April 23, 2018
Why Pretty Girls Get Bullied
Being attractive can be a mixed blessing for girls
Posted Apr 22, 2018
Frank McAndrew, Ph.D.
On January 14, 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in her family’s apartment in South Hadley, Massachusetts, following a relentless campaign of taunting, gossip, and bullying by other teens at her high school. Phoebe’s body was discovered by her 12-year-old sister, and one of her last text messages began with the phrase “I can’t take much more.”
Phoebe was a pretty girl who had moved to South Hadley from Ireland a little more than a year before her death. The bullying began after she had a brief romantic fling with the boyfriend of one of her principle tormentors. The five teenagers who orchestrated the persecution of Phoebe were eventually convicted on charges of criminal harassment and sentenced to probation and community service.
The most consistent flavor of the insults hurled at her was that she was a “slut” and an “Irish whore.” As it turns out, a woman’s looks and her reputation for sexual fidelity are prime targets for women engaged in competition with each other for romantic partners.
Unfortunately, the tragic story of Phoebe Prince is not an isolated incident. Fifteen-year-old Cora Delille of Ohio killed herself in exactly the same way following an almost identical campaign of gossip and harassment in 2014, and in 2017, 10-year-old Ashwanty Davis hanged herself in her Colorado home after being bullied for weeks. Only a few weeks after the death of Ashwanty, 13-year-old Rosalie Avila suffered the same fate in California - suicide by hanging after being ostracized, gossiped about, and bullied.
“Mean Girls” Are More than Just a Stereotype
It has been well established that men are more physically aggressive than women (link is external). However, women are much more likely to engage in what is called indirect “relational” aggression (link is external) and gossip is the weapon of choice (link is external) in the female arsenal. Consequently, women are more likely than men to socially ostracize others, and this sex difference shows up as early as the age of six (link is external).
Blogger Danielle Herzog (link is external) related her anguish upon hearing about the “mean girls” in her daughter’s kindergarten class. According to her daughter, the mean girls would tell her that she was ugly and exclude her from games because “they didn’t like her clothes.” Herzog’s anguish eventually turned to embarrassment when her own mother reminded her that she had made one of her best friends cry in 1st grade by telling her that she would only be her friend on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays because “she was not important enough to be all five days.”
The motivation for relational aggression can be as trivial as simple boredom, but it more often transpires in retaliation for perceived slights, envy over physical appearance, or romantic competition (link is external).
Beauty in One Woman Can Bring Out the Beast in Others
The fact that highly attractive adolescent girls such as Phoebe Prince are at greater risk for victimization is consistent with the notion that mate competition is the motive for such behavior.
Women are all too aware of how easily men are drawn to physically attractive females, so it makes sense that they are the ones who will most often have their reputations savaged through gossip as a way of making them seem less desirable as girlfriends, and preventing them from establishing a network of friends and allies can keep them socially powerless. In one junior high school (link is external), two girls circulated a petition after a cute new girl moved in. The petition was signed by boys who promised that they would “never go out with the Megawhore.”
If all else fails, direct physical intimidation can also be used to make pretty girls afraid of turning their beauty to their own mating advantage. Recently, four Russian girls uploaded a video (link is external) of them forcing another girl to drink from a mud puddle because she was “too pretty.”
Less attractive women may also be bullied, of course, but usually for other reasons. If a girl is not perceived as serious competition in the mating market, she is more likely to simply be ignored than she is to be bullied, as she will be perceived as not being worth talking about.
A forthcoming study (link is external) by social psychologist Tania Reynolds (link is external) and her colleagues confirms that women are more likely to spread malicious gossip about other women who are either attractive or who dress provocatively – in other words, women who might distract the attention of men away from the gossipers themselves. The fact that the girls who bully attractive girls are at least moderately attractive themselves is no coincidence – it is a reflection of the bully’s recognition that she is likely to be in competition for the same romantic partners as the targets of her aggression.
Dr. Gail Gross (link is external) is a psychologist and an internationally recognized expert on bullying. She summarized the relationship (link is external) between being attractive and being bullied as follows:
"It is important to note that not only are the weak targeted, but often a girl that is considered to be too pretty, too smart, too nice and therefore making the other girls feel inferior. In fact, bullies may describe a target as “too full of herself.” And, because of the competition and striving for popularity as well as positions of power, peer groups may form alliances to cast out and isolate the offending girl."
There are endless examples of physically attractive girls being bullied by other girls, and parents regularly share stories on social media about their daughters being bullied because they are pretty. One North Shore Chicago mother (link is external) of a girl who did professional modeling spoke of the frequency with which her daughter has been told she is ugly and that she should kill herself, and Swedish supermodel Paulina Porizkova was bullied mercilessly throughout her childhood. Model/actress Brittany Mason, who was a former “Miss Indiana,” even thought about killing herself (link is external) to escape the gossip and bullying of her peers. For example, at a homecoming rally at her high school, a group of her rivals created a poster with her picture on it and waved it around while chanting “You are Ugly.”
Regardless of the trigger for relational aggression, the goal (link is external) is almost always to exclude competitors from one’s social group and to damage their ability to maintain a reliable social network of their own.
As it turns out, this is a highly effective way of hurting other women (link is external). Because women invest more in building friendship networks, the disruption of these networks and other social connections is all the more crushing.
So, beauty can be a curse as well as a blessing – it bestows undeniable advantages on those who possess it, but also paints a target squarely on their backs.
Frank McAndrew, Ph.D., is the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College.