June 16, 2010

The Curse of the Popular Girls

It's time for another one of Mama Kat's Writer's Workshop prompts. It's a topic I have considered writing about before but I always talked myself out of it. There are popular girls to contend with throughout our lives, but it's those popular girls from high school who leave the most lasting impression, and for some, the deepest scars. The thing that has stopped me from tackling this subject up until now is that I still live in the same city where I went to high school, and while my blog may look anonymous, it's not to the readers who know me. I could tell you this post is merely a general observation and any similarity to actual persons or groups is purely coincidental but I don't think anyone would believe me. However since this was a topic I had considered - over and over again - I decided that perhaps the prompt from Mama Kat was a sign that I should just go with it.

Sure, high school was a long time ago, but has it been long enough? (Hmmm, I wonder if this could be my ticket off of the reunion committee.)

Popular is an interesting term that we throw around when we're young. According to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions is "commonly liked or approved." That's not what it meant when I was in high school. As a friend recently described it, the true meaning of the word in high school is "the girls nobody likes but everybody wants to be friends with them anyway." Going with that definition, one of the greatest ironies about the "popular" girls from high school was the mind-boggling speed with which they lost their brand of popularity after graduation. These girls didn't seem to notice that they have lost what passed for popularity right away. It was a gradual process, taking place over decades.

Before I get too much further into it, here is my disclaimer: I was so far down on the social ladder that it took decades for me to realize that there were rungs on the ladder, so my perspective on the popular girls is viewed from that angle. I always understood that I was closer to the bottom of the ladder and that these other girls were at the very top but I thought there were a lot more girls at the top than was actually the case.

You see, there was a hierarchy to popularity that I totally missed at the time. Naturally, the "popular" girls were at the very top of the food chain ladder . The term we used for them back then was socs. (For those who are younger and who have never read - or seen - The Outsiders, it's pronounced so-shez, with a long o.) We'll call them the Inner Circle.

Now I still don't understand how they achieved their place on the ladder's top rung, but it seemed to be a mostly self-appointed position. I think they were all cheerleaders, but all of the cheerleaders were not part of the Inner Circle. When we were in our 20s, one friend shared her theory about what they looked for before allowing anyone a position in the group. Her theory was that they were all members of the same country club. Make that The Country Club - none of the other clubs could compare. I actually kind of liked her theory because it meant the Inner Circle had a clear litmus test. Either you belonged to The Country Club or you didn't. It's not like they were relying on subjective things like personality, or clothes, or heaven forbid, intellect. No, if my friend's theory was correct, it wasn't personal. It was more like a marketing decision. They were protecting their brand.

What I didn't realize for many years was that the Inner Circle of socs was quite small - just a handful of girls - which may support my friend's "Country Club" theory. Beyond that, there was a small peripheral group. There were constant changes in the peripheral group as girls gained and lost favor with the Inner Circle. No one outside the Inner Circle could be expected to keep track of who was in, and who was out.

Beyond that peripheral group was a group that was genuinely popular, in that everyone pretty much liked them. Like the Inner Circle, they included a number of cheerleaders in their mix so they looked a lot like the Inner Circle, but they were not a group of girls anyone would associate with the term mean girls. These truly popular girls greeted everyone with a smile. They knew a lot of our names, no small feat in a class of nearly 500. From my rung near the floor, I assumed they were part of the Inner Circle - they were just the nice ones. I was nearly 30 before I figured out they weren't just the nice ones - they were a different group entirely, located higher than my most of my friends and I were on the social ladder, but not dangerously close to the top.

I began to realize how small the Inner Circle really was at our 10-year reunion, when they could be seated at a table for 10, including the spouses of those who were married.  This was when I began to see the layers of socdom that I had never known existed. (Pronounced sosh-dom, I don't know if such a word actually exists but I like it and people instinctively understand the meaning.) It opened my eyes to the difference between the popular group that nearly nobody really liked and the popular group that nearly everybody really liked.

By the 20-year reunion, enough socs were married at the same time that some of the spouses were sent to other tables, but the Inner Circle could still be seated together. There were a couple of shout-outs to the "A" clique in the reunion directory that year, which was the first time a number of us learned that this was how they referred to themselves. The fact they chose to go by a name that insulted the rest of the class seemed to fit. On the plus side, one member of the Inner Circle used the directory to offer an apology for how bad the social cliques had been. I admired her for that, and began to wonder if perhaps there was hope for the Inner Circle, after all.

A few years before our 30-year reunion, Mean Girls came out and there was no doubt in my own mind that most of my class pictured the Inner Circle every time we heard the title. And this was when I began to wonder what it's like to be saddled for decades with a reputation from 3 years of high school that is so difficult to overcome. Did they realize their faces filled many of our heads whenever we heard Tina Fey promote Mean Girls? Even as I was starting to feel (a little bit) sorry for them, I often wondered aloud why they bothered to come to reunions at all since at the first two reunions, they had still stuck mostly to their A-clique friends. Wouldn't it be easier to just meet at a restaurant and forget the rest of us?

But by the time the 30-year reunion weekend came around, I was starting to think maybe I had never given the Inner Circle enough credit for the courage it must take to face people who don't have a lot of respect for the way they treated the rest of the class in high school. As I watched them at that reunion, I saw that they were trying harder than they ever had before. They were making an effort to talk to more people. It didn't always look like it came naturally, but that made me respect the effort that much more.

After the bad press from the A-clique references in the previous reunion directory, I had joked that they needed a PR consultant to fix their image. But the truth is that time and maturity go a long way towards changing people. They're not there yet. They still struggle to venture away from the safety of the Inner Circle. But after 30+ years, they're trying...

In recent years, I have come to realize that their exclusivity must have put the Inner Circle at a disadvantage in the real world. The rest of us learned early on that the top rung of the ladder is neither the safest nor the most desirable place to be. It was on the lower rungs that we made the friends who can be relied upon to support us wherever life takes us. And it was from those lower rungs that we learned not to be bothered so much by the older versions of popular girl cliques, wherever we find them.



  1. High school reunions. Didn't go to my 10th because DH was on 3 hour recall over Iraq invading Kuwait. Didn't go to my 20th because I was on a mission trip to Tanzania. This year is my 30th. I'm not going either but I'm not sure why. Basically I guess I don't care. I'm in contact with the people I want to see and the others are not in my life for a reason. -shrug-

  2. Teri -

    They say each reunion gets better, and so far, I have to agree. People are much more open and relaxed, and you find yourself making new friends, even after 30 years!

    You might want to give it a try...


  3. I didn't go to my 10 yr or my recent 20 yr reunion just because of the reason that people tend to revert to their high school ways at those things!

    And even though I had friends on every social rung of the ladder, you are right, it's the ones at the top who are unreliable and don't really care to be loyal and keep up a friendship except at those reunions

  4. Really, people start breaking away from their high school ways the older they get. It's true!!!

  5. in high school i wasn't a "popular" girl, but enjoyed myself nonetheless of course there were girls who were unkind to everyone in different ways. i never thought i had any grudge or anything, but since facebook has come into my life i've realized there are just some people who i don't care to be "friends" or reconnect with due to their behaivior in high school
    high school is a weird time, i think for everyone

    thanks for stopping by tonight

  6. It's funny, and maybe it's because it has been so long, but Facebook has gone a long way towards reconnecting my class and helped to draw people closer together - even with people we didn't know in high school.

    I think I feel another post coming on!

  7. Great writing! Love your analogy of the ladder and how grow to become stronger persons by not being the popular girls. I wasn't one in high school because I was fat and ugly, just last year I went to my class reunion and no one can recognize me and it felt so awesome :D

  8. I chose this same prompt and I love your way of looking at it. Your words are so true. I couldn't put mine into words as well but it's true. There is that small "inner circle" and many layers of popularity after that. I didn't go to my 10th reunion because I really didn't care to see most of the people. I had a class of 500 and I would say that maybe 100 people attended it. Guess who the majority was? I did go to our impromptu 15 year reunion and it was more relaxed. I did socialize with some of those "popular" people and we actually enjoyed some laughs together. But again, those top ladder peeps still kept to themselves for the most part. I do hope they realize the error of their ways one day.
    Loved your post. Sorry this was so long winded.

  9. Maureen - How fun for you to go to a reunion looking like a new person! That's a great reunion story. =)

    Tiffany - I'm glad you went to the 15. They're all better than the 10-year. Those top ladder peeps will start to mingle with everyone else, eventually!

  10. High School is such a strange place.

    By the time my 10 year reunion came around the popular kids had already gone missing in action. No one knows what happened to them.

    Stopping by from Mama Kat's.

  11. Florida -

    I'll be darned. I've never even heard an urban legend about popular kids missing a 10-year reunion. At that point, they usually think they're still popular. That reunion must have been a LOT less stressful than most 10-year's!


  12. I love this post, especially the part about them needing to protect their brand. Brilliant observations!

  13. Wow. That sounds so wise. The exclusivity of their club must have put them at a disadvantage in the real world. I see that all the time as I get older. I couldn't believe how the people had changed at our 10 year reunion!

  14. You're right, socail cliques are everywhere. High school is just where we run into the first of many.

  15. I wasn't ever really popular...although I did have some friends that were. I think you are right on when saying that they were at a disadvantage. And could you imagine having to "try" to make an effort to talk and be nice to people? I'm glad I learned it when I was young and able to apply it as an adult!

  16. I was so unpopular when I was in high school that I still don't know who the popular people were..

    I know where you are coming from though. I still live in the same area of the city I grew up in and attend the same church so I see people I went to school with a lot, and at times its hard to seperate the 13 year old I new from the 30 year old I know now.

  17. well done, margaret. you really hit on a nerve
    here with many people, maybe all people.

    my eyes were opened when i watched "romy and
    michelle's highschool reunion." the scene in
    which the sweet girl says, "wow, you had people
    make your life miserable, too. i thought that only
    happened to me."

    it happened to all of us, and all of us, at least i
    hurt other people, too. it grieves me thirty years

    i have watched three of my own children pass
    through this narcissistic time and am holding my
    breath on my last two. it's almost more painful
    watching than experiencing.

    ps. we still do not belong to le' club. :)

  18. Wow...I didn't expect this post to attract so many comments, but since it is pretty much a rite of passage for girls, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

    I'll probably do at least one more post on the topic, because a lot of the comments made me think of things I wish I'd said, but then the original post would have been way too long.

    Thanks to all of you for your input!

  19. You certainly have given this a great deal of thought. I never paid this much attention, though I can assure you that there are a number of the "mean girls" whom I remember with a grimace and not a smile. High School Reunions? Oh no. Not I. Not ever. My grade school class is planning a reunion this summer and I really don't want to go. I suspect that this is pure selfishness or, even worse, reflects that I don't care enough. Interesting topic...

  20. Wow Margaret - Your assessment of the "Inner Circle" is spot on! Having hung onto the lower rungs of the ladder myself, and attended one high school reunion - it is the same no matter where you live.

  21. I love your post - I was never a popular girl and I never had dates to go on, but I am still a strong person who is happy with where I am. I stopped by from the Lady Bloggers Tea Party. Thank you for your post. Trish