When mean girls grow up

Monika Shreves, a college senior with a petite frame and long, black hair, remembers the first mean girl she met. The girl lived in Shreves' Northern Virginia neighborhood and had the blondest hair and eyelashes Shreves had ever seen.

The two arrived together at Girl Scout camp, and the girl assumed command of the cabin they were to sleep in.

"This is the cool cabin," she told the other girls who wandered into the campsite, looking for a place to throw down their stuff. She'd size up each girl. "You can come in," she'd tell one. "You cannot," she'd tell another.

Shreves and her friends started referring to the girl privately as "the devil child." That same year, Shreves' mom, Christine, was driving Shreves, the blond girl and another girl home from school. All three were in the backseat of the car.

As the car swung into their neighborhood, the blond girl turned to the other girl and asked, "Who would you rather go home with? Me or Monika?"

"You," the other girl said. Shreves burst into tears.

Later, in college, Shreves was scanning her Facebook page, and the same girl popped up, asking to friend her. Shreves, quite surprised, accepted. A short while later, she wished Shreves "Happy birthday" on Shreves' Facebook wall.

"She was perfectly nice," Shreves recalls in an interview.

Imagine that Lindsay Lohan's generation of girls has grown up into decent human beings. You'd never know this by watching TV or surfing the countless websites where mean is queen. Having exhausted the high school mean girl phenomenon that took off in the 2004 movie with Lohan's Cady Heron, the entertainment and media industries have moved on to mean women.

We laugh at Kim and Phaedra sparring on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" and forward the snarkiest blog posts on Jezebel to all our friends. We buy Kelly Valen's recent book, "The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships," and nod in recognition at her examples of women suffering at the hands of other women.

Undoubtedly, many women would also say, if asked, that they've been belittled or dumped by men. So what's the point? That a woman's slight stings worse? In our current obsession with mean females, do we risk perpetuating the sexist image of the shrew? And what does that do to all females?

Maturity happens

To assume that mean-girl behavior is just the way women are may be the meanest cut of all, for it ignores something significant: Girls, even mean girls, can — and do — mature eventually. Jess Weiner, an author and columnist for Seventeen magazine, knows this firsthand.

As a large girl in middle school, she was bullied repeatedly by a group of girls for three years. The posse, led by one particular girl, egged her house regularly from sixth through ninth grades and left mean messages on her answering machine.

In 2003, at age 28, Weiner wrote her first book, "A Very Hungry Girl," and appeared on "Oprah." Among the many e-mails she received post-"Oprah" was one from her former tormentor, who apologized for her teenage behavior. The woman wrote that her parents were divorced at the time and that her mother's boyfriend was molesting her.

"Her apology freed me to realize that we all suffer in those adolescent years," Weiner says. "No one leaves that period of time unscathed. But we can learn and grow from it and move on to lead engaged, loving, productive lives."

We tend to forget that many bullies grow out of bullying. The decline starts in high school. The latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, published in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that in the year before, the percentage of girls who had been bullied on school property — or had engaged in physical fights — declined with each grade, from ninth through 12th.

About two years ago, Rebecca Goldberg found something similar at a large Southeastern university. Goldberg, now an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at Mississippi State University, interviewed 202 female undergraduates on what is called "relational aggression." She reported in her dissertation that freshmen were the most aggressive, seniors the least.

Positive side to social aggression?

Marie Diop, 20, is in her last year at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Md. Diop, president of the college's student senate, was 11, living with her parents in Senegal, when her father told her the family was moving to Washington, D.C.

Middle school here passed without incident, but high school was another story. A sophomore on her pompom team tried to claim a jersey Diop had received from a football player. A junior girl befriended her, then dropped her for senior girls.

The girl whispered to Diop, "Once the seniors leave, I'll come back to you." She barely talked to Diop the next year.

Last summer, Diop had an experience similar to Shreves': The girl friended her on Facebook. Well, look who's growing up, Diop remembers thinking. The girl now attends Long Island University, and the two of them chat online.

Diop, who dreams of returning to Africa to build a hospital, says she has learned that if you can endure the taunts of mean girls, you become stronger, your self-worth not tied up in who likes or doesn't like you.

Middle and high school "gave me the guts to confront anybody," she says. "It influenced me to run for my position on the senate . . . and get into a circle of girls who have a purpose in life."

Erin Willer, a professor of communications at the University of Denver who studies relationship aggression, calls this the "bright side of social aggression."

When the workplace was a man's world and leadership roles for women were few, it was tempting to consider other females the enemy. Competition violated society's idea of femininity, says Goldberg, the Mississippi professor, and women sometimes used covert ways to climb the ladder, stepping on other women in the process.

But the landscape is changing. More than half of managers and professionals are women, according to the research group Catalyst. Women are graduating from medical and law schools in numbers equal to or greater than men. There is less need, even in a recession, to elbow other women out when there are more available seats and when corporations are moving away from competitive models of leadership and toward collaboration.