'Mean Girls Bullied Me as a Child. I Thought it Would Stop as an Adult'

"Mom, are you alright?" whispered my daughter. I felt her wandering eyes boring into me, so I tilted my head back and brushed away any moisture gathering around my eyes.

I was with my 15-year-old at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and we were watching Mean Girls. Tickets to the show were a birthday gift for my theater-loving daughter, Dayna, who had been dying to see this musical. In fact, I'd already bought tickets for us to see the show in New York to mark her middle-school graduation in May 2020, but the trip couldn't go ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I'm fine," I said firmly, and flashed Dayna a smile. I sat up straighter in my seat. Why was I tearing up at the end of this fun, frolicking musical? I had expected to be entertained by this show, with any lessons to be learned being for my sophomore daughter, not me.

Diana Foutz Daniele is a writer and publicist living in California. Diana took her daughter to watch the musical Mean Girls at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Diana Daniele

Taking a deep breath, I focused on composing myself. As I gulped in the theater's cool air, I noticed that my mouth was dry, and my throat was constricted.

Mean Girls is a coming-of-age story revolving around Cady, a naïve, 15-year-old girl who must learn how to navigate the social hierarchy of her midwestern American high school after moving from Africa.

I picked up on Mean Girls' survival theme right away, as an extended comparison is made between public high school and the jungle, with Cady imagining teenagers as the wild animals she observed in Kenya, while pegging queen bee Regina George as the school's "alpha" female from the start.

"C'mon, this show is a comedy," I scolded myself. Then I remembered my proverb-loving mother's favorite rejoinder to me growing up. As I'd spill out my adolescent angst and teen trauma, she'd raise her eyebrows, look me straight in the eye and say: "Remember Diana, the roots of humor lie in truth."

Which is exactly why the truth portrayed in this romp of an upbeat musical had reached my now middle-aged heart. When I was in junior high, as I started to come out of my painfully shy shell, I made the cheerleading squad. I was even the captain.

At around the same time, I started to be the target of another girl's bullying. A girl who I'll call Regina had, unfortunately, transferred into my school in seventh grade and took a dislike to me.

Regina always seemed to be watching me, and she was never alone. She patrolled with her posse of other mean girls. I remember, after our first seventh grade pep rally, how I ran right into Regina. She appeared to be waiting for me, like a wildcat waiting for its prey. I was pumped up and glowing from my first cheer performance in front of our entire student body. But my pride was short-lived.

Diana says her daughter, Dayna, was excluded from her pre-school softball team. Diana Daniele

"Diana, could you get any peppier?" she'd said, the sarcasm dripping from her voice. Her question elicited titters from her henchwomen. Frozen for a second, and knowing I had no comeback, I turned to leave.

"Your shoes are untied," I heard Regina sneer from behind me. As I looked down at my saddle shoes, I heard all of them break into peals of derisive laughter. I can still feel how quickly my mental state went from joy, elation and self-confidence to shame, confusion, and worthlessness—all in one minute's time.

During my seventh and eighth grade years, my recurring dream was that Regina would stop hating me, and we would be reconciled. I never found out why she tortured me and she never let up on her persecution. What saved me, ironically, was starting high school, where Regina's reign of influence and terror ceased.

Of course, growing up doesn't mean that queen bees like Regina disappear. The bullies are still out there. And never more, for me, than in the motherhood sphere.
Indeed, when my kids were aged two and nine, I developed chronic migraines, a debilitating but invisible illness.

"You don't look sick," was the refrain I'd often hear, which seemed to be both an accusation that I was faking as well as an excuse, as if I didn't deserve any empathy or accommodation.

When I was on-site at Dayna's preschool and Drew's elementary school, I was in my "Academy Award-winning performance mode," portraying a good mother without a painful disability. Looking back, I believe it was my weakened state from living in near-constant pain that attracted more Regina-types into my motherhood milieu.

After watching the musical Mean Girls with her daughter, Diana shared her story on social media. Diana Daniele

These women were not my mommy friends; they were mean girls, grown up. One mom in particular, whom I will also call Regina, went to great lengths to exclude my daughter from the softball team that all of the other little girls from our preschool were on. Fortunately, Dayna never knew. She just wondered why all of her friends were on another team, and she was on a team in the league where she knew no one.

I knew Regina had been the one to exclude my daughter after another mom, whose husband was the coach of our preschool team, came to me later and told me that it was Regina's doing. This mom said she had no hand in Dayna's exclusion and was sorry for what had taken place. I will always remember her kindness. My real regret is that Regina was hurting my daughter, who was an innocent caught in the crossfire.

I believe the reason I have not shared openly about being bullied in middle school or by my fellow school moms is because of fear; I was afraid I'd be perceived as weak, and that someone else would come along and bully me all over again.

I don't believe I'm the only woman who has remained silent about her experience with mean girls. Indeed, all of us, as human beings on this planet, have some personal history of such, just by virtue of walking along the path of life.

Fortunately, I'm in a healthier place now. That evening, after Dayna and I got home from the show, I decided to share my story on social media. Because I am a writer, and not a celebrity, I knew my message wouldn't be going out to millions. But it would still be seen by people who were important to me.

Not more than 15 minutes after I posted, which is a testament to how connected teens are to social media, my daughter came downstairs to find me wiping the counters in the kitchen.

"Really, mom?" she asked. I heard the quaver in her voice. "I'm sorry," she said, choking on the words. Now there were tears in her eyes.

I pulled her in for a hug, grateful I'd shared my story in a medium that my daughter not only understands, but values. I also know that sharing my pain with others will help heal the shame I've carried by keeping silent.

Being bullied has made me a more empathic person. It has also given me a sixth sense about people—those whom I can trust and those whom I should steer clear of. I now talk openly about bullying with my daughter, hoping to give her the tools she'll need to navigate the big, wide beautiful world that awaits her.

Diana Foutz Daniele is a writer and publicist living in California. She is currently working on a memoir.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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