Fighting Bullying With Our Own Stories
Whitney Kropp is not unlike many high school students we know. She uses fashion and hair dye to self-express and, like most kids her age, was thrilled to discover that she had been nominated for homecoming court at her West Branch, Michigan school. That is, until she learned that her nomination had been a prank put on by the school's popular kids.
"I had actually reached a point where I had thought about suicide," Kropp said in an interview. "I thought I wasn't worthy at Ogemaw Heights at all."
In a turn of events that defies the best of fairy tale endings, her community rallied behind her, with many businesses pledging to do her hair, nails and dress her for the event.
This show of support has prompted many to share their own stories of bullying -- something I think is very important. Stories have the power to heal. By making us feel less alone, they impart not only wisdom, but foster courage. The number of people sharing their tales of bullying prompted me to share my own.
I'll never forget the moment I walked into the cafeteria and the entire room fell silent. I noticed immediately, but pretended I didn't. I got my food and sat down at my usual table. I don't know how I found out, but I finally discovered why people were giving me the looks they were giving me: someone had vandalized one of the stalls in the girl's room. I don't remember whether it said I was a "Perusian" whore or a slut, but it was something to that effect.
Photo by Lexie Rydberg. (Flickr)
There is no legitimate reason to ever say or write such a thing about a person, but I was young and I wondered what I had done to merit such criticism. I questioned my life and choices. I was having sex, yes. I was having and enjoying exploring it. I was decent about it -- and by that I mean that everyone I slept with knew we were enjoying each other but not taking possession of each other. I didn't want to date in high school, I thought dating would get in the way of the journey I was coursing through education. Sex, on the other hand, was a part of that education, a very internal exploration of myself and of others.
I realized at that moment how those words are used to oppress something beautiful and natural and I decided I was going to fight them. Fight them by being as out and loud about sex as I could be.
It wasn't easy. In so doing, I essentially accepted the role of outsider -- I became the crazy girl, bad girl, slut, tramp, all the names and curses that are attached to a woman who has the audacity to live a life of sexual exploration. But the thing about making it a mission to fight for something is that it stopped being about me and became about freedom and self-expression. That helped a lot. If I had any advice to give to young women and men who are bullied, it would be that. This is not an attack on you. You are not unworthy. You are a warrior for whatever you love and there will always be forces that try to suppress that, both in school and in the world.
I didn't forget the words in the bathroom, but I did forget the stall -- which I had avoided so religiously because looking would have been like letting whoever had written that win. One day, in a rush, I ran into a stall and upon closing the door, saw the words. And more words. People had added their own commentary. Some had taken my side, some had added more insults. I was Satan, I was the Antichrist. Someone had corrected "Perusian" to "Peruvian." I smiled at the opportunity that had been taken in the name of education.
If anything prepared me for the flame wars I would eventually weather as an adult -- in my career -- it was that stall door. Every insult and every slight represents another piece of armor. Take it. You are stronger for it. You will need it. Unless you are ready to live the life society requires of you, you will need it. Whenever you think you can't take it any more, look in the mirror and see how every word has solidified into a carapace of titanium. When more insults arrive, feel them hurtle toward you and then stop on the plates you have collected like so many drops of rain that roll down and disappear.
They can't ever get inside unless you invite them in. Don't invite them in. Take only the things you love, the things that feed you. Let your pain and anger be a catalyst for action, not action against them, but against the oppressive constructs that inspire people like them. Find allies where you can and cut ties from those who don't have your back. Do this cutting with the precision of a surgeon. You are only as strong as your weakest man, and on death ground, it's better to fight alone than rally fickle mercenaries around you.
Because you are at war. You will always be at war. But you are strong enough -- you have always been strong enough, even as you drew your first breath, pink and sticky with placenta. You are worthy, you are beautiful, you are individual. Your very existence is a testament to courage. You do not need the certainty of groupthink and conformity because you are courage. You may not think it matters, you may think that you are alone, but the very act of being you, doing what makes you happy, liking what you like, dressing how you like, exploring what you like, is a triumph for freedom and self-expression on a much bigger battleground than you could ever imagine.
My story doesn't have an end as I'm still alive. But I've been fighting for the freedom to self-express and enjoy pleasure since that moment. I became a sex columnist, activist, freedom fighter, dissenter. Part of my family disowned me for doing what I do. I kept going. Some awards later, they started sending me notifications on Facebook to list me as a relative. I ignore them. Blood is thicker than water, they say, but the human body is mostly water. I would rather the support of those who have always believed than those who only saw the value in my work because I was on the Wall Street Journal or Lifetime.
As for the people in high school? More than a handful have written in for sex advice. I'm not one to turn down the opportunity for education -- as I said, the battle is bigger than me or you or an incident in high school. It's okay to laugh, so long as you remember that validation is not without, but within you. You do what you do because you love it. Live as an act of fulfillment, not as an act of revenge.
What about you -- were you bullied? If you could give kids today any advice about bullying, what would it be?