Have you ever noticed how no one ever thinks they were popular as teenagers? Perhaps this is something common only to Hollywood types who do interviews where the topic comes up, or the fact that my self-selected group of friends tends to adhere to certain qualities that did not make for popularity in high school, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone just come out and say “Oh, yeah, I was popular in high school. It was a blast. But, you know, onward and upward.”
Our culture has an uneasy relationship with popularity. By and large the people writing the media that depicts these popular types were themselves unpopular (or at least they FELT unpopular) when they were younger, so their depictions convey a mixture of nauseous admiration and jealousy. We’re told that it’s ok if you’re not popular in high school because those people hit their “peak” and have nothing to look forward to but a boring life in the town they grew up in, which seems to ignore that 1) there’s nothing wrong with that life if that’s what you want, and 2) it’s a bit cruel to say that because someone had friends in high school, they’ll never amount to anything.
I’m not speaking here of bullies, that’s a whole other can of worms that I don’t feel like opening at the moment. I’m talking about just a baseline of people who had lots of friends and social events to attend. I knew several people like that in high school; people that I would call “popular,” who weren’t mean or catty, but just nice people who happened to get in with the “right” crowd and were friendly with almost everyone. I saw a few of those girls crowned prom queen over more stunning, less amiable candidates.
My guess is that it’s a way to connect with “normal” people. To assure fans that, “Hey, I haven’t always been wildly wealthy, beautiful, and successful. It’s like they’re saying, “It used to be that I was just beautiful. Kidding! Right! I looked terrible just like you.” It’s not a secret that there are far more kids on the lower rungs of the high school social pyramid than the upper ones, so saying, “Yeah, I was homecoming queen, prom queen, I went to all those parties you see in movies and think “˜those never happen for real, do they?’ and I managed to have great sex at a time when most of you couldn’t talk to someone you thought was cute without blushing like a tomato. I was awesome then, and I’m awesome now. Deal with it,” probably isn’t going to help you win friends. Because we have an uneasy relationship with popularity. We all wanted to be those kids but because we weren’t, we’ll never regard them with anything less than openly hostile suspicion. Especially when they manage to stay successful and attractive and don’t live up to our worst fantasies of them ending up looking awful and alone and struggling.
Really, though, none of us ever have any idea of how others truly picture themselves. Maybe those girls I saw surrounded by friends with boyfriends and nice cars were picked on within their own circle and thus felt unpopular. And popularity came with its own costs; I remember a particularly graphic story about the sex life of a couple of my classmates making its way around our grade and that’s a rough thing to handle at 16, even if you are considered one of the “popular” kids. Looking back, I can see how that girl could very honestly say that she was bullied in high school even if most of the time she was considered a queen bee.
And maybe some of them genuinely weren’t popular. Most of the people I know now who are creative or driven weren’t at their best in high school. So now that they’re all awesome, why keep harping on the, “I was a loner weirdo who performed concerts in my basement for my cats” thing? Now we’re at the part of this phenomena that I kind of get because I had to train myself out of something similar. If you spend most of high school feeling awkward, saying the wrong thing, being the person that doesn’t quite fit in even in the counter-culture you’ve selected (what up, fellow marching band members!), you remember that. If, by some miracle, you turn out conventionally attractive, bright, and somewhat socially adept in your 20s, you feel the need to pay homage to that awkward, anxious, teen who thought their life was never going to get better. When people start chatting with you as though you’re just some normal, well-adjusted person, you go into panic mode and feel the need to let them know that despite outward appearances you’re kind of weird and dorky and nervous. Why? The only answer I’ve ever been able to come up with for myself is that if you heap it on before you get attached and they bail then you can say, “Well, they never would’ve liked the “˜real’ me anyway, it’s for the best.” But if it comes up after you decide you like them and they’re all, “Wait, you were in marching band? I flushed those kids’ heads down toilets back in the day,” it hurts a lot more.
Popularity is subject to something very much like the theory of relativity; your perception of it is greatly affected by your point of observation. So when I hear gorgeous celebrities talk about what a hard time they had in high school, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially if they were in marching band.