The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: Odd Girl Out

When Rachel Simmons published Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls in 2002, she pulled back the curtain on a world that girls knew intimately but the wider public didn’t. Through hundreds of interviews with girls between the ages of 8 and 16, Simmons debunked the myth of the “nice girl” and revealed that girls’ relationships were more complex than was commonly acknowledged, fraught with manipulation, calculation, and cruelty that flew beneath teachers and parents’ radars. The book was a bestseller, and it started a national conversation about the way girls bully—a conversation that spurred changes in the way educators approach teen socialization and resulted in anti-bullying legislation in 20 states.

Odd Girl Out inspired Simmons to make a career of helping girls, parents, and teachers understand and cope with what she calls “alternate aggression,” or the kind of bullying particular to girls. Now a teacher herself, Simmons has released a revised and updated version of Odd Girl Out, returning to her first book with more perspective. As she notes in the new introduction, “I wrote [this] as an observer, but I have revised it as a practitioner.”

Simmons’s transition has changed her book fundamentally, and for the better. In its original form, Odd Girl Out brought a largely unexamined social problem into the public eye with sensitivity and insight, but offered little by way of solutions or advice. Now it is both a sociological text and a how-to. Simmons has added three new chapters focused on the roles of parents and teachers, which detail the tricks and tips she’s picked up over the years. She gets incredibly specific, down to which sentences do and don’t work with teens, and how best to approach another parent or teacher about bullying.

The new Odd Girl Out also addresses the changes brought about by technology. Facebook and sexting didn’t exist in 2002, but now they dominate the way girls conceptualize and conduct their friendships. Simmons tackles social media’s effect on teen girls in two new chapters that cover cyberbullying, privacy, and what parents can do to help their daughters negotiate the slippery world of online interaction. What she describes is frankly horrifying, an inescapable maelstrom of hormones, insecurity, and cruelty enabled by the Internet’s tendency to erase inhibitions and accountability. Refreshingly, though, Simmons refuses to see girls as victims of new technology. “Social media may magnify emotions and facilitate cruelty, but it does not ‘make’ girls act a particular way,” she writes. The solution, she suggests, isn’t to log off but to develop strategies for communicating healthily, just like in real-time interactions.

Simmons has made plenty of tweaks and improvements to her original work, but here’s what remains unchanged: Odd Girl Out is gripping because it’s relatable, even to those of us who are mercifully removed from the social politics of middle and high school. By documenting girls’ social lives with depth and nuance (no girl is just a bully or just a victim, Simmons reminds us) the book encourages us to consider what transpired at our own lunch tables, and how that shaped the kind of women we became. Everyone knows what it feels like to be the odd girl out, and Simmons has turned her book into a meeting place for all experiences: Girls find a voice and an ally, parents and teachers gain perspective and tools to help the girls in their lives, and the rest of us observe from the sidelines, feeling wiser and a bit better understood.