Beware the bitch Barbies

Adi Bloom

Surviving school is all about aspiring to be average and conforming to standards set by bully boys and girls, research shows. Adi Bloom reports.

The essential rule for getting by in school is to be average. Do not stand out. Do what everyone else does. Try to look the same as everyone else.

Striving for normality is the only way to avoid the "bitch Barbies" and bully boys who stalk the school corridors, according to Wayne Martino, of the University of Western Ontario, and Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, of Deakin University, in Victoria, south-east Australia. The two academics interviewed 900 Australian teenagers in mixed and single-sex schools to demonstrate to international governments what pupils want from school.

Their results are being presented this week at the American Educational Research Association conference in Chicago.

Most pupils spoke of the need to fit in. One 15-year-old boy said: "Being normal is the only thing to be. Average! Average everything. Size, taste, friends, values."

Often, this was achieved through self-regulation. One 14-year-old described how, when walking in school alone, he would worry that he had a lopsided walk and try to rectify it. Others felt that they were being monitored by the ultra-cool pupils the academics refer to as "bitch Barbies and bully boys". These pupils would create gender-based notions of desirability, to which they would hold others accountable.

More than a third of boys at single-sex schools talked about the need to live up to stereotypes of macho masculinity. "Some boys get called poofs.

That's an issue," one 15-year-old said.

Almost twice as many pupils at all-girls' schools talked about the bitchiness that could result from a failure to conform. While there were no boys at their schools, body image norms often focused on what boys would like. These male expectations were policed by "rich, stuck-up anorexic bitches" and "Britney Spears clones".

Such standards were maintained at mixed comprehensives, where girls felt their femininity was policed by pretty girls whose popularity was defined and regulated by popular boys. Others felt they were being judged by boys, who categorised them either as "tight bitch" madonnas or "slut" whores.

Boys, meanwhile, spoke about the need to be homophobic in order to reaffirm their masculinity. A 16-year-old said: "Boys have to be macho and brutal all the time. If they don't act like that, they are considered a faggot or gay."

The researchers concluded that gender-based harassment and pressure to conform to preconceived notions of desirability were concerns for all pupils in all schools. Or, as one 16-year-old girl summarised: "School is just like the outside world: just as nice and just as cruel."

BULLIES ON FILM. Heathers (1989)

Three girls named Heather form the most powerful clique at Westerberg high, along with Veronica (Winona Ryder). But when Veronica meets rebellious JD (Christian Slater), the Heathers suddenly begin to commit suicide under mysterious circumstances.

Billy Elliot (2000)

Eleven-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell) is expected to enjoy boxing lessons at school with the other boys. But, instead, he prefers girls' ballet lessons.

His teacher arranges an audition at the Royal Ballet School, but Billy must contend with stereotyped expectations at home.

Elephant (2003)

Alex and Eric are isolated at Watt high school. They are repeatedly bullied for being different and for possibly being gay. Ultimately, they bring guns into school and murder their schoolmates one by one. As Eric stands over his headteacher with a rifle, he says: "Y'know, there are others out there like me."

Mean Girls (2004)

Raised in Africa by zoologist parents, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is unprepared for Regina and the Plastics, the popular clique at her new school. Initially, she plans to befriend Regina and expose her mean streak.

But instead she, too, becomes a mean girl.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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