Thankfully, the operation to remove the toy dog from my face was a success.
There aren't that many photos of me between the ages of 12 and 16/17. The ones that exist often feature me hiding my face in some manner, as the picture above demonstrates (I was 16 in that). It isn't because we didn't have a camera. It's not because I didn't have family or friends who wanted to take photos. It's because I hated the way I looked so vehemently that I avoided being in photographs unless I had to be. Sure, there were exceptions, but on the whole, that period of my life is pretty much undocumented.
And here's the thing: Very few people just randomly decide they hate their face. It's rare for someone to think "I'm fat and ugly" without any outside influence (although yeah, teenage hormones/body hang-ups are a nightmare). Sometimes that influence is the media - there's a reason I don't buy glossy magazines - but sometimes, that influence comes from people much closer to us than the airbrushed models we see in print. All too often, it comes from people we see on a daily basis. People we go to school with. Bullies.
"Hate" is a very strong word, but I'm going to use it here and not in a casual "oh I hate it when that happens" sense. I mean it in the true "it makes me feel sick with rage" sense. I hate bullying. More than that, I hate people who don't hate bullying. Because we all should. Every single one of us should be outraged by the mere idea of it. And yet it happens. It happens so frequently that it's shameful to us as a society - students, teachers, governers and parents. We should all be disgusted by it and we should all be trying to stamp it out.
The figures are hard to get hold of, but recent surveys in the US reveal that suicide is the third biggest cause of death to young people in the country and that around half of those suicides are a result of bullying. In the UK, 44% of cases of suicide in young people are a result of bullying. The charity BeatBullying undertook a major survey in 2006, revealing that a massive 85% of school students had witnessed bullying and 69% said that they had been victims of it themselves.
But it's hard for some people to get emotionally invested in statistics. Sometimes we need real stories, or real action before we can comment passionately on a subject. So imagine the scene, if you will:
A girl is on a bus. She's thirteen years old - a child. An older, much bigger boy comes to sit beside her. He touches her arm and she recoils. He laughs and tells her no other man will ever touch her, because she's so disgusting. She ignores him; staring out at the rolling fields as the bus travels closer to its destination. The boy whispers that she's a hideous freak, before moving to the back of the bus and leaving her alone and afraid of what might happen next. Before she has time to wonder, the boy and his friends begin spitting at her. Phlegm - sticky and disgusting - lands all over the new coat her parents have bought her for school. The girl forces herself not to cry; she doesn't want to give these bastards the satisfaction. As the bus reaches school, the girl is forced to go into the toilets with a waiting friend, to try to clean herself up. It has become a morning ritual.
The girl goes into her form room. She sits quietly, ignored by the pretty, popular girls in her class - the bullying on the bus has made her shy and withdrawn. She sticks out like a sore thumb. Her form tutor has newsletters to send home to parents and he asks two boys to hand them out. When they get to the girl's seat, the boys hold the newsletter as though it's burning their flesh and throw the paper at the girl, laughing to themselves. Then they pretend to disinfect themselves, because they've had to go near the "ugly" member of their class. They mock her and joke amongst themselves, just loudly enough for her to hear.
And so it continues through the day, until the girl steps onto the school bus home. And that's when the older, bigger boy comes to sit beside her again. He tells her she's unloveable. He tells her that her parents must be so ashamed of her. He tells her to kill herself.
That night, alone in her bathroom, the girl tries to hang herself with her school tie. When that doesn't work, she takes pills; one, two, three... She's finding it hard to swallow them down, because she's crying so much. Four, five... Then she realises she doesn't want to die. She just wants the bullying to stop. She goes to her room and falls into a fitful sleep, knowing that she'll endure the same Hell the next day. And every day.
A lot of people reading this will recognise that story. Many of you may already know that the girl it mentions was me. But if reading that doesn't make you think "yeah, bullying is shit and it ought to be stamped out," then I want to know why.
People used to say that it was "character-building." Ha!
It doesn't build character. It fucking kills character. And I make no apology for my strong language, because I know I was a girl who went from being chatty, vibrant, confident and outgoing, to being described in a school report as "worryingly withdrawn." Character-building?! Don't insult me.
There's no excuse for it, either. No amount of "oh, he had a bad childhood, that's why he lashes out at others" is an acceptable reason for bullying someone else. If we make that excuse for bullies, where do we stop? Do we excuse rapists and abusers because they might have had a shitty past?! I think most people reading this know exactly where I stand on that.
Maybe I'm being idealistic, but in my eyes it's really very simple. We teach children that everyone has worth. That everyone deserves to be treated with respect and compassion. We encourage them to realise that it doesn't matter what a person looks like; it really is what's inside that counts. We explain that judging someone because their nose is too big, or their stomach is too fat, or they don't wear the right clothes makes you a much uglier person than the subject of your nastiness. And we stick to that. We say it when they're little kids, starting primary school. We remind them, when they're 11 and getting ready to go to secondary. We tell them again when they're in their teens and oh so conscious of their own looks and everyone else's. We never stop. And we make it easy for kids who experience bullying to report it to a trusted adult and we DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT when they do. Not say "oh, ignore it." Not make excuses for the bully. We crack down on it and we crack down hard. Because ONE young person taking their own life every year due to bullying is far too many. The most recent statistic I could find for Britain was twenty per year. That's nearly two a month. And that's appalling.
Sure, I don't disagree that we need to be making sure that kids are staying in school and being helped to become decent members of society. I'm not advocating kicking the bullies out and letting them languish and drift into lives of crime, or anything like that. What I am saying is that the victims of bullying need to be helped first and the whole thing needs to be stamped upon as firmly as possible. Bullying is not acceptable and if you're reading this and thinking "nah, it's harmless enough" then scroll back up and read what happened to me. IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
Ruining someone's self-confidence because you don't find them attractive enough is abhorrent. Shouting abuse at someone because they don't fit in with your ideals makes you little more than an ape. And that's offensive to apes.
For what it's worth, I've managed to scrape back a relatively healthy amount of the confidence I lost due to bullying. But I'm not exaggerating when I say it took years. And of course, I never got all of it back; I'm still the first person to put myself down and say I'm not pretty enough. And frankly, that's not acceptable, either.
I use the word "hate" casually, just like we all do. I hate text-speak. I hate shows like TOWIE and Geordie Shores. But I loathe bullying. I despise it with a genuine rage. I hope everyone I know feels the same. And I hope there'll come a day when I won't need to write ranting blog posts like this, because schools will have the problem sorted and there won't be any teenagers taking their own lives because of bullying. Until then, I will continue to shout back against it: Bullying is vile. And I bloody hate it.