In the fifth grade, my class of roughly eighteen students sat down with our school’s guidance counselor for what I believe was a download on the death of someone in the school community. Frankly, I can’t quite recall what the intended topic that day was because it ultimately turned into an opportunity for the other seventeen students (barring a few who were truly close to me) to go around the room, one-by-one, and say why they hated me. One girl said she hated me (hated!) because I consistently got the top grades on the weekly spelling tests and was therefore the one who got to, every other week, read out the test words instead of actually taking the test – an “honor” she had always strived for. One boy said he hated me because I had too many shoes (though this could certainly be said about me today, at that time, I owned no more than ten pairs of shoes). I remember that hour of my life vividly. Where I was sitting in the room. The rage on that girl’s face as she described the spelling test issue. That situation will never leave my memory. Probably because it represented a poignant turning point in my life. From that point onward, my interactions with my peers never seemed good or healthy again. I never really recovered from that one day in fifth grade – and it’s not because I was so upset that someone I’ll never see again hated my shoes. Rather, it’s because ever since that one day in fifth grade, those overarching feelings of hatred toward me have only snowballed. I’ve had so many days like that day in fifth grade that I no longer even know how to meet new people or make friends, at least not without the aid of alcohol. I’m so absolutely terrified of the hatred people seem to always develop toward me and the judgement and ridicule that I’m often subjected to that I’ve more or less perfected the art of shutting myself down around people. Although, and I’ll address this later, that particular approach/defense mechanism is just as harmful; it simply produces a different kind of negative rhetoric.
Until the fifth grade, I was an incredibly happy-go-lucky, extroverted child. I loved to meet new people, spent all of my time with at least one other person my age, and loved to put on shows for anyone and everyone – whether they were piano performances or plays with my best friend and her brother attended only by our drunken parents. I don’t think anything dramatic changed in me between first and fifth grade, at least with respect to the way in which I interacted with my friends and peers, but when people hit fifth grade and that penchant for bullying and social posturing began to emerge, I suddenly found myself the target for most people’s negative attention. Over the years, the way this bullying affected my personality, namely making me aloof and distant and sometimes even prickly, only served to broaden my target. By the end of college, I think most people who knew me had found something to hate about me, had found something about me that allowed them to heap all of their aggression and negativity on me.
Fifth grade was hard. After that group meeting with the school counselor, I felt increasingly ostracized by my classmates, as if the criticisms I received put such a powerful dark mark on me that even my former friends and supporters became wary of me. At one point, my best friend’s mother even told my mom that their family wished I’d move or change schools. And they got their wish. Before I could see how this “uprising” against me would have played out as we got older and my classmates grew snarkier and developed a better ability to cut with their words, my parents’ marriage ended and I was uprooted to a new city.
I knew no one. I was the black sheep with the divorced parents and the gay father. Compared to my classmates at my new school, I was poor. And to top it all off, I was going through an incredibly awkward phase, physically – I had a terrible haircut, hadn’t yet learned how to use makeup, I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs, and I had an abundance of unflattering clothing and training bras. It’s hard enough being the new kid, but coming to the acute realization that you’re nothing like your peers and don’t fit in at all is daunting. Immediately, I found myself being bullied by my female classmates; they were harsher than the boys, though the guys had their moments too. Quickly, I learned to keep my head down and I tried to do my work and not be noticed; nonetheless, people found every possible way to taunt and humiliate me. At one point, a whole pack of girls went so far as to confront me on the playground and start screaming at me about how I should go back to where I came from or die (this being the byproduct of one girl trying to pass a note to her friend in class and it being intercepted by a teacher as it went by where I was sitting).
My diary entries from that time comment on the bullying, but in a way that now reflects my standard mode of dealing with my emotions – as if I’m discussing toasting bread. I wrote that girls were calling me duck face and chicken lips (what?), that they suggested I was a lesbian, that they compared me to a stupid dog peeing on the floor (again, what?), and that they were actively trying to convince the few girls who did try to befriend me to, instead, ostracize me. I began to retreat into a shell that had started to develop after that group counseling session in fifth grade. And from that point onward, the shell just got tougher and tougher. By the time I entered college, it was a full suit of armor - but, of course, covered in floral filigree - if you will - such as to make it seem more natural from an outsider’s perspective.
After the eighth grade, I switched schools – partially to get a better academic experience and partially to have a fresh start away from the senseless bullying I experienced at my middle school. But nothing really changed once I got there. Again, I was the new kid – one of only a few (people don’t tend to move around too much in the private school world) – and I was still pretty awkward looking. Things were improving looks wise, but I had horribly overtweezed eyebrows, braces, and cheap clothing (though my mom worked really hard to help out with the latter so that I would fit in more). Girls didn’t embrace me at my new school, but they weren’t outright cruel either. Instead, it was the boys who made me their punching bag. That’s the age when guys finally start to pay attention to their female classmates - and that either means “falling in love” with them or heaping insults on them. I fell into the latter category of girls given my appearance, socioeconomic status, and somewhat shy/awkward behavior that had developed as a result of my middle school bullying. And because I was new, I was even more of a target.
I had boys call me the jolly green giant for wearing a pair of olive green khakis – and not just on that one day. I had boys start rumors that I wore a wig. I was ridiculed for having big teeth, a crooked nose, and a mustache. Boys made fun of the way I talked and my laugh. I was terrified to speak in class. I felt uncomfortable in pretty much every setting – and I mean even those in which I was around only people who were my “friends.” I had been bullied so much by my junior year that I willingly cut myself off from everyone but three people. I didn’t feel like I could trust anyone. I felt like everyone hated me and thought I was disgusting. Even my best friend turned on me during our senior year for the “cool crowd” – or what she thought was the cool crowd back then.
Finally, it came time for college. I was thrilled that I’d finally be in a setting where everyone was new. I wouldn’t be the odd one out. In addition, I spent the summer before my freshman year trying to improve my appearance and wardrobe so that I’d have fewer reasons for people to ridicule me. Nonetheless, my freshman year didn’t end up going so well. A lot of it was my fault. Having essentially never drank before going to college, I did plenty of stupid things during my first term – embarrassing, offensive, idiotic – under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol. Furthermore, inside, I was deeply afraid of not being liked and of being made fun of. This combination of actual, self-inflicted embarrassing moments with my awkwardness generated by the all-consuming fear and paranoia I felt (and often still feel) inside gave people plenty of reasons to talk badly about me. I fully understand why the guys and girls who I befriended in those first few months of college aren’t on my radar anymore. But when I was initiated into my sorority during the second term of my freshman year, I thought things would change. For the first time, I’d have a group of girls ready-made to be friends with. I’d have a whole host of people to wear matching outfits with and eat meals with and go to parties with and do all the things I’d always wanted to do with a group of girl friends since probably the eighth grade. That, unfortunately, did not happen.
In a pledge class of 35 and a sorority of around 120, girls are bound to dislike each other. And it’s in the female nature to be somewhat backstabby and gossipy, even about one’s closest friends/future bridesmaids. However, I somehow wound up in a category of my own wherein I was pretty much universally hated. For a while, I thought that perhaps this sense I had that everyone hated me was a little dramatic. But now, I think I was fairly spot-on. No one wanted to live with me – a point which one of my junior year roommates made painfully clear as she screamed this at me in front of everyone else in the house (explaining that their decision to let me live in the house was “charity”). No one wanted to invite me places, although they often did to be polite. Everyone looked at me like I had five heads when I walked in a room or spoke. My small mistakes became earth shattering errors (if I didn’t clean a bowl after breakfast because I was late for class, well then I might as well have killed a puppy). I was never elected to a sorority position and was never (in 3.5 years) given any of the little gifts they passed around in chapter (like the support bra, which is meant for sisters going through tough times, even though I was literally breaking and drowning by the end of college). Girls said they disliked me because I was “anorexic” (I wasn’t, but even if I was, isn’t that a reason to try and help me rather than hate on me?). There was even one day where several girls confronted me about how much they disliked me for having expensive things and “flaunting them,” i.e. daring to carry the designer handbag that I was so excited to have received as a gift from my mother – this has always struck me as being funny, both because in middle and high school people mocked me for being poor and having “cheap clothing,” and also because the girls who confronted me also had many nice things, were debutantes, travelled the world, etc.
I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t win. Either I went out with these girls and was ignored or had my presence scoffed at, or I stayed home to avoid the awkwardness and then had the same girls talking behind my back (and sometimes to my face) about how boring and unsisterly I was and how I didn’t care to be a part of the group. Either I tried to hang out with and talk to people and I was obviously unwanted, or I didn’t talk and kept to myself and people said I was haughty and thought I was too good for everyone. And that last criticism was probably the most pervasive and damning one of all. People thought I was snobby and too cool for school, and they successfully propagated those labels far and wide such that it became my overarching image, even in the minds of people who never interacted with me. Some people cited my “bitchy face” as support for these rumors of my snobbishness. Sorry that my face looks bitchy. It’s just my face. I even heard of guys saying they wanted to “hate fuck” me - guys who had never even spoken to me and, thus, could not have truly hated me.
Funny thing is, I’ve never once felt awesome or superior, certainly not enough to drive haughtiness. Since fifth grade, I’ve perpetually felt like the outcast and the ugly duckling. Stupid and awkward and unwanted. Some people could look at a picture of me today and say, “Shut up, you’re pretty,” or see my resume and say, “Shut up, you have lots of great things going for you.” To which I’d say – I look in the mirror and I still see the girl that everyone ridiculed in middle school, the girl that got picked on in high school, the girl who never fit in or found her “home” in college. So many times I’ve wanted to run away from it all. Not to be dramatic, but legitimately because of this sense that things would never improve, that no one in my world would ever really like me, and that I would never be anyone’s best friend. And the latter is likely true because, at this point, I’m terrified to get remotely close enough to anyone to ever have a best friend. Because I have never understood the seemingly universal hatred people have for me – even before I was the person I am now, back when the hatred was over spelling tests and shoes – I don’t know how to make things better.
It never mattered how hard I tried to be liked or how hard I tried to be ignored. People always had issues with me, no matter what I did or what the nature of our interactions were. But I’m really not sure what I did to provoke this. I never made out with a friend’s boyfriend or gave someone the silent treatment for a year or cussed a “friend” out in front of the entire sorority. I’m not perfect and I’ve certainly been rude and mean and thoughtless to people at times. But I really don’t think I’ve ever done anything egregious to anyone. And yet I think the girls who’ve spent the most time with me and would appear to outsiders to be my friends would happily never speak to me again.
There were times in college when I thought things were improving. But, really, they were just glimpses of sunlight peeking through the clouds. Although the members of my “friend group” seemed to be united in hatred toward me, something strange would happen when issues arose between them. Suddenly, I’d have many more close friends. They would all come to me to talk and hang out with, as if they suddenly felt this kinship with me and understood what I was going through pretty much every day. But when their problems were resolved, it was back to hatred, dislike, and/or disregard. In other situations, girls would have moments of legitimate shock as words like these came out of their mouths: “Wow, you’re actually a really good friend,” or “Gosh, you were the only one who actually cared enough to email me while I was abroad.” Things like that. And, yet, as soon as those shocked expressions faded and the words had left their lips, it was as if it never happened. The labels people had applied to me and this myth that had been created about what kind of person I was were so strong that even when people would have moments when they realized I’m not actually awful, those realizations weren’t strong enough to change my image.
One day in college, sitting in the family room of my junior year house, one of my closest friends said, “You know, there’s always a Karen in every friend group.” At that moment, everyone looked at me – either overtly with heads spinning or awkwardly out of the corners of their eyes. I had never heard that expression. She then explained that Karen is “that friend” that people keep around but no one actually likes (this is from a Dane Cook stand–up routine). That was devastating. So many times since that day, this mantra of “I’m Karen” has played on loop in my mind when I’ve found myself in social settings. It never fully fades. And it keeps me in this place where I’m afraid to make new friends for fear of being their “Karen.”
I just wish I understood how I became Karen for so many people.