Originally written for NACADA Journal, July 5, 2017:
As observed by Rachel Simmons in Odd Girl Out, a wonderful day in the life of an adolescent girl can be exhilarating, happy and carefree. However, if that same unsuspecting girl unwittingly (or intentionally, for that matter) makes one false move—be it a smile, a gesture, or a perceived shift in allegiance to a friend—she may just have set herself up to be a victim of “alternative aggressions,” a seemingly clandestine but all-too-real system or code that gets activated when “girls lack the tools to deal with everyday feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, and jealousy,” and “their feelings stew and fester before boiling to the surface and unleashing torrents of rage” (p. 88). The effects can, and often do, remain with said victims well into adulthood and perhaps even the rest of their lives.
Following a lead from a University of Minnesota psychological study, Simmons identifies the social, emotional and psychological terrain that she explores in the book. “Relational” aggression occurs when “the aggressor uses her relationship with the target as a weapon,” while “indirect” aggression “allows the aggressor to avoid confronting her target.” An act of “social” or “indirect” aggression occurs when an aggressor works to “damage self-esteem or social status within a group” (p. 21). The author collectively refers to all of these as “alternative aggressions.” This perpetual “code” of indirection and displacement generates a highly stressful and psychologically taxing peer culture of suspicion, fear, and mistrust. In effect, as Simmons notes, “when there are no other tools to use in a conflict, relationship itself may become a weapon” (p. 31).
Odd Girl Out is equal parts ethnography, exposé, field guide, and training manual. The first eight chapters comprise an ethnographic exploration of adolescent girls and the challenges they face at a crucial point in their lives. Adolescence itself is enough of a challenge, but the girls in this study must also be constantly questioning themselves and others for fear of making any number of perceived or real missteps within their social circle. Simmons identifies the leitmotif of the book itself and the cultures it describes: “If I had to name one trait many girl bullies and targets share, I’d say that both draw a potent mix of power and security from the close relationships in their lives. And they are terrified of being alone” (p. 177).
Readers who are not parents of adolescent girls and/or are not middle-school teachers will be incredulous and caught off guard as they read the author’s revelation of a culture that can be simultaneously secretive, cruel and frustratingly unpredictable. As a result, in two of the later chapters the author provides parents with specific strategies to employ when and if they find their daughters caught in such a teen- or pre-teen tempest. The last chapter provides specific strategies and ideas to help educators and administrators identify aggressions and respond appropriately.
Odd Girl Out is a must-read for anyone with adolescent girls in their lives or families. It belongs on the bookshelves of all middle- and high-school teachers, administrators and should also be required reading for all pre-service teacher education and school counseling students, as well as the academic advisors who will have previously advised these student cohorts. Simmons makes explicit the connection to higher education (and academic advising): “…[E]ducators do not know how to respond to peer aggression. Graduate schools of education rarely train teachers in this area, so administrators should never assume that a teacher simply ‘knows’ how to reprimand and discipline a student” (p. 343). This book is a valuable tool for helping all educational professionals recognize, address, and (hopefully) diminish and eliminate “the code.”