Becky Jean was the most popular girl in our school and in the fifth grade, I was her best friend. Our friendship peaked that year after we spent all night at her house choreographing a dance routine to Weird Al's "Just Eat It." We spent the rest of the night playing her favorite song, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," over and over on the record player. Back at school, I was popular by proxy. All of the girls asked me to their parties as I basked in the glow of my effortless celebrity.

By the sixth grade, however, Becky had a new best friend and she and I were just classmates in our small, rural Oregon middle school. I was never as popular as I had been in the fifth grade again.

Over the years I have wondered what qualities make a teenager popular. For Becky, it wasn't her taste in music, that was certain. She was nice, pretty, smart, and wore trendy jeans, but so did many other girls in our class. What was it then? During my awkward junior high years, I was determined to find the secret to popularity and to embody those personality traits in order to reign over the popular lunch table and have a swarm of admirers around me wherever I went. This research included dutiful reading of Seventeen magazine and teen popularity guides that I would find at used bookstores. (Maybe, somewhere, someone could have told me that hanging around in bookstores was definitely NOT a popular people activity.)

Now that I am in my thirties, the quest for popularity does not consume me though I am still curious about the people who seem to have the perfect combination of looks, personality, and what they call on American Idol, the "It Factor." Who are these people and how do they do it?

My quest for answers once again led me to the bargain bin at a used bookstore where I found McCalls Guide to Teen-Age Beauty & Glamour, written by Miss Betsy Keiffer in 1959. With a lovely white gloved teen sporting a blond bouffant hairdo on the cover, I knew this book could uncover timeless secrets to social success. Miss Betsy promised "a road to glamour that will make you a stand-out wherever you go and the most popular girl in your set." Perfect!

One book does not a popular girl make, so I ventured onto eBay and bid on what I thought would be the Holy Grail of teen popularity guides, or so it would seem with a title like Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide. While Betty assures her readers that she is "no great shakes as a writer," but her authority on issues of popularity comes from the fact that she is a model. It seems that what was true in 1951 with Miss Betty is still true today: that models know more than mere mortal women. (Why else would I spend every Wednesday night watching America's Next Top Model, if not for the insights into a model's psyche?)

Fast forward to this century and my discovery of the newly updated teen guide, Real Girl/Real World, by Heather M. Gray and Samantha Phillips (Seal Press, March 2005). I sensed times had changed in the popularity department just by looking at the cover of Real Girl. No bouffants or pink pumps for these modern girls! But were their concerns really so different than 50 years ago?

On the surface, the guides might look worlds apart, but fundamentally teenage worries have not changed in the past 50 years. Have they become more complex? Definitely. But essentially, each guide is trying to solve the same ageless question for its reader: Am I O.K. just the way I am?

For a better perspective of my reading materials, I knew I would need to enlist the help of actual teenagers. I invited my 17-year-old twin cousins for coffee at Starbucks one Saturday afternoon to look over the guides and to get their impressions. They had just had their eyebrows waxed and looked cool and confident in jeans and sweatshirts under vests. I started with the obvious question: Who are the most popular girls at your school?

"There's a clique, our clique," answered Alana, "and there are popular people in the clique."

"I don't mean to be conceited," her sister Bianca continued, "but I think that our clique is the one that everyone looks up to."

So, you are the popular girls? I asked. (What part of this can I take credit for? I wondered. I was their nanny when they were pre-schoolers...)

"Yeah, I guess. To be perfectly honest." Bianca said. "But then there is this other group that tries to talk to our group, and these girls—personally I find them really dull—they come to school and they all dress the same. The reason why people want to try to hang out with us is because we are different and don't try to be like everyone else."

Ahh, yes, differentiating and "being yourself." Finding one's true self is a theme that is emphasized in each of the guides. Teens tend to express their individuality through their clothes and appearance and in the older guides, a girl's basic wardrobe included white gloves and a hat for church. Real Girl authors advocate trashing the beauty standard and write, "We [meaning the teenage reader] boycott the Gap, shave our heads, pierce various body parts, tattoo ourselves, dress in whatever is not 'in'... we are just sick and tired of seeing the mainstream look."

Neither extreme—whether prim and proper or punked out—is necessary for a girl to express her individuality. Sometimes just avoiding humiliation is the goal.

As a freshman I moved to an urban high school where the students, especially the girls, seemed unbelievably put together. They were sleek and acne-free with heads of long healthy hair while I was still using far too much Aqua Net and Clearasil. Nowhere was the divide more apparent than in the locker room after gym class. All around me, my classmates showered without inhibitions and then slipped into matching bra and underwear sets that I had only seen grown women (like my mother) wear. Oh, the shame of being 13 and still wearing Carter's teen panties with pink flowers! I was so mortified I dropped gym and had to make it up in summer school.

Why was I so clueless? Well I was missing out on a crucial teen popularity tool: hip parents. Mine were hopelessly uncool (and remain so) and indeed came from long lines of uncool ancestors. Not a prom queen or football star can be found on our family tree, just nerdy teachers and pharmacists and the occasional salesman. My parents lacked any sort of knowledge about teenagehood which could have helped me or my three sisters. Some insight on hair care products, for example, could have significantly helped my sister Leah who has curly hair but was never introduced to the wonders of conditioner. They were genetically unequipped and uneducated about teenage issues that other parents seemed to have a good grasp of. At some point in 1988, I stopped speaking to them altogether. (Communication did resume in 1991 however.)

It might be surprising that the two 1950s guides speak at length about how to get along with the parental units. I was not aware, after extended viewings of Happy Days that 1950s teenagers even had problems with their parents! Miss Betty writes that the foundation of a kind and considerate girl (i.e. popular) is in how she treats her parents. She advises girls to "try telling your parents how much you love them. Let them know you appreciate all they do for you." Miss Betsy gives a matter of fact assessment of the generation gap, "Don't give your parents so many occasions to nag you; try to do things their way once in a while. It won't kill you."

There is nary a mention of ma or pa in Real Girl. Is this true, that popularity and all of the knowledge necessary can be garnered without parents? I find this hard to believe.

My cousins credit their parents (who have been divorced since the twins were four-year-olds) with giving them the tools to work out problems without receding too far into the dreaded teen silence. "I just never got caught up in 'Oh, I wonder if people like me. I'm so insecure.'" Bianca said in a fake whiny voice. Their parents encouraged them to go out and be social with kids their age, to stay away from gossip and to not be too concerned with their looks. "They told us that we were beautiful and we could be anything that we wanted. Since I believed everything I was told, I grew up thinking yeah, I am pretty cool!" Alana laughed. This parental involvement, at least as far as it has affected their self-esteem, is not the norm among their friends, which could account for their absence in Real Girls.

The divide between the 'rents and their teens is not the only obvious difference in the content of the guides from the 1950s and today. I was a bit shocked by the inclusion of three chapters (almost half) of the Real Girls guide is devoted to sex and sexuality. Trust, me I am down with girls having full knowledge about fornicating and all, but what does it have to do with the quest for popularity, or (to sound less shallow) self-esteem?

"Real talk about sex and sexuality was one of our goals in writing Real Girl / Real World," wrote Gray and Phillips in an e-mail. "Both of us found that the amount of information we had in middle school and high school was scant (a slide show given by the gym teacher) and often based on whatever information we could pick up from peers (read pages xx of Forever by Judy Blume or the Can you believe she went all the way with him? rumors.)"

Of course Real Girl is not a book on how to be popular, or well liked, even. It is an informational book, like a teen's Our Bodies Ourselves. Guidebooks like Miss Betsy's and Miss Betty's that were so prevalent before the late 1960s are no longer being written. We have our feminist foremothers to thank for this change from the external focus of beauty to an examination of internal forces shaping a teen. This is not to say that guide books are not being written for teen girls, but they are not the sort of comprehensive overviews of a girl's whole life that the old guides were concerned with.

Current titles are more interested in countering the overwhelming, and some say harmful, media influences in the average teen's life. Real Girls' authors wrote that they wanted to "create a book that emphasized being true to oneself, rather than the 'ideals' that are so often sold to girls in magazines and in our culture."

One reason why teen guides like Real Girl are not addressing the total teen package and instead focusing on specific problems or sexuality is the proliferation of teen fashion magazines that are essentially the little sisters of the large women's fashion magazines. There is ElleGirl, Teen Vogue, even a pint-sized Cosmo for the young Carrie Bradshaw and these have become major sources of fashion, make-up, hair, and other tips for teens.

Back at Starbucks, my teen cousins are giggling about the advice given by Miss Betty (bathe twice a day?) but appreciate the kind tone of Miss Betsy's guide. What about Real Girl? "It's like something that your mom would buy you for Christmas," Alana groans. "It's got some good information but I think that the authors are trying too hard to be cool."

Is it possible that a teenager could read one of these guides and become popular? I ask them. "No." Is the answer they give in unison.

I am left with the realization that a person that other people flock to, an exotic popular bird, has something that cannot be learned from a book. "Being a teen is the time where you figure things out for yourself and learn from your mistakes," Bianca tells me. "That's what you'll use the rest of your life. You don't need a guide to tell you that."

My pursuit of the secrets of popularity has no conclusion. If I could go back in time to speak to my teenage self, I would say, "Stop worrying so much about what people think about you." And to answer the timeless teenage question: Am I O.K. just the way I am? We (Miss Betty, Miss Betsy, Heather, Samantha, and I ) say yes. Yes you are.

 

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