Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan shudders as she recalls her teenage years
I recently declined to attend a school reunion. The very idea made me go cold. The freezing hand that clutched at my heart and stomach in the old days, whenever I walked into the classroom or joined ‘my’ little group in the playground and was greeted with silence or – worse? – sidelong glances and ostentatious but indecipherable whispers (about my new shoes? Because I tried something different with my socks? Anne-Marie was always very against people trying new things), grasped my innards once more.
Anyone who wasn’t in the first cohort of cool in primary school and stayed there forever (in which case WHO ARE YOU and WHAT ARE YOU?) will know the feeling. The most humiliating moment was probably when I was mock-Valentined and they all gathered round to coo and gush before revealing that – ha ha! – Michelle had sent it. How did I – with my glasses, my short hair, my no boobs, my utter loserdom that ran through me like a stick of rock – ever think a boy would fancy me? The rest was lower-grade stuff, but delivering the same message and somehow all the more effective for its gentle persistence.
So I read with consuming envy the news that Wimbledon High School for Girls has hired an education consultant specifically to teach girls how to avoid the cliquery and toxic friendships that abound among teenage girls.
Because it takes years to undo the damage they cause. Some say that it breeds character. I agree. The problem, however, is the kind of character it breeds – cramped, cowed, bitter, defensive, cankered of heart and calcified of soul. Though I’m really fun now, honestly.
But, enduring personality defects aside, what I really mourn are the years I wasted thereafter, thinking – ’scuse my language, but duty calls – that all women were bitches. It kept me from making proper female friends for so long that I could throttle myself.
Because, while I have always had lovely, precious friendships with men – my oldest friend is a boy from primary school (he’ll always be a boy to me, even though we recently worked out that we are now older than our parents were when we first met. This is not a revelation anyone should have when they have work the next day. You have to drink and you have to drink a lot) – there is nothing, absolutely nothing like real, female friendship. I got my first taste at university with people who just… liked me. No, I can’t explain it either. But they listened when I spoke, understood what I meant when I couldn’t put it into words, laughed at my jokes, let me cry when I was sad, told me I was a dick when I was being a dick, and we were – suddenly, miraculously, irreducibly – friends. They never tried to blindside or trick me or make me feel uncertain, guilty or bad. It was wondrous. They were wondrous and so were the women I met in my 20s and 30s without whom I now simply could not survive. I could not live without the absolute mutual comprehension, the bespoke emotional support that is given before you even know you need it, the ease, the solidarity. The laughs. Beyond all else, the laughs.
So good luck, Wimbledon. Speed your students past the sh*t as fast as you can. Teach them solidarity instead of cliquery. It’s so much better on the other side.
Photography: Ellis Parrinder