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Lilly was our easy child.

As a baby, she sat contentedly on my hip while I did home therapy with her developmentally delayed older brother, or while I argued with her stronger-willed big sister. In school, Lilly made friends easily at every duty station. Her teachers would move Lilly’s desk away from her pals to stop her from chatting, but she would simply strike up new conversations with whomever sat nearby.

One afternoon while stationed in Germany, I raced out of our base apartment to our minivan, because I had forgotten to pick Lilly up from elementary school, and it was raining. Gunning the engine up a hill, I saw Lilly happily running alone down the sidewalk, arms outstretched and eyes closed, her backpack flopping under her bob of sandy brown hair. As fat raindrops splatted on her sweet face, she grinned from ear to ear with pure joy.

That was Lilly.

Not surprisingly, she amassed a group of seventeen girlfriends in high school, despite being the military kid on scholarship at a prestigious private school. I snapped copious photos of her fun-loving group dolled up for dances, so proud that Lilly’s easy-going personality had allowed her to breeze through the complex social quagmire of adolescence.

But now, Lilly is a freshman in college, struggling with negative body image issues, low self-esteem, and depression.

Not Lilly! How did this happen?

In an attempt to help, I am looking back at Lilly’s seemingly problem-free adolescence for answers. It turns out, her situation was not as simple as it seemed.

In today’s violent society, parents, educators and experts are talking openly about the potential dangers of chalking aggressive male behavior up to “boys will be boys.” In the #MeToo era, girls are told they must band together to fight the real problem — male aggression. Few would suspect that girls might actually hurt each other, and subtle “mean girl” manipulations often go unnoticed until lasting psychological damage is done.

Although “relational aggression” has long been considered a form of bullying that can include “gossip, rumor spreading, public embarrassment, social exclusion, and alliance building,” this behavior is sometimes accepted by parents and educators as a right of passage for girls. However, research indicates that this type of subtle bullying can lead to the development of low self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and even suicide for both the victims and the mean girls themselves.

Although Lilly hid her angst from us to keep her “happy-go-lucky” reputation in our family, she has now admitted what was really going on in high school. Although she still fiercely defends her friend group, she admits there was a social ladder that she clung to precariously, with two particular girls consistently at the top. These “ringleaders” were often mean in subtle ways — using their control to temporarily exclude or shame members of the group over minor conflicts. The ringleaders were intimidating enough that the other girls in the group did not stick up for each other, for fear that they might be the next victims of embarrassment or isolation.

Petty jealousy over a boy who had a crush on Lilly prompted one ringleader to scream at her to, “Get the f*** out of my room!” Even though the dozen other girls present later admitted that the ringleader’s behavior was completely unjustified, not one of them came to Lilly’s defense. She was not accepted back into the group for a week.

Also, comments made within the friend group about weight profoundly affected Lilly. On one occasion, Lilly’s friend held up a very large pair of pants she found in her room and said in front of the group, “Lilly, these are way too big for me, but it looks like they might be your size.” I assume this friend hadn’t meant to hurt her, but soon Lilly stopped eating in the dining hall. This and other weight-related comments were permanently burned into her fragile adolescent psyche.

Now, I grit my teeth. I should have asked more questions when I had the chance. But instead of seeing the insidious dangers under the surface, I obliviously snapped photos of those beautiful, glittering girls.

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