Hayley DiMarco has a passion for producing relevant material for teens. She is the founder of the Hungry Plant think tank and the coauthor of the phenomenally successful books Dateable, The Dateable Rules, and The Dirt on Breaking Up. Hayley and her husband, Michael, live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I got my start in the corporate world by working for Nike right out of college. That's where I really learned how to understand the teen mind because that was their focus. Thirteen- to 15-year-olds were their core audience. From there I went to Thomas Nelson Publishing, where I created and developed their brand of teen products called "Extreme for Jesus," including the Extreme Teen Bible and the Biblezine concept behind the Revolve, Refuel and Becoming New Testaments. I was there for about 4 years, and developed that whole brand from nothing to a $10 million business, so it proved the viability of the teen market. Before that, nobody was really doing any kind of branding in the teen world. It was really exciting and successful.
I then left Thomas Nelson to create my own packaging company, I guess you could call it. It does so much more, but it's hard to describe. It's called Hungry Planet. We create content titles, such as Dateable, and Mean Girls, but we also have up-and-coming authors who really wouldn't get a voice by just giving their manuscripts to a publisher; they'd fall through the cracks. We try to help them develop their stuff more, and give it a Hungry Planet twist. We tend to concentrate on the ADD reader (which is pretty much most of us under 40!); those who tend to not have a lot of time, and just want to get information quickly. We also try to make sure all of our products are visually stimulating.
I've been married for a little over a year. All that Dateable stuff paid off! Michael handles the other authors, and we write books together.
Why did you choose to write for teens?
I felt like the teen market chose me. When I was working at Nike, the whole environment was focused on teens. Once I got to Thomas Nelson, one of the oldest Christian publishers in the world, they wanted to do teen stuff, but they didn't really know how. I found myself saying, "You've got to think about teens in a completely different way." By default, I became the person that, I guess because of my experience at Nike, knew what I was talking about when it came to the teen mind. One thing led to another, and I became obsessed with stopping the production of products that were ending up under teens' beds unread. Because of my writing and work at Thomas Nelson, I talked to a lot of teens all over the country, and I'd ask them if they had a certain book. Pretty much everybody in the audience had it, but when I asked how many read it, only about 10 percent would reply. So the books were ending up under the bed. There are a lot of books that sell well because parents say, "I want my kids to know this," but it doesn't meet the need of the teen. They'll say, "I don't want to read a book about feeling good, I want to read about how I feel today, or how guys don't like me, or how girls are hard to understand." I was getting passionate and excited about the fact that we have to stop making stuff that strokes our ego because we can say that we're selling a lot of it to parents, and start making things that, though they might not sell as much, teens are reading and connecting with.
What inspired you to write Mean Girls? Did you face a lot of Mean Girls in your lifetime?
I did, and that was part of it. I grew up with a lot of Mean Girl problems, and at the time, I didn't know how to handle it. I wasn't a believer and I didn't have the right responses. I don't think I handled it well.
But what really put me over the edge was what I found when I was doing research with girls for the Dateable book. I'd talk to a group of girls, perhaps 20 or 30 girls from a church, or a youth group, or a school, and we'd be talking about dating. But I kept noticing that they just wanted to talk about other girls! They kept saying, "She's so mean, she does this, and she does that!" So I started asking them, "How many of you have a mean girl in you life?" Everywhere I went, every hand went up. It wasn't just one girl having a problem with another girl; every girl seemed to have problems with other girls. I thought, "Either there's one really busy mean girl running around, destroying everybody in this group's life, or something's just off!" I started asking them questions like, "How many of you do three-way calling to find out if somebody likes you? How many of you gossip? How many of you have gotten revenge?" Every hand was going up for that too. And that's when it hit me: It's a bigger problem than just one Mean Girl that's the "queen bee" as they call her. Every Christian girl, to some extent, was misunderstanding God's call to love your enemies, and to do good to those who hate you. Instead, they were getting revenge, complaining about what other girls were doing to them, and hating them. I just saw that as an epidemic even in the church, not to mention the public schools where I would speak. It became such burden, so I said, "Somebody's got to explain to them why this is happening, and how to stop it."
Why do girls become so mean, and why do you think girls tend to be so catty with each other—you talk about how girls try to destroy each other, whereas guys can just have a fight and it's over?
I've seen that it starts to happen at the point where boys become important, maybe around middle school, when they start becoming competitive for a guy's attention. It tends to be that female competitiveness comes out in fighting one another. They can't seem to separate their emotions from what's happening around them, where a guy can just talk about it, hear what the other guy has to say, and say, "Ok, that's cool," then just walk off. But girls tend to internalize things. They'll think, "Well, she doesn't really mean that." As women, we want to read between the lines: "What did she really mean by that?" So we tend to over analyze. That's why I wrote the workbook and journal Mean Girls Gone; to help girls get inside their own heads and to stop that repetitive tape they hear inside that insists that everyone's out to get them. That's really the dilemma I wanted girls to understand: "It really isn't about you. Get this out of you head and learn to focus on God, and what He wants out of all this." All I can do is to help them try to find a way to get their eyes off themselves. Really the only way to do that is by looking at God. I don't know how people who don't have faith do it. How can you get your head out of your own problems and into something bigger if you don't have God in your life?
Do you think it has a lot to do with insecurity, and that girls tend to have lower self-esteem and self-image?
Well, sure. It's a big pet peeve of mine that we spend a lot of energy on girls talking about their self-image, their self-esteem, and how they feel about themselves. If they really understood Scripture, it really isn't about self-esteem; it's about God-esteem. If you can take your focus off yourself, you'll realize that all the persecution that happens to you happens for a reason. God has a reason for it. I think that the heavy burden we do have of a bad self-image and low self-esteem can be lifted. It's certainly one of the problems, and one of the reasons why a lot of girls are so angry.
Sounds like there's another book in there!
Yes, there is! We are working on something close to that.
I like how you turned the table and asked girls if they themselves did anything to make a Mean Girl become mean toward them.
On our website, meangirls.net, there are a number of chat boards, and there's one about the book. It's a place where they can talk about what they thought of the book, and I'm really surprised at how many of them said, "I read it because I have Mean Girl problems, and I realized I'm mean!" For so many of them it turned on them! That's really what I wanted to do, because you can't change anybody but yourself. But everybody wants a book to find out how to change the other person. Here's a book on changing the Mean Girl in your life, but it turns out, it's going to change you!
Do you think there's a high percentage of girls who deal with Mean Girls that actually have done something to "earn" that behavior?
Yes, and most of the time, they don't think they've done anything. They don't realize their own actions and attitudes influence how people treat them. For example, the way you expect to be treated by someone affects your actions toward her. If you think, "Oh that girl is mean," every time she's around you, you get your barb up, and you think, "I just know what she's saying is going to be mean." You look away, you aren't friendly, and you can look mean to them. Then it becomes a cycle that gets started when you have preconceived notions of mean, when you presume they're not going to like you, and when you have these negative ways of looking at things. These attitudes can backfire, though. That's the subtlest way. Of course there are more direct ways of being mean, like saying, "Well, I stood up for myself, I got in her face, I got revenge." All that does is make it worse. That's the majority of girls that I see—they are participating in that cycle with the Mean Girl and becoming her Mean Girl.
I like how you talk about standing up for yourself is standing up for what's right, versus retaliation.
Everybody tells you that you don't want to be a doormat; you've got to stand up for yourself. The trouble with our faith is that we've incorporated a lot of what the world says. We've heard it so much from psychologists and other sources that we've believed it is true, and let it bleed into our faith. In fact, a lot of this psychological mumbo-jumbo is the most unbiblical stuff I've ever heard! You can look all over Scripture and you just won't find a reference to standing up for yourself. You don't see anybody saying, "You've got to tell them they shouldn't have done that to you." It's not about standing up for yourself, it's standing up for God. The only sin in the world is sin against God. Again, it's getting your eyes off of yourself, and onto what the real issue is. I'm a big opponent of standing up for yourself. I know people say, "I don't want my daughter to be a doormat. I don't want her to be stepped on." That, in turn, has a lot to do with how she does handle what they do, how she interprets their actions, and how she responds back. She doesn't have to be in their face. She can laugh, she can not take herself so seriously, and she can be friendly to them. There are positive ways to stand up for yourself that aren't aggressive. It's standing up for who you are, being true to your faith, and being true to loving people. If you're a funny person, laugh, and be true to who you are rather than standing up TO the other person. Again, you're not standing up for yourself, you're standing up for your faith and what you believe, and for what God says is wrong.
People often think that the "turn the other cheek" verse is saying you have to just let someone hit you again, but it's more subtle than that.
That's the problem, when people think they have to be a martyr, and get hit again and again, it becomes self-directed. They say, "Look how much I can take." There has to be a complete removal of self. It's not about how bad you've been hurt, or how much you stood up for yourself—it's not any of that.
Do you think this book has struck a nerve with girls today—especially with the movie "Mean Girls" that came out around the same time?
Yes, I think it's something that finally people are talking about. For a while there was a lot of discussion about bullies, which pretty much just affects boys. Then teachers and counselors started realizing that there's a subtle thing going on with girls that we don't necessarily always see. Sometimes the attitude was to dismiss it by saying, "Oh, that's just a girl. She's just being catty." But it was more than that. The movie, I think, was a catalyst for people to start talking about the problem of mean. It was perfect that the movie was the same name as my book! It really helped kick the book off.
I've been blown away at how this book has been revolutionary for girls. The girls who have read it and responded on our website have said things like, "It's given me confidence." I didn't expect that to be a response! I felt like I was tearing them down, telling them what they're doing wrong. But it gave them confidence because they could take their eyes off of the problem. You have power suddenly when you place it on God. There are things you can do—practical things you can do to control your own life. It gives you control of your life back, and that's been a great perk. Girls are saying, "I feel so much more in control, and when girls are mean, I want to help them—I want to teach them what I've learned, instead of wasting energy hating them." So they've been getting a lot of stuff from it other than just the Mean Girl problem. There's been a lot of internal growth, I think.
Your advice to love the Mean Girl seems incredibly hard to do. In a nutshell, how would you encourage girls to stick with it?
I'd encourage them by saying I know it's hard, because I've had to do it. I know they're going to mess up sometimes, and that's OK. But it's the steadfast desire to go after it that, in the end, is going to give you power, confidence, and strength, and make you the woman, eventually, that God made you to be. You've got to keep your goal on the prize, and stay focused. I know it's the hardest thing to do. I love to read about Paul's life because he was shipwrecked, beaten, tortured, starving, and more, but it's almost exciting, like an adventure movie! So you can think about your life like that—that it's an adventure movie. Every time she hits you and gets you down, and tells people about you, it's just like another beating you're taking, but though you may be beaten, you're not dead. So just keep going and fight the good fight.
What advice do you give to girls who face the relentless Mean Girl—who makes your life miserable no matter how much you love or what you do?
The truth of the matter is that's probably most of them. As I continue to say in the book, you can't change other people. They're probably going to keep doing what they're doing, and all you can do is change you. I think the worst thing that you can do, though I've heard it over and over again, is to change schools. You're only running away from the trial that God's allowed in your life for some reason, and I guarantee He's going to bring it to you in the next school, and the next school, and the next school, until you learn what you've got to learn from it. I just say take courage. Try to stay out of her way. Again, how are you going to learn how to love your enemies if you don't have any? How are you going to learn how to be obedient if you don't have any trials or tribulations? I encourage parents not to try and stop the pain. It's like taking a butterfly out of a cocoon yourself. They can't fly because they haven't been through the pressure of trying to squeeze out of the cocoon. The pressure has to come, and it's really hard that it comes when you're young, but you've got your parents, and you got your friends, and you've got God's Word.
Also, it's not going to last forever. If I didn't have what happened to me in high school, if I hadn't had the continual Mean Girls, and even experienced Mean Women in the corporate world, I wouldn't have been able to write this book! I couldn't have changed lives. What's happening to you is happening for a purpose, you just have to wait and see what it is. The more you run from it, the less your purpose is fulfilled.
What kind of response have you gotten about this book?
A lot of the responses are from parents; mothers who read it. I've had 25- or 35-year-old women come up to me crying because they still feel awful from the Mean Girl in high school, or the Mean Girl from their past. They’re still tortured by it. One mother who heard me speak came up to me afterward and said, "Until I heard you speak, I didn't realize that I have hated the Mean Girl in my life for so long, that when I had daughters, I treated them like Mean Girls, because I just hated girls. I hadn't realized how I'd been taking it out on my daughters, and I want to change." I've been amazed by the response. That's why we wrote Mean Girls All Grown Up, which is coming out in August . If these girls don't face the Mean Girl right now, and if they don't face what's going on in their lives from a spiritual perspective, it can haunt them for the rest of their lives. These women are evidence of that. They wouldn't let go of it, or accept that it came through God's hand before it came to them, and so they're still being tortured by it. The adult book is there to help women who can't get over the memory, or are still dealing with Mean Women.
Why did you write the newly released Mean Girls Gone?
I wanted to have the reader of Mean Girls be able to dive a little bit deeper into herself. Mean Girls was kind of an in-your-face, let's look at what you could be doing wrong and see how we can fix it kind of book. Mean Girls Gone, is more of a meditative journey into how you’re thinking and feeling about the things that are happening to you. It's essentially made up of one-page devotionals that drive girls to the heart of the matter when it comes to mean in their lives. There are also questions that they can ask themselves, and then journal pages where they can work through some of the stuff that they're feeling. A lot of them have preconceived notions about their lives that are erroneous. For instance, one of the devotions is about how no one can insult you. People say, "Oh she insulted me, I can't believe she said that!" The truth of the matter is, it doesn't matter what anybody says, it's what you think about what they said that really affects you. The book of Philippians says that you're supposed to think about whatever is true, excellent, good, and praiseworthy, and then the peace of God will be yours. The focus of this book is to get girls to think on things that are holy, and get their mind off things of the world. It's a quick read, and it's something to take them a little bit further than the first book did.
Are there going to be any more Mean Girls books?
There is going to be a Mean Girls All Grown Up Workbook and Journal that's coming out in September . It's similar to Mean Girls Gone. Hearing these moms talk about their Mean Girl problems, I started thinking, "Gosh, what if a mom could sit down with her daughter, and they could do these books together. The daughter can learn from her mom's mistakes, and they could walk through this process together." So the books mirror each other. There will be more coming in the series next year.
Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about Dateable. That book has had a huge response!
Yes, it's still going strong! It's unbelievable, it's hasn't left the best-seller list since it came out in October of 2003. It struck a nerve as well. It has the same attitude: We're going to tell you the truth, even if it sounds really crass, or if you want to say, "No way, I don't want to hear it." Dateable is not as Scripturally bound like Mean Girls is. When Justin Lookadoo and I wrote it, we went through Scripture and realized there weren't any Scriptures on dating. This is a new concept that we think we're all entitled to! Dating never happened until recently.
What we're saying in the book is pretty much everything parents have been saying for centuries. But kids just roll their eyes at their parents and say things like, "Oh, come on dad, guys don't just want sex." But we're blatantly honest, and essentially, our attempt is to shock the reader. We have been successful; the ultimate outcome has been a huge abstinence push, because girls are reading it and saying, "Eeeww, that's what guys are thinking?" and guys are saying, "Oh my gosh, girls are thinking I'm going to marry her? I'd better slow down!" There's been a lot of change resulting from that book.
What inspired you at first to write that book?
Initially, when I created Hungry Planet, I started thinking, "Ok, what kind of titles can I add to the market for what kids are interested in?" The number one issue is relationships. In fact, when talking to counselors and psychologists, most of them would say that probably about 90% of things that happen like suicide, depression, frustration, anger, and all those negative emotions that teens experience are due to relationship problems. So I instantly realized that first book needed to be about relationships, especially because of the erroneous concepts of what relationships should be that you find in chick flicks, TV, and all over the media. These sources have woven a fantasy for girls. I wanted to dispel that with some pretty in-your-face statements, like: "If what you're wearing ain't on the menu, keep it covered up." We would go to churches to speak, and the girls, even in church, were dressed very immodestly with their bellies (and more) showing. Youth pastors were saying, "We don't know what to do! We can't talk to them about it because we're men, and it sounds gross." In the book, we say things like: "Your target market is a 17-year-old boy, but every guy from 18 to 80 is looking at your breasts if they're hanging out. Your pastor is trying to look away. Your grandfather and all his friends are slobbering over you." We tend to say it in ways that. If your dad said it, you'd say, "Eeeww, gross, shut up!" but when we say it, they're like, "Oh my gosh, that's sick, I'm going to cover up." It was really an attempt to try and change their culture, and the way they think. They don't even think of older men, so they don't realize they're looking. So when you tell them, they're like, "Eeeww! I'm covering up!"
In general, all of the comments I've ever gotten on this book are, "I read it in one day." That's pretty much what all the girls will say. Guys will maybe take a few days. The kids that have been around me have come up and said, "I went home and threw out all my clothes! I can't believe I was wearing that. Nobody put it the way you did." It's important that they've got to start hearing the truth. We can't sugarcoat it and say, "Just don't date." Their hormones are raging, and they don't know what to do with it. They don't have any reason other than, "Well God says I shouldn't." For all of us, it's hard when God says you shouldn't do something.
It seems that in this postmodern age, you have to be really "out there" with the truth, and not try to be nice and gentle with the truth.
They just get really bored with that, and they can see right through it. A lot of kids read Dateable, and they might get mad, for instance, the guys might say, "Well I don't lie to get sex, that's not true." Though they may get mad, at least they're reading it and they're confronting some of the issues. Whereas if it's really sweet and trying to be real "Christiany", they're just like, "Come on, I get a lot more excitement than this on TV!" We have to get their attention in the books!
Is that like what you've done with the Dirt series?
Yes, The Dirt on has been huge. The Dirt on Drugs, The Dirt on Dating, and The Dirt on Breaking Up have also done really well. We want to get their attention and drive home a point. We try to give a biblical answer. Of course, The Dirt on Sex also deals with some of the biological factors. But we're just trying to shock them into realizing that sex isn't just pleasure, there's all this other stuff that goes along with it.
Tell us about The Dateable Rules.
It's actually written to be a kind of curriculum. It's a 3-week study that a guy and a girl can do together, or a youth group can work on. There's a guy's side and a girls side, and after they do the reading, there are things they actually have to go do together. We also have them do focus groups, where girls sit on one side of the room, guys on the other, and they ask each other pointed questions about what guys really think and want. It's really an opportunity to share an open, honest discussion. We're hoping that, especially in churches, they'll get a little bit more honest with each other, and commit to purity while making a rational choice whether to date or not. You'll notice we don't use words like purity and abstinence because they've heard it so much. They know they're supposed to be pure and abstinent, but to them, they are these big, grand terms. We dial them in on what those terms really mean, practically, and they understand them a little bit better. So this book is a fun way put some feet to the dateable process.
Are there more books in the Dirt series coming out soon?
The Dirt on Drugs and The Dirt on Dating just came out [February, 2005], and right now we're developing 6 more, but I don't know what they're all going to be about. I know that divorce will be one of them. A lot of kids have to deal with that; I had to deal with it. But we haven't finalized all the titles. In the next year, there should be at least 4 more. They've been very successful. They're just a quick read, and they really hone in on a topic for the teenager, so they really have been responding well to them.
I think what teens notice about them is that they are really funny. People like to read them just because they can laugh and learn something. The Sex and Dating books have probably been the biggest sellers.
I love the doodles and drawings in the books, especially the first Dateable book.
We wanted to do something to make the book less boring to look at. The designer was running out of ideas, so one day I said, "Why don't you just let me draw some pictures. Here, Justin, you draw some, I'll draw some, and let's just put them all over." They're kind of stupid!
But they're fun! And they'll get people more interested.
They do. The key is that I want people to open the books and then not want to put them down. If it's just black letters on white pages, teen are probably going to put it back down. But with these books, they'll think, "Well, this is the ugliest drawing I've ever seen," and then they turn the page, and say, "Oh my Gosh!" and then they see the words and say, "Oh, that's interesting." It's just to keep their attention so they don't get bored. These are big books, and people have told me that teens don't read. But they're reading my books in a day. It's all about the content.