two girls with twisted hair
Photo: Levi Brown
When Kelly Valen was a college freshman, she was raped at a fraternity party. That was only the beginning of her torment: Incredibly, Valen's sorority sisters blamed her for the incident and for "bringing shame" upon them all. They gossiped about her, ridiculed her, and eventually kicked her out of the house. More than two decades later, still haunted by that cruelty, Valen began to investigate the paradoxical nature of female relationships—how we manage to support one another so intimately and still sometimes be unconscionably mean. With the help of researchers, she surveyed more than 3,000 women about their girlfriend-ships. The result is her new book, The Twisted Sisterhood. Valen shared some of her findings:

O: What were you most surprised to learn from the survey?

Kelly Valen: Eighty-eight percent of the respondents reported feeling an undercurrent of negativity among females. That's really sad, since we can be so good for one another. Research has proved that female-female relationships actually boost our immunity.

O: There've been a lot of reports lately about bullying among girls. Why the increase?

KV: For a long time we accepted cattiness as typically female behavior. But now girls are committing suicide because of this malice.

O: Is technology making things worse?

KV: Females are socialized to use what psychologists call indirect aggression—and the Web's anonymity makes this behavior even easier. The National Crime Prevention Council estimates that 45 percent of all teens have been cyberbullied.

O: At what age does the trouble start?

KV: Marion Underwood, a psychologist renowned for her work with children, says that it can begin by age 4 or 5. My survey participants often referred to painful run-ins that occurred back in kindergarten.

O: Those incidents obviously left scars.

KV: Well, a part of the brain involved in creating memories and regulating emotions—the amygdala—is quick to learn but slow to forget. So once a bad memory is etched there, it can influence your behavior for years. Many women reported that to this day they avoid groups of females—book clubs, the PTA, Mommy & Me.

O: What does it take to break the cycle?

KV: Be welcoming toward other women. Mentor a young colleague. Sociological studies show that this kind of behavior is contagious.

O: Do you foresee an end to the mean-girl phenomenon?

KV: In my research, the role of moms kept coming up. We have to lead by example—no more gossiping in front of our daughters. We also need to instill more confidence in them. Without a healthy sense of self, they look to their peers for confirmation of their worth. We can change that by helping them feel powerful straight out of the gate.

Friends or...Frenemies?