October 1, 2008
Bullying is a hot topic. Stories of celebrities who have been bullied are even hotter. Olympic champ Michael Phelps’ childhood bullying issues had international interest. Even Barack Obama got in on it, mentioning the issue of bullying in his presidential nominee acceptance speech (I know, he’s not a celebrity, just a politician). Why are people fascinated with discovering famous people who were bullied?
Do people who have been bullied want to know who else shared their fate, i.e., misery loves company? Or maybe it’s nice to know that someone successful had been beaten down and yet rose beyond the experience. In other words, maybe if you were bullied you really can have the last laugh. Or maybe we just love gossip and it fulfills a voyeuristic tendency to hear another tidbit about a famous person.
But is there any real value to having the public know that Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice, one-fifth of one of the biggest girl-groups in music history) was bullied in school? Recently she said, “People would push me around, say they were going to beat me up after school, chase me. It was miserable, my whole schooling, miserable. I tried to be friends with people, but I didn't fit in. So I kept myself to myself.” Perhaps there is value to these conversations.
Perhaps reports that one of Rosario Dawson’s worst memories is getting all dressed up for a school activity and having the girls “pick on me because I was flat chested” brings more awareness to the issue of bullying and social aggression. Some may think, “Who cares?” but such discussions about formerly unmentioned topics have a history of making major cultural changes.
Weeks after Betty Ford became First Lady, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer – and discussed it publicly. Later on she talked about her alcoholism and drug addictions. In the 1970s and 80s, sharing these issues with the public was considered very risky. Her openness about both previously taboo topics made headlines and the public decided that she was incredibly brave and heroic. The culture of the time could have judged her negatively, but she was embraced. She was a First Lady, yet as vulnerable as a common citizen. It became acceptable for the average person to discuss these issues and get help. No longer were breast cancer and addiction ignored until they killed. People began to get help.
A few years later, Oprah Winfrey talked about being sexually abused as a child. She even discussed being impregnated by an abuser when she was fourteen (the child died shortly after birth). Aside from fascinating news, people admired this celebrity who was willing to bring these once shameful admissions out in the open to help others avoid the same fate. Child abuse, sexual and otherwise, is now discussed with children to limit such abuse. And survivors of abuse can understand they are victims and seek the support they need.
A few years ago, baseball great Joe Torre talked to reporters about his experience with domestic violence. His father, a respected NYC police detective was a physically abusive husband and an emotionally abusive father. Fans and non-fans were fascinated with this aspect of this athlete’s life. Joe wasn’t the first athlete to experience such abuse but it was Joe who used his status and resources to create the Safe at Home Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is "educating to end the cycle of domestic violence and save lives." Public interest with this man’s experience with bullying (domestic violence is a type of bullying) has led to publicizing the issue and working to end it.
So when I hear about Chester Bennington of the rock group Linkin Park say he was, “knocked around like a rag doll at school for being skinny and looking different,” it can resonate with a lot of kids. It’s another reminder that bullying hurts and it’s not cool. I especially appreciate super model Tyra Banks discussing the issue of bullying and reminding girls that gossiping, deceiving and manipulating is very unfashionable. She tells the following story: "I spent the whole year working on this model show which deals with outer beauty, but three of the prettiest girls left first. It's about personalities. Personality and who you are is so important. If you're pretty but you're ugly inside, you're ugly outside too."
Schools and parents need to impart many bully prevention strategies to stop kids from abusing others. I think that celebrities talking about their bullying experience are now part of the list. Pop culture heroes have incredible influence over young people. When these celebrities bring up the topic, it is an opportunity for other adults to discuss with young people the importance of respect and tolerance for all.
What I haven’t encountered are stories about celebrities who were bullies. Do you know of any?