Theory of Relative Popularity

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.

12 replies on “Theory of Relative Popularity”

Not to toot my own horn, but by my own standards I was relatively popular in high school. I had boyfriends here and there, a solid group of girlfriends, I went to parties and participated in extracurriculars and just generally had people to hang out with on a Saturday night. But I was always under the impression at the time that my school just didn’t fit into the stereotypical mode of keggers and dances and prom kings and queens. We tried to throw a Homecoming Dance my Junior year– and it was cancelled because nobody cared enough to buy tickets.

Then my sister hit high school, and I had to rethink the whole thing. Because she *did* go to keggers and if we had had a Prom Queen, she would have been actively campaigning. She made fun of me endlessly for “being a nerd.” She always either had a hot boyfriend or was being courted by some dude. She cared about cars and clothes and handbags (and, I admit, always looked great by the standards of a suburban teenager.)

I guess my point here is, who was right? My sister and I are only a few years apart. She hit high school right as I finished it. We have mutual friends. There’s no way the whole structure of it could have changed so much in three years, but we clearly have a vastly different impression of what that whole social structure was, and what constituted “succeeding.”  It’s really just strange, overall.

So interesting- I always assumed I wasn’t popular, but had a great group of friends. It wasn’t til after high school that I realized people I didn’t know knew who I was because you know, I was the yearbook book editor and in the school plays. The insecurities of adolescence can’t be under rated, I don’t think.

Always been curious about this – I grew up in France, and on one side you have the Hollywood version of high school, and on the other I have friends and family in the US talking about their high school experiences and there does seem to be some overlap? But it just seems odd to me. Back home we don’t really have school dances, extracurriculars usually happen outside of school, we don’t have school mascots or things like that, and I wonder if that also influences things, since you can’t be prom queen or star quarterback. We just had groups of friends, really. And I guess some people had more friends than others.

I didn’t get and don’t get “popularity” as something to strive for like, for itself. There was a group of people at my school, who played particular sports, who were probably what you’d call popular in that most of them dated a lot and wore Abercrombie clothes and had the same highlights in their hair, but it wasn’t super exclusive–in some classes they sat with other people than they sat with at lunch, or whatever–and a lot of people who weren’t on those sports teams actively disliked them. So I felt like, sure you’re all friends with each other, but it doesn’t seem like everyone universally likes or admires them, so by high school definition I guess “popular” but not really in a functional way, if that makes sense.

I had a lot of good friends and a lot of friendly acquaintances, and that seemed great to me. I said hi to many people when I walked between classes. I really enjoyed the people I spent my time with. I dated a guy in my group of friends and he was incredibly bitter about not being “more popular,” which was hurtful to me. I thought our group of friends had fun doing what we did, and I’d rather have hung out with us than any other group of people–hence why they were my friends. His attitude made me feel like we were some kind of social consolation prize, and it didn’t make sense to me.

Later I went to college with several people who would have been considered “popular” from my high school and some people who would have been “nerds” (though we all took the same classes, which is why I knew them), and we were all casually friendly, and continue to be to this day. So the distinction doesn’t really seem to make much difference in a practical way in most people’s lives, in my experience.

But maybe that means I was more “popular” than I realize… [insert some kind of winky gif here]

We used to have that familiar truism….everyone is united in their hatred of the popular kids. I didn’t realize until later we were just conflating “popular” with “the wealthy kids who have better than average skin and more material goods to show their status.” I was lucky I went to a bigass high school, so there was less division than at my junior high — it was easy for most people to not give a shit by the time they graduated, since you could have a group of friends with shared interests / extracurriculars / city bus routes / etc. It also helped that we were in a college town, so while it wasn’t always hip to be square, there were places to be hip squares.

I had an usual experience in high school where I was unpopular (but not necessarily ostracized) in my first two years of high school and then grunge hit big when I was junior. Suddenly the things that made me unpopular — my weird hair, my outfits, my music, my circle of friends — were the popular things. I also worked at Planned Parenthood, so word had gotten around that I was someone people could go to if they needed something. So it was weird line of demarcation.

If someone interviewed me and asked if I were popular in high school, I’m not sure what I’d answer.

During HS I never would have described myself as popular, largely because my HS didn’t fit the stereotype of HS that I saw all the time in movies and television. We didn’t really have cliques, a clear social hierarchy, or clear roles. I never went to the kind of raging house party shown in pop culture. I didn’t have good sex and didn’t date much until my senior year. But, in retrospect, I was popular. I had lots of friends across different demographics, I played sports, I was in clubs, I went to parties or social things every weekend, I had a couple boyfriends, I pretty much got along with everyone and most people on campus knew who I was, teachers and parents liked me. It took me years to figure out that even though I always felt awkward and unsure of myself, that just meant I was in HS, not that I was unpopular.

I suppose my experience is a bit different, since I’m not from the US. The importance placed on being popular in school seems to be a very American thing. We don’t have anything like prom queens or cheerleaders or jock culture and I get the feeling the system here is generally less hierarchical and with less pressure to conform. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever heard peaking in high school discussed over here. Of course there were plenty of kids in my class who were better looking, or more fun, or better off financially, or got better grades than me, or were heard more than I was. I saw myself as a semi-outsider, but I don’t remember feeling envious of anyone – I was aware life sucked for everybody in some way, no matter how much they had going for themselves. That girl who had the top grades and was great at sports? Limping because of sports injuries, studying desperately to keep up with the grades of her older siblings, with a mother who was rumoured to have a drinking problem, and in the final year of high school, her dad died. Another wonderfully bright, pretty and socially capable girl also had her dad die in a freak accident. The guy with the richest parents was so socially awkward hardly anyone ever heard him speak, etc., etc.


Me either, and just from being watching a lot of US TV, the High School Experience is held up as this huuuge cultural phenomenon, this extended rite of passage, that it isn’t in other cultures. How many US TV series and films are centred around it? In the UK, there are programmes like Skins or The Inbetweeners, but they’re more focused on teenage experience and thus happen to feature schools… if that makes any sense!

Possibly because I went to a single-sex secondary school (not usual in Ireland) there wasn’t a popularity issue that I was aware of. Yes, there were different groups of friends and some were smarter than others and some caused more trouble… but I didn’t ever get the impression that there was a hierarchy, or that there was supposed to be one.


I just think its a Hollywood thing. I went to school in LA and there was no explicit talk of popularity or trying to be popular, you just were. If you were a guy or girl with money, you were popular. If you were a jock with money, you were popular. If you were a drama geek with money, you were popular. If you could sing and had money, you were popular, lol. I’m pretty sure I was somewhat popular because I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities and I associated with many different groups: some popular kids, the drama geeks, but mostly childhood friends. I think everyone had some kind of marginal friendship with someone popular. For sure there were popular people who knew who I was. I did envy them, but it wasn’t because they were popular, it was because they had nice things =D

I think Hollywood simplifies the popular/not-popular issue a great deal, but even with more nuanced stratification I knew that some people were more well known and better regarded than others. Sometimes it was the people who were involved in a lot of clubs and sports and knew a lot of people, sometimes it was the people who threw the good parties that only some students got invited to, sometimes it was people who were just really friendly and had lived in town for a long time, but they were there.

I also think we judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others, creating a self-image in our mind composed more of own flaws than our successes.

I actually found out shortly after I graduated that how I was perceived outside of my group of friends in high school was very different from how I perceived myself. It was kind of hilarious at the time, but now I find it really fascinating. Of course at my high school the social order was a little unusual because there was no clear cut top tier, so my group of friends was more or less equal in number to any other group, which likely effected the outcome. I was horribly bullied in middle school and by the time I got to high school I was hard to intimidated simply because I had already been through so much. This led to me being unfazed by early attempts to bully me, and therefore developing a reputation as a badass. I started to realize that freshmen were scared of me in my senior year. It was weird. I never did anything particular, I just didn’t take shit. And I was best friends with with the school’s one Mexican, and so people thought we did drugs (lots of facepalm on that one). And that I was a butch lesbian (because my hair was short and I was comfortable with physical intimacy with my friends). And that I was into witchcraft (I think this came from the fact that I did a paper on the Salem Witch trials and lugged my research books around with me for a few weeks). Rumors are strange things.

And there was the rumor that I threw killer parties. Parties that people were jealous that I never invited them to. Parties that never happened. I don’t even… So weird.

And I saw myself as this nerdy girl with a few nerdy friends.

So, yes, I totally see how our perceptions of ourselves can be hugely different from how others see us. High school is a strange place. And I don’t think it’s hugely indicative of what happens us later in life.

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