Yesterday I spent some of my afternoon hanging out with a pal in a grassy area behind a school. We sat around like two creepers watching children play, admiring their unbound athleticism and occasionally laughing at them. A good-sized gaggle of roughly 11-year-old girls gathered in a corner, arms intertwined, giggling.

“I wonder what they’re saying,” mused the friend I was with. I shook my head. I didn’t want to know. Then I shuddered, because that’s what people do when they think about awful things. I informed my friend, who was never a 9-12 year-old girl, that these young ladies were surely up to no good. I meant it. Preteen girls are the absolute meanest.

I started (and pretty much stopped) developing breasts around the age of ten. This is pretty average. When you’re a girl, your body thumbs its nose at your brain and curses you with grownup hormones in the middle of a round of Barbies. After that, “Playing Barbies,” becomes a euphemism for making your anatomically incorrect dolls have sex.

You begin thinking a lot about sex and about the people you want to have it with, and your mom begins giving you regular lectures about how cows shouldn’t give their milk away for free. Of course, because you’re a little kid, you don’t think about your desires in such straightforward terms and try not to think too hard about what your mom is getting at. You decide what you’re needing is romance, but since you’re at least five years away from knowing what that really means, you make do with the tripe fed to you by mainstream cinema. Nobody tells you that it’s different in real life, or that women are allowed to have standards, so you roll with it. I’m lucky my parents wouldn’t let me watch Jerry Maguire.

It’s no coincidence that this age of hormonal hell is also approximately the same time when a lot of girls decide they don’t like other girls, and it is a decision that they will cling to into their twenties. This is because preteen girls are cliquey little hellions who haven’t yet learned that assholism is a social faux pas. There is only a brief window of time where it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, to be completely mean to your fellow kid and still be considered friends, and it peaks around grade 6.

Among tween girls, there is always a cool group. They are exclusive and maniacal. Instead of being mercifully indifferent, as boy cool groups tend to be, girl cool groups assert their dominance through tactics of psychological warfare. Did you once fall off the stage at a violin recital, exploding in tears? Did you accidentally slip and call your fourth grade teacher “Mommy” one fateful afternoon, after she praised your (admittedly immaculate) spelling? Don’t worry, the preteen cool girls won’t let you–or anyone else–forget.

In my elementary school, the preteen cool girls were a lilywhite foursome who we called The Pixies because they were dainty and giggly like a pack of evil Tinkerbells. They all took gymnastics and dressed like Beanie Baby-obsessed Gap models. During our weekly gym class, they would launch into a series of gravity-defying backflips to remind the rest of us where we fit on the social totem pole. They were all vegetarian, too.

I have two preteen girl cousins now, and they never fail to remind me how lucky I was to have come of age in the internet’s infancy. I don’t want to imagine how horrible my daily life would have been as a fifth grader with a Facebook wall or a cell phone that nobody called (or texted at, I guess). When you’re on the outs as a preteen girl now, you ARE your rejection, because popularity has become ten times the public performance that it was when I was a kid. Your Facebook numbers won’t lie if you have no friends.

The thing about preteen girl cruelty, and a thing that I will catch flack for saying, is that so much of it stems from our society’s unequal treatment of women. It’s a cruelty spawned by competition, insecurity, and fear.  Preteen girl cruelty is about distinguishing yourself as one of the worthy few, because you’re all in the running for that same token position or ultimate Prince Charming (also, Disney is socially regressive for all of womankind).

But seriously. This is what distinguishes the emotional ruthlessness of the preteen girl from the garden variety dickishness of little boy bullies. Preteen girl cruelty is the beginning of the realization, deep within the trenches of your self-preserving spirit, that you were born with the short end of the stick.