I never go to the student lounge. It’s full of loud, obnoxious, cliquey narcissists who’ll laugh at you as soon as you walk in, crying out, “Ew, look at her shoes! Hahaha!”
Well, today I hadn’t much of a choice as the lounge is where the business club decided to conduct their textbook sale, and I had books to sell. I waited in what was an unusually emptyish lounge for someone from the club to show up, and lacking any headphones or other forms of distraction at the time, I was forced to overhear three girls appallingly loudly gossiping about some girl.
“She’s such a slut, she left her boyfriend to have sex with like five other guys!”
“She’s only seventeen! She just gets drunk and goes and sleeps around.”
“This started when she went to AIS, because she started getting so much attention no.”
“Ah because she was the new girl.”
“Yeah, and have you seen her? She’s like a stick! She’s skinnier than So-and-So also!”
“She thinks she’s so hot, she doesn’t even have boobs. Here, I’ll show you a picture.”
With each comment I was getting angrier and angrier. Under the surface, memories of hearing comments like that spoken about me long ago flooded my mind. I know how gossip works. There’s always a kernel of truth, but buried beneath immense mountains of bullshit. According to rumors, I’ve had trysts with people I’ve never said one word to in real life.
But the rumors circulating within a large community of pothead hippies five years ago wasn’t what bothered me really. What bothered me was that these girls who were gossiping on their megaphone mouths were bitching about some poor girl who probably had a lot of shit going on in her life.
I wanted to stand up, turn around, and tell them that. I wanted to say, “Do you even know this girl you’re talking about? Did it ever occur to you that maybe the rumors aren’t true? That guys like to brag about sleeping with people who haven’t even given them the time of day? That even if the rumors were true, people don’t just become like that because they’re bad people, but because they’ve had traumatic or difficult experiences in their past that made them like that? Did you ever stop to see that you’re the one who’s being a jerk by badmouthing someone? Learn to look for and correct your own mistakes before you go complaining and spreading stories about the mistakes of others!”
I wanted to stand up and say all of this to those girls, those stupid little girls who couldn’t have been much older than 18 or 19 themselves. Those girls whom I envisioned growing up to become… the same. Gossipy, bitchy women. Those same women that fill our workplaces, our homes, marry our brothers, our sons, and have children who grow up to become gossipy, bitchy girls. And so it goes. I felt sick. My heart began to race as my anxiety mounted, anger burning in me as I stood, wanting to express all these thoughts to them. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
No, not because I would be a hypocrite. I know I’ve bitched about people, I still do sometimes. But I’ve made it a point now, having seen my mistakes, to stop myself as soon as I realize “I’m doing it again”. I try not to be the people who tormented me through my adolescence. I try not to get used to habits that can harm others, that can harm me. I try to form habits that help. This isn’t me being holier-than-thou. This is me thinking out loud about a problem that pervades society as a whole. The perpetuation of destructive behavior and the lack of its correction. And when I say it’s destructive, I mean it’s destructive on a personal level, but also on a societal level. Is this the kind of people we want to be? The kind we want our loved ones to be?
Well, I couldn’t bring myself to say all this to those girls because I didn’t think they’d understand the gravity of my words. They probably wouldn’t think twice about any of it until the day comes that they hear that someone killed herself because her whole class was ostracizing her, and she just couldn’t see any other way out. Or maybe they’ll never know, because chances are, that girl will go on to become exactly what these people think her to be, live a life of pain and depression, and die without ever having lived a fulfilling life. Or maybe, if she’s strong, she’ll overcome it all, and go on to do great things. I hope she does.
But on a more personal level, there was one more reason I didn’t speak to those three girls in the lounge. I didn’t have the guts. I, the girl people can’t stand because she’s so opinionated, the girl who always fights for what she believes in, I couldn’t stand up for someone. Why? Because I was too afraid of what these strangers might think of me, of what they might say, of what kind of new stories might travel around college. I was still too stuck in the past and its associated emotions and anxieties to stand up for someone who couldn’t defend themselves.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if my words would have made any positive difference. Have I wasted an opportunity to help someone clear their name, and to help three others to become self-aware? Perhaps. But as I write about it all, half an hour later, I find myself thinking that my choice was correct. I’m not here to be Wonder Woman. I can’t think that everyone can and should be “saved”. Certainly not when no one asked to be saved. I stay under the radar at college and I avoid being bullied like I was in high school. I avoid having my name smashed in the mud by people who will one day take over a world that I have to live in, work in, have children of my own in. People who will one day call my office and say, “Hi, can I make an appointment with Dr. Yatawara?” People that, when the time is right, when they realize for themselves that something’s wrong and they want to be helped, will find me and know that I can help them to help themselves.
I never took advice that was given to me unasked. It only offended me because I was too short-sighted to know any better. I had to make the same conclusions on my own before I could make changes in my life. And I think it’s much the same with others. Even if not, it is not in my place to tell anyone how to behave or what to think, even if that is what they ask of me. I’m learning to be a psychologist; that’s someone who helps to open people’s eyes, not control them. I am not an authority on morality or life or justice or whatever. But I can try to show people what they haven’t seen before, if they’re willing to look.
I hope those girls break out of that habit of theirs. And more than anything I hope the seventeen-year-old they spoke up turns out okay. And I hope that you, reading this little self-reflection of mine, have some food for thought.
[Edit – my response to a comment on this post: I should’ve included it in the note, but I really think those girls were behaving in the only way they knew how. It’s not their fault, it’s the way the world works, so I just hope they eventually learn something and try to get past it. I know it isn’t realistic to think that everyone can improve their lives and aspire to do good in the world, but I can’t help feeling hopeful and a little positive.]
[Edit – a friend reminded me that I had left something out: I do not think that there is anything wrong with a girl who wants to have an active sex life; the idea that it’s wrong is a cultural issue. I just didn’t think that it was the case here with the seventeen-year-old, though I could easily be wrong. That said, the point I was trying to make was that nothing justifies judging someone or making strong assumptions without knowing the truth or their situation, or spreading stories about them.]