Anti-Bullying Day: A Euphemism in Practice
Recently, I remembered a horrific memory from my first year of high school provoked by my first session of therapy. One February afternoon, the weather outside was poor enough that my physical education teacher decided that we would have class inside that day. However, the gym was being used by a sports team. So, our excited girls class got to join the boys class to sit on the bleachers and watch the game. In grade eight, this was a monumental occasion. I had left my gym strip in the girl’s changing room, a simple t-shirt and pair of shorts. At 14 years old, I was experiencing all the coming-of-age hormonal changes of early teenagehood, of which the introduction of the menstrual cycle reigned supreme. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had a small stain on the inside of my shorts. Sitting on the bleachers, I watched as one of my friends ran across the gym from the girl’s changing room with my gym strip in hand.
“Deidre, you forgot this!” she cried out in front of the bleachers as she hurled my gym strip at me. My shorts landed face up with the stain, which by then had dried into a rustic brown color, viewable by every individual in the gym. From that moment on, I became “shit stains”. I remember crying at home alone in my bed, consoling myself with the amount of time it had been since that horrible experience. I’ve made it one day. I can make it one more. I’ve made it one week. I can make it one week more. However, the harassment lasted for years to come, only wearing off a little by grade ten. I remember sitting in my grade nine math class a year later writing a test. I tried miserably to focus on my test as the boy behind me whispered “Shit stains is going to fail. Shit stains is going to fail”. I became an easy target for every type of harassment available.
In the wake of this harassment, I tried desperately to grasp onto some sort of identity. If I were stand out as the subject of constant ridicule, I’d better make it fun. I wore bright purple pants and paraded down the hallway with my music blasting to drown out the voices of others and to give myself a brilliant theme song. When ridicule failed to intimidate me, people began to criticize me for being full of myself. Eventually, I caught the eye of older girls. I had a group of them wait outside my locker to beat me up. I was chased down the main street in town by one of them with a knife. I was shoved into a locker and accused of somehow breaking into a girl’s locker and pouring lotion into her purse. Not sure how that would have happened but it demonstrates the often sheer ridiculousness of bullying.
Physical education class continued to be a nightmare. I’d often find myself in the changing room with a class of girls in the grade above mine. I’d get changed before class or wear my gym strip to school to avoid the changing room altogether for fear of being cornered. I learned to accept perpetual unease as a constant reality. Often, I felt like a wounded animal navigating a forest alone, nervous that around every corner, a predator lurked. This unease stemmed from a childhood of sexual assault in which my ability to comprehend abuse and ultimately advocate for myself was nonexistent. As an adult, I am often skeptical of people and cynical of their intentions. I look back at my teenage years and lament the abuse I suffered.
I’d like to say that suffering through these negative experiences resulted in a more resilient Deidre. While this is true in some ways, I don’t find the steadfastness I often associate with resilience present in my day-to-day life. There’s the story of overcoming adversity that I’d like to tell, the version of the truth that is easier to psychologically digest. However, I find it more truthful to say that those experiences have resulted in a significantly anxious adult who is better equipped to empathize with others and deal with them compassionately. I find the romanticization of struggle to be problematic. I think of the “It Gets Better” campaign and I wonder how my past self would react to those words. Well, in some ways things did get better and in some ways they didn’t. It took me years to live down being called “shit stains” and those words still have me quickly travelling back in time to relive the horror. Bullying sucks. Struggle sucks. People suck. The best thing that can be done on a day of anti-bullying is to be honest and truthful about the shitty reality of being a teenager.
I always hated the idea of wearing pink or having a designated anti-bullying day. These responses to bullying have always felt symbolic and symbolic has always felt inadequate and meaningless. Symbolism was a slap in the face in comparison to the harsh reality of the abuse I suffered. I wanted action. I wanted results. I didn’t want symbolism. I wanted someone to advocate for me. I wanted someone to step in instead of standing by. And so, anti-bullying remains a euphemism in practice, a response to bullying that downplays the severity of action needed.