A set of twin boys brought my life double trouble in the 4th grade. They had skin like rich soil and thick bellies that jiggled when they laughed at me. I met them at the bus stop on the first day of school. I suppose they chose me because I looked 7 when I was 10, all bone and no height to speak of–an easy target. My friends called me Skinny Minnie; the twins were not as kind.
“Look at that girl’s head! It’s huge,” one pointed. He howled and slapped his knee.
“It looks like an egg,” his brother added.
“Do the egghead, do the egghead!” they crowded in on me, singing and dancing the cabbage patch.
My voice disappeared. Stop, I thought. Leave me alone. But there were two of them, and they outweighed me like grapefruits to grapes. So I walked away and let them sing, pretending to ignore it. And every day for months, they would sing “my” song when they saw me. In front of a crowd of classmates. Who laughed. I shrank daily.
I never told anyone: not the bus driver, a teacher, a parent. I figured if I could not say anything to the doughnut ball twins, I could not risk the embarrassment of revealing my own failure.
Last week, I learned about the allegations of bullying levied against NFL Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito by teammate Jonathan Martin. I have been tweeting and writing and thinking about the scandal ever since. I can’t talk about bullying without speaking my truth. But I was hesitant to tell my own story because I was not brave. I was soft; and my mother didn’t raise no punching bag, but I am all give and no growl.
I read comments on the Martin incident and seethe. The anger starts in my chest and collects in a hot scream at the back of my throat. Martin is a 300-lb football player and he’s letting a grown man threaten him? He should have punched him. He never should have aired the club’s business. Martin is weak. White dude Incognito is more of a black man than half-black Martin.
Part of this is an indictment on how we juxtapose femininity (soft) and masculinity (tough) and force the male gender into false binaries. We treat men like pincushions. Squash them and squeeze them, because they are men and they are supposed to endure. Be flexible. Bend, don’t break. And if they bleed when we prick them, we call them…soft. Like women. But they are never supposed to express pain healthily, only in physical blows and language that mirrors an aggressor’s venom.
This type of abuse is highly psychological. Yet, society demands that victims, whose emotional strength has been compromised, clamber out of the protective shell they have built and strike. It denies the effect that bullying has on self-esteem and the belief that you can end your torment. Martin may have been the same size as Incognito, but Incognito’s alleged abuse shrank him mentally.
The conventional wisdom is to hit or threaten a bully to make the abuse stop. It is problematic that the solution mimics the cause. I have yet to stuff a punch in a pretty mouth to stem the tide of ugly words. For men–no, people–who refuse to adopt the rhetoric and posture of bullying, there is derision. “You deserve what you get,” their words will all but tell you. No one will back up a snitch and no one will respect a weakling. Martin became a whistle blower knowing that neither his silence nor his honesty would protect him from scorn.
And this is why bullied people wither in silence. The words rattle in the cage of our skulls but the tongue plays possum. There is no safe outlet for men with cracked armor or girls with thin skin and brittle bones. We all have the power to stand up for ourselves until we stop believing that we can. But when agency fails us, that is when we need “friends” to stand in the gap and help stop the abuse, not stand complicit to it. Perhaps their silence, indolent yet menacing, is the loudest blow of all.