Updated: Jan 30, 2020
My all-girls high school lunchroom operated on an unwritten set of bylaws that went without challenge. Every group had their own table, their own reputation, and we coexisted outwardly peaceful, well aware of our place. Our groups, and the tables themselves, were where it began and ended. For if we moved to another place in the cafeteria, for even one day, it would be assumed there had been a falling out. It was a major deal to switch people and spots. It meant speculation and likely starting completely over.
That’s how it often is in the female world--defined placement, boundaries, and the understanding that breaking through is possible but not without scrutiny.
One classmate seemed to manage the near impossible. She floated, eating at this table and that one, navigating the cafeteria with a certain confidence the rest of us didn’t utilize. I, too, was friendly with just about everyone, but I wasn’t about to give up my permanent spot at my table. Life was pretty predictable and I was grateful for it. My lunch group was my reliable comrade for all things social. I knew with whom I’d be riding in limos to dances and the girls with whom I’d be guaranteed sleepovers on the weekends. I’d switched tables once from freshman year to sophomore year after realizing that I wasn’t badass enough to run with the badasses. I survived the switch and had no intention of reinventing myself again.
But the girl who weaved between tables was a skilled negotiator, able to relate to everyone but never sticking around long enough to be labeled with one group. And I often wondered, in between bites of turkey sandwich and sips of Dr. Pepper, how she viewed her place in the lunchroom. Did she secretly long for a table to call home? Or did she like being a nomad in girl world, even if it meant negotiating with whom she’d hang from day to day, dance to dance, and basically surviving high school on the fly.
Who had the better hand? Me, because of a consistently safe bet, or her because she could play any hand she got?
These lunchroom dynamics weren’t anything new and they would keep popping up with each phase of my life. In grade school it was much the same, just through rose-colored glasses. The sorority house was the lunchroom’s reprise, center stage, louder, and in lights. Nowadays I run with several large groups--parent circles, volunteer organizations, Mardi Gras krewes, and professional societies--and within each of them, when I step back and scan the area, I see the lunchroom materialized again. I see the rule sticklers, and the rule benders, the leaders, and the ring leaders. There’s the do gooders and the apathetic, and finally, the ones who show up for their certificate of participation. Sprinkled throughout are pockets of gossip. No table is innocent. Because whether we claim polite gossip or not, we’re spilling tea. Like we never moved on, we fall in line to our respective tables, slide into our chair within the groups of our groups, and let a well-oiled machine run us.
Think I’m embellishing? How often have you said or stood witness to the following murmurs at your table?
“What’s she doing with them?”
“Who’s she pretending to be?”
“Who’d she sleep with to get that promotion?”
“What’s she wearing?”
And even, “Bless her heart…” Tea disguised as a southern lady. Sweet Tea.
Outside, the lunchroom expands globally. Look at Meghan Markle and the hateful words spat in her direction when she got the storybook wedding the rest of us wanted. She was American, a minority, and she didn’t stick to her table. So the claws came out and the catty, petty behavior that has plagued women for centuries rippled through the lunchroom. And why? Because when everyone is in their place, we’re safe. We’re free from the threat of someone wanting what we have, but even more and as in the case of the Duchess of Sussex, when everyone stays put, we’re free from being reminded of what we don’t have.
As much as I convince myself of the myriad advantages to being a woman, when I think about the ways of things in the girl worlds of my past and then take a keen eye to my interactions with women today, I wonder if we’ll always be at a disadvantage. And all because we never really leave the lunchroom.
As women, we cling to the carols of sisterhood. We are energized by movements, marches, and talk of our innate strengths that have been tested throughout history to screams of “time’s up” until our throats are raw. It’s a visceral cry for freedom. But, when ignoring the problems within our own ranks, we allow a leftover element of childhood to be a blatant part of our adulthood, keeping us silly little girls and never freed women.
No one writes this kind of stuff about men. When was the last time you heard of cattiness in the frat house? Why doesn’t Bravo have a “Real Husbands” franchise? Where is the blockbuster movie, “Mean Boys,” in which four shiny jocks saunter through the halls and talk shit about the other boys in boy world? It doesn’t exist and that fact should make us angry. But why is there not something similar for men? Because we perpetuate our image, and though our male counterparts judge, they don’t play it out as we do.
About a month ago I stepped into the lunchroom again, this time with someone I know from several organizations. I had pegged her years ago as a classic social climber--that person who zeroes in on the elite clique and desperately, often pathetically, claws her way in for a status symbol acceptance. My presumed shallow ambition of hers annoyed me. I rolled my eyes at her posts--documentation of her fawning over and flattering people further irritating me. Here I was, home with ten dollar wine, and there she was, living her best life with the prettiest people. Then I was sort of stuck with her on that day last month. The hours together forced actual conversation between us through which I realized that I was the bitch I thought she was. She was not social climbing; she was just a cool chick, and I was jealous. I’m perpetually uncool--no one copies me, hangs on my every word, or follows my lead. I’ve always had the dumb luck of falling into an accepted crowd, but that afternoon I had the embarrassing breakthrough that perhaps my judgement of her stemmed from some stupid need to keep her at her table so that she couldn’t have what I wanted. I’m pretty sure that makes me a loser.
Men don’t go through all that drama. They wrestle their judgement differently--sometimes physically and then moving on. Mostly, though, when men feel inferior, they negotiate. Like that girl in the lunchroom who played a better hand than the rest of us, men are quicker to approach all sides than we are. Sure, they smack talk, but it never gets to the level of our cattiness because they either know that most people aren’t looking at them anyway or they just don’t care if they are. They embrace the scrutiny like a badge of honor, making them free to be who they want and move about at their own pace. They aren’t their brother’s keeper.
Women have been consistently kept--kept at home and kept on display. We’re breaking the barriers that have kept us, but what of those restraints do we put on each other?
I know enough to know that we’ll continue to be kept women if we don’t free one another to navigate outside of the boundaries of judgement we set. We shouldn’t be the greatest enemy of our greatest ally. Our lunchroom behavior will continue to inhibit us if we don’t fight it, if no one wants more than what we’re giving each other. We may not have balls in our anatomy, but we have more than enough boldness to storm the lunchroom and shut it down should time truly be up. We are better than our cattiness, stronger than our quick judgement, and savvier than our insecurities.
Sisters, we are playing the best hand we’ve been given yet. The outcome is ours to win. Will we bet against each other and fold?
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.