Ask any adult woman about her middle school experience, and no matter who she is, or what direction her life has taken since those years, she’ll probably say something like: “I wouldn’t relive seventh grade if you paid me.”
Middle school (ages 11–13) is so awkward, so uncomfortable, and, for many of us, so formative. What we experience during that time, especially around our developing sense of self-esteem and our friendships, stays with us.
Most of us are more than glad to leave those embarrassing years behind, but I’ve always felt connected to that time, and spent a few years reliving it as I collaborated with Haley Kilpatrick, founder of national nonprofit Girl Talk, on the book The Drama Years: Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School: Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More. Maybe it’s because my mother worked as a middle school teacher. Maybe it’s because middle school was so tough for me. (Besides the normal tween angst, my family survived a lot during those years: My parents divorced, and I lost my father to AIDS.) During those years, my burgeoning feminism took root, instilling both deep protective feelings towards tween and teen girls’ emotional and psychological experiences and the belief that young girls have stories to tell and need to be heard.
After graduating from Smith and spending a few years at a media startup, I worked at Salon.com, where I wrote about teenagers and education and sexuality, among other topics, and then edited at Seventeen magazine, where I covered what I half-jokingly called the “sad girl beat.” I spent my workdays reporting, writing, and editing stories about the drama in girls’ lives—from getting along with friends and decoding cues from potential love interests to heartbreaking stories of sexual assault, addiction, self-harm, and abuse. I empathized with and felt fiercely protective of the girls I worked with. They were bravely sharing their experiences with me and with the magazine’s readers, and their stories immediately connected with some part of me that still felt 13, dealing with my family’s secrets on my own. It felt like a mission to make sure those girls’ stories were heard.
My literary agent introduced me to Haley Kilpatrick, the young woman who founded Girl Talk, an organization based on the idea that slightly older mentors could help middle school girls thrive during those years. My agent suggested that Haley and I develop a book idea, and it was a natural fit—a chance to bring together my journalism with my lifelong interest in uncovering more about girls’ lives. Girl Talk gives middle school girls a built-in older sister to confide in, and also provides personal development and community service opportunities. In the 10 years since Haley founded the organization, countless parents have asked her how to better help their middle school daughters, and wondered why their girls aren’t talking to them as freely as they used to.
We went to the girls themselves to find out what’s going on in their lives today, and what they’re not sharing with their parents. I spent over 1,000 hours interviewing a large community of both middle school and high school girls and packaged their thoughts, anecdotes, and advice for our book, The Drama Years: Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School: Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2012). In The Drama Years, we ask girls for their thoughts on why middle school is so dramatic; as any tween will tell you, that’s the catch-all word for what they’re dealing with: Their school is drama! Friends are drama! Life is so much drama! We cover stress, competition among girls, materialistic madness, digital drama, “frenemies,” getting along with parents, feeling those first real sexual stirrings—everything girls go through at that age. Throughout, the middle school girls share their experiences and the high schoolers share what they remember from middle school, offering how parents could’ve helped more and/or what their parents did that worked.
The Drama Years is geared towards parents and adults who work with middle school girls, but we hope girls read it too, since there’s nothing as helpful as knowing you’re not alone. I’d like to think that whoever reads it will come away with a greater sense of compassion and empathy for what girls today struggle with, and I hope it will help adults realize how much girls need them to be curious about their lives, to ask questions, and to really listen. Smith taught me how important it is to respect and recognize women’s experiences; I hope we can bring in younger and younger women into that fold.
Whitney Joiner ’00 writes about issues related to teen girls and women for a variety of publications, including Elle, Glamour, New York Times, Teen Vogue, and Whole Living magazines. A former features editor at Seventeen magazine, she lives in Marfa, Texas, and New York City.