Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. An age old and ubiquitous saying, but it is untrue. Words can wound with equal force. Studies of bullying were mainly of boys until 1992 when a group of Norwegian researchers produced the first paper on aggression in girls. This showed that girls use much more subtle and undetectable tactics and that bitching is a prime weapon in their arsenal.
"Anything can lead to bitching, even who has the nicest dining room table,"
says one 14-year-old who points out a paradox. "The only way to have a conversation and not bitch is to keep your mouth shut," she says. Girls bitch because group judgments provide them with crucial guidance as to how to look and behave when they feel most vulnerable about who they are.
They bitch to deflect attention from their own weaknesses. It becomes part of their everyday dialogue and easily shifts to a damaging form of bullying.
Tactics are cunning. Often it is not so much what is said - "slag', "fat bitch", "you're not going to eat that are you?" - as what is not said - blanking, negative body language or facial expressions, or not leaping to someone's defence when they put themselves down. "The best buzz you get is to look at someone, then look at someone else and start giggling. It makes them feel small," says one 15-year-old. Girls are clever and know that any information is potentially useful for building alliances and power bases.
They exchange secrets seemingly as equals; the gullible one divulges information that is true while the bitch makes something up and then spreads her friend's truth around.
Girls can be cruel, setting up conference calls where one doesn't know that there are three on the line and is tricked into saying something nasty, or encouraging bad dressing or hair dying by saying that it looks nice.
They engage in a sado-masochistic dance, where one girl is picked on within their group of friends and targeted as the runt. She gets laughed at, talked about whenever she isn't there and she knows she's being left out of social arrangements. But they keep her hanging on by just enough of a thread to lead her to believe that she is a friend. Therefore she believes that it is all her own fault. If she was thinner, prettier or more popular then everything would be different.
These methods of bullying are like stealth missiles that go well below the radar of most parents and teachers. The art of duplicity lies in looking so "good" that you could never perpetrate such acts in the first place. Girls know where each other's weaknesses lie because they feel weak in those areas themselves. They also know how important friends are for security.
Exclusion or the threat of exclusion cuts the deepest. Challenging bitch bullies is difficult, for you then get labelled as hypersensitive with "can't you take a joke?" "You have to be careful not to show them that you have been hurt by something they said, as they pick up on it and use it against you," says one 14-year-old girl.
Teenagers also want to be able to sort out their friendship problems themselves and when they do summon up the courage to tell an adult, all too often their concerns are dismissed with "that's how girls are, you have to get tough" or "find other friends".
Bitching to bullying is often a sign of a child in distress. "When girls have bad and stressful issues to deal with at home they let it out at school," says Margaret Clark, a youth worker who has been working with children in schools for the past 10 years. When girls bitch to bully it is often an expression of severe problems, just like eating disorders or self harm." But it is also symptomatic of the pressures most girls face as they begin to come to terms with the social constraints of femininity.
They often bitch over each other's appearance and sexual reputations because these are the attributes which men seem to value most in women.
They feel sexy, are just as interested in sex as boys and have just as much of a right to experiment, yet the prevailing moral culture is that "good"
girls don't, so they are quick to hang the "bad girl" or "slag" label onto others to maintain their own reputations.
Stereotypical notions of femininity maintain that girls are always kind, supportive and enabling of others rather than competitive, but they also want to succeed career wise and success requires different skills - ambition, drive and even ruthlessness.
There is such pressure now to be and look perfect, to "have it all" and yet they are not sure how, or whether they are up to the challenge.
Girls build up steam like pressure cookers and have a great deal more to get angry about these days but they are also not supposed to show it. So they let it out tangentially, subtly and in ways which seem more culturally acceptable than hitting someone.
"When you feel unhappy you don't give a shit about how anyone else feels, you want someone else to feel as upset as you, you wanna show people how you feel," says one 15-year-old. "I like making people feel bad; it makes me feel better," says another. We are surrounded by a bitchy culture where celebrities slag each other off in the tabloids or on reality shows such as Big Brother.
We have Anne Robinson putting down her contestants on The Weakest Link and magazines such as heat and Sneak, which hone in on the mistakes celebrities make with their appearance in the cruellest manner. How then are young girls to navigate a new etiquette when they also feel more uncertain than ever about their own looks and futures?
Those who find they are victims need their plight acknowledged by adults.
Otherwise they learn, like so many other women before them, how to be the quiet accommodator, scared to say anything in case it should be misinterpreted, in case she is considered stupid or laughed at. She is the one who is at fault, not the mob, and that is a terrible model for adulthood.
It's harder to go for what you want, ask for that pay rise, and at the extreme end of the spectrum she could become attracted to abusive relationships where she stays hoping for love, hoping they will change.
The bitch loses out too, learning how to manipulate others and put them down whenever she feels threatened or vulnerable, and that is at any age: at 17 when you are under pressure and feeling competitive over exams, university entrance and boys; at 27 in an overly competitive industry such as banking or acting; or at 37 as mothers made to feel inadequate by other mothers at the school gate.
When girls understand why they bitch and how female stereotypes - of always being kind, good, selfless, accommodating, sexy yet sexually unavailable -Jconstrain them, they are more able to differentiate between the bitching that is aggressive and bullying and the far more harmless way that women bitch to bond for a laugh.
The Big Fat Bitch Book by Kate Figes is published by Virago at Pounds 9.99.
Kate is happy to visit a small number of schools, on a voluntary basis to lead "bitch" workshops through the spring and summer terms. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org www.kidscape.org.uk