An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
This is the moment I’ll recall if I ever end up on Dr. Phil: I was 12 years old, alone in a minivan with my best friend’s mom, Mrs. Lewis, and she asked me to lift my shirt and show her my abs. When I did, she looked back at me from the rearview mirror and said, “How could you NOT have abs?” She contorted her botox-infused forehead into a look of horror and laughed like a maniac. “We have something in common!” she cackled. “Sad abs!”
Mrs. Lewis was a nightmare: A woman so obsessed with appearances that she criticized anyone who didn’t fit her idea of perfection. Worst of all, she transferred her preoccupation on to her daughter, Michelle. When I was in sixth grade, Mrs. Lewis selected me to be Michelle’s friend and spent the next year hurling a wrecking ball at my body image. More than caring about looks though, Mrs. Lewis wanted Michelle to be popular. And for a while, I was her chosen sidekick up the social ladder — until, all of a sudden, I wasn’t.
My friendship with Michelle began like a creepy Stepford Wives scene, the summer before middle school, when Mrs. Lewis seemed to appear out of thin air. She cold-called my mom one day and said she’d heard about me through a friend. Wouldn’t it be fun for us to meet? We met at a park, where Michelle and I played on a swing set, and Mrs. Lewis quizzed me like she was calculating my family’s worth: Which street do you live on? she asked. What does your dad do? Where does your mom like to shop? It was clear there was no being friends with Michelle unless Mrs. Lewis sanctioned it. She must have approved: Weeks later, Michelle and I started sixth grade together and became friends.
Michelle had everything I thought I needed to be popular: Abercrombie jeans, a hair straightener, highlights from the priciest hair salon in town, and appointments with a tanning bed. These were all reasons to envy her rather than befriend her, but Michelle also cared about school and got straight A’s. She never tried to cheat off of my work like the other cool girls. After we became friends, I was, initially, happy — I had someone to sit with in the cafeteria and trust in the classroom. But deep down I wondered why she wanted to hang out with me.
Our after-school playdates were the first signs that I might not be the friend Mrs. Lewis had in mind. Every day Mrs. Lewis arrived early to park her car first in the school-pickup line and every afternoon, she stepped out and approached other car windows to chat. She always talked to the popular kids’ parents. On the drive home, she’d ask us about the cool kids (“How’s Emma?” “What’s Emily up to?”) as if to confirm whether we’d finally “made it” in with their crowd. Inevitably we hadn’t, so she’d try and schedule more playdates with friends of those girls. If we couldn’t be popular, at least we’d be on the sidelines.
Michelle laughed at her mom’s obsession with popularity like it was the most outrageous joke ever (ever!), but she readily took on her mom’s need to be perfect as well: The two of them wore the same bronzer, carried matching designer purses, and had the same golden hair highlights. They were most impressed with themselves at home, while Michelle and I did homework at their kitchen table. Mrs. Lewis served perfectly shaped grapes and chocolate-chip cookies straight out of the oven, and Michelle seemed to enjoy the elaborate display of attention — she always looked at her mom winningly before reminding me (again) that they shopped for fruit at our town’s upscale grocery store. Those afternoons made me feel inferior to both of them, and I began to wonder if I’d ever really belong.
It took a literal divine intervention (Christian summer camp!) for my friendship with Michelle to crack. Mrs. Lewis selected the camp and pushed my parents to send me by listing the names of other kids who had gone there (all popular kids, because in our town it was cool to be religious). After we arrived and unrolled our sleeping bags, Michelle was nicer and more relaxed than I’d ever seen her — she befriended the shy girls in our cabin, forgot to wear makeup, and helped all of us flirt with boys in the cabin next door. Being away from her mom seemed to free her and eased the tension in our friendship. I stopped worrying about what she and her mom thought about me. We were inseparable through all the camp activities and became closer.
Being away from Michelle was too much for Mrs. Lewis, but the camp prohibited parents from calling their kids, so she threw a fit and called my parents in hysterics: “Can you believe they won’t let us talk to our girls every day? What are we going to DO? I can’t take this!” She wrote agitated, manipulative letters to Michelle, urging her to persuade the counselors to let her use the camp’s phone. Her distress unnerved Michelle — she took one of the letters to a camp counselor and sobbed uncontrollably until he caved and let her call her mom back.
After that summer, we stopped being friends. Michelle turned on me in the fall, and I knew her mom was behind it. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe because my parents were baffled by Mrs. Lewis’s behavior at camp and refused to help her. Or because Michelle and I had been friends for a year, and we were still … losers? Had I proved not useful? Either way, it was brutal. My mom remembers how Michelle and her mom gradually terminated me better than I do because I’ve blocked out some of those painful memories: she made fun of my acne behind my back, excluded me from birthday parties, and cut me out of photos of our friend group for a class project. Mrs. Lewis apparently pretended everything was fine, smiling tightly when she ran into my parents at parent-teacher conferences, or waving from her car in the school parking lot.
It was pretty tough for a while. But the sad story is Michelle’s, not mine. For years she kept trying to be popular but never quite fit in with the cool crowd, whereas I stopped trying to be popular, became more comfortable with myself, and won leadership positions and school awards. After middle school, Mrs. Lewis transferred Michelle to a private school and I never saw her again. The funny thing about surviving a terrible friendship is that as time passes, the villain gets more entertaining. My mom and I have loosely followed Michelle’s whereabouts over the years, with a dark sort of humor. According to Facebook and mom gossip, Michelle got a boob job, became a college cheerleader, and dated a football player. Finally, her mom must have thought she was popular.
Names have been changed.
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