You Can't Sit With Us!!!!!!!!
On high school popularity in the '90s and early aughts.
Welcome back to *Cash Register Alert*, the newsletter about all things ‘90s and ‘00s nostalgia, named after the best sound on AOL Instant Messenger. Today’s post is all about being ~*popular*~ AKA that magical word that somehow simultaneously meant everything and nothing back in middle & high school. The original social construct of our time, what even was popularity anyway? Grab your fluffy-tipped pens, cause we’re about to find out. And if you haven’t yet subscribed (it’s free!), hit the button below so you don’t miss a single trip down the ‘90s and ‘00s rabbit hole.
No matter where you grew up, whether you received public or private education, I am willing to bet my most valuable Beanie Baby that you can close your eyes and imagine—with precise clarity—The Popular Group™ from your school. There they are in your mind’s eye now, walking down the hallway in unison à la Mean Girls, dressed in coordinating hues without even planning it. OK fine, a song probably didn’t follow them around, but they definitely left behind a cloud of Gap Dream or Bath & Body Works Plumeria. Maybe you were watching from your locker as they approached down the hall, or maybe you were ~*lucky*~ enough to be walking with them. But every school had this group, and they were all somehow the same, as if they were engineered in a factory and cloned, one glittery clique for every district.
Looking back, my biggest question is probably the most easily answered at first glance, but it’s a little bit more complicated than it seems: What exactly made the popular girls so damn popular? It’s not like schools held an election! Sure, voting for Prom Queen and the yearbook superlatives came close, but who the heck decided to put them in charge?
The answer, I suppose, is that they decided that they were in charge—and then no one questioned it. And in some ways, that’s kind of badass. Like just writing the narrative you want and everyone else just went along with it.
Obviously some of the “popular” qualities were superficial: the popular girls in my high school always wore their hair perfectly straight or perfectly scrunched—never in between. They donned all the latest trends, carried around those tiny black handbags (you know which ones I mean), showed up for class with an iced coffee and their car keys on a lanyard. They were effortlessly cool, and always seemed to be laughing at an inside joke no one else understood.
And while anyone could dress trendy and “act” confident, the popular girls somehow did it more convincingly than anyone else. The rest of us loathed them and simultaneously wanted to be them—even if we didn’t admit it.
But what if—and hear me out—what if the popular kids were just as insecure as the rest of us? What if they constantly suffered from a case of Imposter Syndrome, desperately hoping that they wouldn’t be found out as a fraud? What if they had no idea how they even became popular in the first place, and then did anything they could to stay there? What if the whole thing was the shammiest sham of them all?
In order to find out, I betrayed my inner Janis Ian (Did you have an AWESOME time? I can hear Lizzy Caplan yelling at me right now) and went straight to the source. Yes, I DM’d popular girls from high school past. Yes, I was terrified even as a fully grown adult.
Here’s what they told me:
“It’s still odd to me that people thought I was popular. I always thought that everyone hated me. Because people DID hate me. I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh I had a hard time in high school because I was pretty,’ because that’s annoying, but I was called a bitch more than I can remember, a slut pretty much every day. I think people assumed if you hung out with the popular crowd, you were a certain way, like you partied a lot or slept with a lot of people and that was not true for everyone. It wasn’t true for me. I don’t look back on high school fondly at all.” —Katie*
“A lot of kids thought that you had to be mean to be popular, myself included. I did things that I am really embarrassed about today. I was really cruel to some of the other kids in school, spread rumors, did things to humiliate people. I guess we ruled by fear in some ways. I’m not proud of it.” —Nina*
“I never thought of myself as popular. I just had a great group of friends and loved spending time with them. High school was great for me because I had this group, and we spent every day together. People project their own insecurities on others. We didn’t actively do anything to make anyone feel that way.” —Amanda*
“Somehow I became popular after moving to this new district in elementary school. I was not popular in my old school, but I think the kids in my new one were just curious about me because I was unfamiliar. Every single day after that, I worried that I’d wake up and no one would like me, like they’d figure out I was actually boring or uncool. I had so much anxiety about it, all the way until graduation. And then you get to college and it’s so different. It’s like none of it even mattered at all.” —Stephanie*
Of course, as Nina said, sometimes the popular kids were freaking mean. I still cringe when I think about some of the things that were said to me as a teen. And there’s ongoing, lasting trauma that many people have from being bullied in high school—which absolutely should not be overlooked, and is a serious issue of its own. So by no means is this is a “let’s feel bad for all the popular kids who had it SO HARD by being SO COOL” Gretchen Wieners type of manifesto. Once-upon-a-time bullies should feel bad about the things they did to make other people’s lives miserable in high school. I hope all their adulthoods are full of flashbacks and bouts of sudden remorse (here’s to the two girls in my 9th grade science class who, every single day, put gum on my locker during the 5 minutes between class periods, thanks ladies, will forever remember that feeling of dread when the bell rang, XOXO).
At the same time (because you know I love multiple truths and duality in all things), it’s somewhat interesting to pull the curtain back on the popular girl trope. Because, as we all know, nothing is ever truly as it appears. Underneath all the makeup and perfect hair and trendy clothes, there’s a real human with emotions, not an artificially engineered robot with Mudd jeans and an always-full tube of Lip Smackers. Even if they seemed like robots (or, you know, aliens from some kind of popularity planet, ready to take over Earth, one Kate Spade bag at a time).
But more than that, there’s such an inertia to the idea of popularity; once you’re caught up in it, you might convince yourself that you have to act and present yourself in a certain way to keep your status—without ever questioning the (hello, patriarchal!) constructs that put you there in the first place. It’s why the story of Mean Girls makes perfect sense; Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Heron gets sucked into popularity utopia and it’s like an addiction, spiraling out of control until she’s no longer trying to become Plastic, she just straight-up is Plastic. (Again, cue Lizzy Caplan yelling from the sunroof of a car. How many Mean Girls references can I pack in here? The limit does not exist.)
The Katie I spoke with is a great example of this; she told me that she spent hours every day straightening her hair and putting on makeup, staring at herself in the mirror, trying to look as “pretty” as possible. Today, she keeps her hair curly, she wears winged eyeliner when she feels like it, goes bare-faced when she doesn’t, and she won’t dress for anyone but herself. She’s also queer—something that she never felt comfortable disclosing to her “friends” in high school, out of fear that they’d judge her or oust her from the group. Some friends, right? “There was so much heteronormative pressure to be like a ‘girly-girl,’ and dress cute every day,” she said. “I don’t even know where it came from, but it was just always there. I hope it’s different for kids today, because I never felt like I could be myself. And it shouldn’t be like that, it’s messed up. I wish I could get a do-over.”
Not to be all “I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy” about it, but imagine a high school world without a social hierarchy? Where people just existed in their groups of friends and there was nothing “better” or “worse” about one or another? Where people could be themselves, express their true identities, and not feel judged for any it? Because at the end of the day, what made the popular kids popular was….absolutely nothing. It wasn’t the clothes, or the little black purses, or the lipgloss. It wasn’t anything tangible—because it wasn’t anything at all.
As Stephanie noted, it mattered SO much then. But none of it matters now.
*Names have been changed out of request for privacy.
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