to have people at my house before and a sleepover after. We didn’t want her to come for whatever reason. Someone had the idea to use my mom as an excuse; we decided we would tell her that my mom was only letting me have four people over.
One of my friends was in charge of telling Dana. Dana cried. She went to homecoming with some random person — I don’t think she really had anyone to go with — and we went with a group. Whenever she saw my mom after that, she was afraid to say hi. I finally told my mom what we did, and she was so mad at us. “I cannot believe you did that,” she said.
We all feel so badly about it now. The girl who actually broke the news to Dana is haunted by it. She was one drunk one night and sobbed about it. She wants to message Dana about the whole thing but she doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know if it’s worth it, if Dana cares anymore or if it will bring up hurtful stuff.
There were a couple of times I realized I was a sucky human back then. My mom once said to me, “What happened to my sweet daughter? You’re mean now.” I knew she did not raise me to be this person. I lost one of my best friends for a while because I was straight-up mean to her.
My friends and I have all changed. We’ve all grown up. You asked me what the endgame was in not inviting Dana, and I have no idea. I guess it was power. Teenagers suck. We went to a really tough high school and maybe we felt like we had to assert ourselves. This is going to sound like an excuse, but I was going through things in my own life. My parents were getting a divorce. I was in an abusive relationship. Everyone’s got something going on. People who act nasty like that — it tends to come from a place of pain.
Because I was class president, I was part of the planning committee when my class was gearing up for our 10 year reunion. There was a Facebook group for it, and I was in it, and there were all of these terrible messages about me. I didn’t even know I was mean to the people who wrote them. That hurt.
I’ve moved on. I’m done with that whole part of my life. But if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself that one night in the scheme of life doesn’t matter. Just invite her.
Eve, 27, NY
I transferred from a co-ed school to an all-girls school in 9th grade. My new school had a combination of “lifers” — pre-K to 12th grade, girls who started in middle school and girls who started in 9th grade, like me. It was a really small school. Everyone knew every single person in their grade.
I made a group of friends right away. It was like puppy love, where you want to spend all of your time together, do everything together, talk on the phone together. We mostly kept to ourselves; we had a lot of the same nerdy stuff in common.
That spring I made varsity for a sports team even though I was a freshman. I was the youngest person on the team. All of the juniors and seniors started inviting me to parties, so I began hanging out with them. Suddenly I had a whole new group of friends, really pretty girls who partied a lot and were kissing boys. They had cars and would drive me around. I wasn’t sure how I wound up in their group, but I did. Then in the fall, I kind of started breaking up with my other friends.
Instead of talking about it, a Cold War started. It reached a head my junior year when I was on AIM talking to a girl who was part of my first friend group. She was kind of popular, too, but a different group. She was still friends with the other girls, and she and I weren’t really friends. She always hated me. She saw me flirting with her brother freshman year and was like, “You’re such a slut, stop talking to my brother.” So we were fake friends. I was talking to her on AIM and complained about another girl who used to be in that first group of friends. I complained about how she always seemed to be playing the victim, and how I was sick of her. Well. She printed out our conversation and showed it to the girl who I was talking about. That girl then showed our headmistress. She said I was a bully and felt threatened by me — I never threatened her.
They called my mom and said I couldn’t come to school the next day. I had to speak to the school psychologist and the headmistress. She made it seem like I said I was going to beat her up. I was like, yes, I said those things, but I am not dangerous. Then someone showed my headmistress my Webshots account. It was all photos of us drinking on the weekend or before dances. Ugh. So then the school said I couldn’t come back — because of the drinking, and because other girls said I was a Mean Girl.
Granted, I was not super nice. Once I hit a level of confidence, I was not very friendly and at an all-girls school, everyone was friendly. People knew who I was, I stood out because of how I dressed — super fashion-y. I got a lot of attention that I didn’t ask for but that I didn’t hate, either. But a lot of people hated me.
I was eventually let back into school. I had to write an apology note to the girl and assure her that I was not dangerous, that I had no ill will toward her. Of course I frosted her out after that. Then senior year we had a come-to-Jesus moment. She said she was sorry and I said I was sorry.
My life turned out fine, but it was scary to see how vindictive girls can be, and it was an exercise in how all of this came around to me — getting in trouble, getting kicked out — because I wasn’t nice in the first place. It was my own undoing.
I think that, especially when you’re competing in a small community like high school, you try to find something that you’re good at and gives you confidence. I never felt like I was good at anything despite playing on varsity teams, getting straight A’s, but it didn’t matter. I was so insecure, and my meanness was a manifestation of that. I wanted to be included so badly that I was willing to act out. It was a kill or be killed mentality. I was going to try and win first.
When I started interning for a publication — my dream internship — that promoted feminism and positivity and the importance of supporting one another, I realized that I was the opposite of everything it stood for. It changed me. Having an outlet that you can get your self-worth from that has nothing to do with other people is so important. It’s important to have something that makes you feel good and special but doesn’t require validation from others.
If I could tell my former self or young girls anything, it would be that everything feels like forever when you’re in high school, and it’s not. You’re going to live a very happy adult life one day.
You can also make the choice not to be mean. I am bothered by the fact that I’m going to go to my high school reunion this year and run into people who I may not know I was mean to, but the things I said or did have stuck with them all these years later. I just read that something negative takes half a second to imprint on your brain. But something positive has to be repeated for 15 seconds over and over and over. If I called someone ugly, that stuck. They’ll never remember the time I said something nice. That’s so sad.
Jane, 30, NY
I very much hurt guys when I was in school. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a sociopath because I didn’t feel bad about it. I couldn’t relate to them caring, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I’m sorry to James Griffin. To Kyle. To Max and Tom. And Marvin. Fuck.
I told one of them that I didn’t have room in my parents’ car to take him to an afterparty for the middle school dance because I figured he wouldn’t be invited anyway.
But he was.
He spent the night drinking alone under the giant trampoline.
When he first asked me to the dance, I said no. My sister watched the conversation and made me call him back. I was the only one going with a date, because we were seventh graders in an all-girls school. I ran away from him the whole dance. I still feel bad about it, but it’s so much worse because back then I had ZERO empathy.
There are just specific moments in life that make you cringe. Like when I was taking the bus with my dad from South Station to Falmouth and I told him we could buy the tickets on the bus, and I already had my ticket, but it turned out that couldn’t buy them aboard that time, so he had to run back to the desk to buy his. He wasn’t back in time, and I DIDN’T STOP THE BUS OR GET OFF. Who am I? What kind of monster does that? And I am so close with my dad. I don’t know what happened. That makes me sick to my stomach every time.
I was a mean girl at a very young age. I was unaware of people’s feelings. I was comfortable and had a lot of friends. We all grew up together, so it was easy for us to be a clique. I’ve always been a leader, too. I had a strong personality from the time I was six years old and would impose my point of view on everyone else.
Our group was mean to other people and to each other, but back then I think we thought it was just playful. We would push one girl away for a week, and then it would be over.
There are a few people that come to mind who we made fun of. One girl was super developed for her age; she had boobs before all of us did, had underarm hair when none of us did. I seriously can’t remember what we said but we made fun of her. There was another kid who was really tiny and got bloody noses out of nowhere. All the time. We’d make fun of him, throw paper or erasers at him in class. Our school was tough, so I don’t think we thought we were being bad in comparison. But when we look back on what we did now, it’s like, “Fuck, that was really mean.”
One girl started dating a guy who I was in love with, and because of that, I hated her. I was so jealous of her. When they broke up, I made her life a nightmare. I told everyone to stop being friends with her. She hated me. Her mom hated me. What’s funny is that two years later we actually became good friends. We just…grew up and got over it. But I regret it.
I think I started to change around age 15 when I moved to a new city. Suddenly, I was away from everyone who I grew up with and became the new kid. Everyone was like, “Who the hell are you?” It took me a while to fit in and make new friends, and I hated that year so much. It was very hard to not be the cool girl anymore. It was hard to not fit in. All you want when you’re that age is to be cool.
But you evolve. You grow up. You become more aware of how other people feel. You start feeling things that you haven’t experienced before, like rejection. You know how they say you don’t know what a broken heart really feels like until you’ve had yours broken? You don’t know that you’re a total asshole until someone else is a total asshole to you and makes you feel like crap.
I would not wish any of this on anyone. If it were my kid being bullied? Listen, it’s a tough world out there, but I would stand up for her. It’s hard because you probably want your kid to have friends and be social, but I wouldn’t want her to change who she was. And if I were to talk to mean girls right now, I’d tell them to think about how they would feel. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. If something doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.
That kid I told you about, that small kid who got bloody noses all the time, he’s really successful. He owns a bunch of companies. I don’t know if he’s still getting those bloody noses, but whatever. Everyone grows up.
I think behind every mean girl there is a nice girl, by the way. I wasn’t allowed to go out without adult supervision back then, but all of my friends were, so on weekends, I stayed home. I would play World of Warcraft with my neighbor. So. You never know.
Feature photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.