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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

‘Sticks and stones’ lied: words can always hurt

Bullying always seemed like such a strange idea: some cool kid pushes nerds in the hallway or shoves freshmen into lockers. At least that’s what TV always told me. In reality though, it’s far more common than we may think, and we fail at teaching our kids how to recognize it and protect themselves from the harmful effects of bullying. I finally know that now as an adult who experienced it firsthand.

Growing up, I never quite fit in because I was the “teacher’s pet,” the overachiever. Where I grew up, academic achievement just puts kids on display for ridicule — kind of like a zoo animal everyone watches until it does something worth talking about. For me, they used my intelligence and weight to make me feel inferior … and it worked. Really well.

Their words changed my life, and by the time I was 14 I struggled with an eating disorder, depression and, at one point, suicidal thoughts. I didn’t consider their occasional hurtful comments as bullying at the time, but now when I see younger kids using similar language with their peers, I wonder if it will have those effects on them, too.

Rejection didn’t mean checking ‘No’ on a do-you-like-me note; it was when I was scrutinized, judged or made fun of for being different. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy jokes that poke fun at me. In fact, I tend to make fun of myself more than others do. I realized, though, that this behavior is a by-product of a fat joke made about me 11 years ago. Now I find myself joking about my flaws first so I could control how they are used among others. All of my friendships thereafter changed along with my self-esteem. Unfortunately, as I got older, kids got smarter and their abilities to manipulate what I shared with them changed, too. In college, I’ve found that my weight isn’t the issue anymore, but socioeconomic differences are. My depression morphed around aspects I’m incapable of controlling — my ethnic background and financial situation. I joke all the time about being poor or Mexican after my peers used them as weapons to make me (or other students) feel inferior and different — kind of a beat-them-to-the-punch tactic.

Now that I’m abroad, I’ve found it has altered again. My roommate here has taken my honesty about my life and uses it to get under my skin. He once joked, “The more I know about you, the more I want to use that to break you down … but then I’ll build you back up. I just really enjoy grinding your gears.” After three days living with this kid, I noticed my depression and eating disorder creep back into my life. It tends to happen when outside controls mess with my self-esteem. He has me walking on eggshells in my living space worrying how he’ll unintentionally whittle away at my confidence next. I hate thinking of it as bullying, but we didn’t even know each other well enough for his comments and attitude to be appropriate or healthy for me. It’s easier to mask insults as jokes or blame the victim for being sensitive, but at the end of the day, what they feel is how they feel, and no excuse a bully gives can change that. I’ve recently tried talking to my ‘bully’ about how certain things he’s said made me feel (Mr. Rogers would be proud), but unfortunately it hasn’t helped much. Thankfully, I am confident in my resilience and strength, but many can feel far more oppressed, and their bullies far more destructive. So what’s the right way to react?

I remember when I was first told we had to love our enemies, I almost laughed. How are you supposed to love a person whom you have ever reason to hate? That Jesus guy sure knows how to give a challenge. Even if you’re not a religious person, the way you treat your enemies tends to say a lot about the type of person you are. It’s so much easier to hate than love — it’s why the world is as messed up as it is.

Bullying happens all the time — we just fail to recognize it as such. It occurs because we allow it to occur. Instead, we should be stepping in when someone is laughing at the victim of an insult. Call someone out for being rude, disrespectful or mean. Bullying encourages kids to act violently because there aren’t enough brave voices standing in solidarity with them. It can feed suicide and depression rates the same way it did to me. We need to keep fighting hatred with love. Its potential is limitless. So stand up and speak out even when it’s hard. You never know whose life you may be saving either now or down the road.


Amanda Peña is a junior and a sustainable development studies major with a poverty studies minor. She can be contacted at The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.