September 2006 (Ph.D. student)
I present my theory of why certain kids become popular in middle and high school while others aspire to but fail. Kids who are early bloomers in the pre-pubescent years at the beginning of middle school rise to the top of the school social hierarchy and easily remain there throughout high school. It is almost impossible for late bloomers to become popular once the ranks have solidified by the end of middle school.
The clothes don't make the man (boy)
The inspiration for this article came earlier this week when I was at an In-N-Out in Irvine, CA. After I ordered my burger and fries at the register, I sat down at the counter to wait for my food. There was a group of half a dozen teenage boys sitting to my left, and I could immediately tell that they were unpopular dorks in their school, just by the way they looked at first glance. To test my hypothesis, I eavesdropped for about ten minutes and heard them talking about computer games, what honors classes they were going to take this year, and how they knew this one freshman kid who was a freaking genius because he was already taking AP Chemistry. "Dammmmmn, I'm a junior and I'm not even in AP Chem yet. This kid must have no life, man. He must study all the time!"
What was really memorable about this experience wasn't that I spotted a pack of honors-class dorks at lunch, but it was the clothes that they wore. The media stereotype of nerds, geeks, dorks, or other pejoratives for unpopular teens are people who have absolutely no fashion sense and wear plaid bowties with mismatched button-up shirts and pocket protectors. Okay, maybe real life isn't so extreme, but everyone knows that dorks are definitely way less fashionable than the cool kids in high school, right? Well, these dorks I saw were wearing the latest trendy Southern California clothes like baggy jeans, surfer shirts, cargo shorts, skater shoes, etc. and had their hair trimmed like most teenage boys. They were dressed perhaps only a bit less trendy than the most fashion-saavy pretty boys (e.g., no hair gel), but nothing about their clothes immediately screamed NERD-ALERT!
If you took this group of 6 dorks and an equal-sized group of popular kids from the same high school and swapped their clothes, most people would still be able to tell that the dorks were dorks and that the popular kids were popular. The clothes don't matter at all, for the most part.
So how could I immediately tell that these kids were dorks even though their clothing, shoes, hair, etc. were comparable to those of the cool kids? What was it about these boys that gave away their dorkiness? It was simply the way they looked—their physical appearance, independent of their clothing. Anybody who's been in high school in the past decade could tell you who 'looked cool' and who 'looked dorky', and it has nothing to do with clothes. These boys were fairly short for being sophomores or juniors (before eavesdropping on their honors classes conversation, I thought that they were in middle school), not buff at all (one was quite chubby and the others were super scrawny), and had un-charming and below-average-looking faces (one was a lanky dorky white boy and the other 5 were below-par Asian nerds, keeping in tune with the 5:1 Asian/white ratio in Irvine). They had no potential to be popular studs in their school, even if they went on an extreme makeover TV show.
I felt happy for these kids because they seemed to have found a solid group of friends to share the joy of computer gaming and other nerd topics, and that they seemed to be doing fairly well in school and on track to getting into a good college where there would be an abundant supply of dorks like themselves. They didn't seem to want to become popular at this point, which is great because attaining school popularity is practically impossible for them.
Anyways, when my In-N-Out burger and fries were finally ready, I decided to stay there to eat instead of grabbing it to-go like I had originally planned. I sat back down at the counter and continued listening to the boys talk about video games and honors classes, while at the same time thinking back on my own middle and high school days and trying to remember how this whole school popularity thing worked.
Party like it's 1995
I moved to an upper-middle class Southern California suburb in 1995 and started 7th grade at the local public middle school looking like I did in the above photo. I was 15 pounds overweight, neatly combed my hair to the side like a FOB (Fresh Off Boat, slang for a person who looks like they just arrived from a foreign country), and had absolutely no idea what the trendy fashions were in Southern California. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that I was among the most unpopular kids in school that year. I started the year sitting alone in a secluded corner of the cafeteria but eventually found a group of 3 other complete social outcasts to sit with. We were at the absolute bottom of the social barrel, sitting awkwardly at lunch everyday trying not to arouse the attentions of the cool kids, trying to blend in as much as we could so that we didn't look like complete losers. I even envied the various groups of nerds and dorks because I couldn't even join their ranks. Yeah, 7th grade totally sucked.
8th grade was much, much better. I actually made friends with the mainstream group of dorks, thanks in part to my enrollment in accelerated-level classes and also my slightly improved fashion sense. I spent most of 7th grade observing how people dressed and then slowly changing my wardrobe to match the trends. I replaced my brightly-colored short shorts from China (very flattering for my fat white thighs) with baggy corduroy shorts, my flamboyant FOB shirts that my relatives bought in China (containing misspelled English words) with the latest in surfer brands like Rusty and Billabong (even though I've never surfed in my life), and my cheap-ass K-Mart sneakers with skater shoes from brands like Airwalk and Vans. I made the point in the previous section that clothes don't matter for the most part, but I was one of the exceptions. Clothes definitely do matter if you were dressed as badly as I was, because with my FOB attire, it was almost impossible for me to begin making friends.
The photo on the left was taken when I was in the middle of 8th grade. During my first year and a half in California (in the time between when this photo was taken and when the previous one was taken), I lost a considerable amount of weight and transformed myself to conform to all of the trends of mid 90's suburbia: I parted my hair down the middle, wore a flannel shirt un-buttoned, baggy corduroy pants, had my belt sticking out in front of my crotch (ha!), and most importantly, wore those oh-so-cool skater shoes.
I now realize that, like most non-cool kids, I conformed to the fashion trends not to try to become cool, but simply to try to avoid standing out in a negative way, to prevent the blatant NERD-ALERT sirens from ringing whenever someone looked at me. Trendy clothes cannot make you popular, but they can protect you from ridicule. My friends in 8th grade would not have been any less congenial to me if I suddenly decided to wear K-Mart shoes again instead of Vans, but without wearing Vans and other trendy clothes in the first place, I wouldn't have been able to build up the self-confidence to approach people and make new friends in the first place.
With a few exceptions of ultra FOBs or complete social outcasts, most boys in my middle school dressed exactly like I did in that picture, yet it is undeniable that some were far more popular than others. You could tell that I was a dork just by looking at that picture, but if a cool kid wore those exact same clothes, you could somehow tell that he was cool. Why? If your clothes, hairstyle, etc. can't make you popular, then what does make you popular? This question is what I want to explore in the rest of this article.
A Theory of Middle and High School Popularity
This five-part theory is based on my own middle and high school experiences. Here is a summary:
In sum, whether you are popular in middle and high school is largely out of your control, so it is unreasonable to aspire to become popular if you are not already popular. From my experience, the happiest teenagers are the ones who have accepted their status in the high school social hierarchy and made good friends with people of similar status.
I think that the popularity game begins in 6th grade, at the start of middle school. I'm actually not the most qualified person to make this assertion because I never experienced that critical first year of middle school: Before I moved to California, I attended 6th grade in New York City, but 6th grade there was the final year of elementary school, not the first year of middle school. When I moved to California, I began 7th grade (the middle year, not the first year, of middle school), where I noticed that the kids had already formed social cliques, and it was pretty apparent who was popular and who was not. From my observations, I surmised that the crucial year for determining social status was 6th grade, but why couldn't it have been earlier? 5th grade, 4th grade, sometime in elementary school?
The only personal evidence leading me to believe that 6th grade is the crucial year is from conversations with my high school friends, who were pretty nerdy in general. Many of them told me that they were friends with people in elementary school who ended up in totally different social circles during high school—stoners, thespians, slackers, and even those at the top of the social pyramid: The popular kids who ruled the school. They found it amusing that these cool kids used to go over to their houses to play when they were younger, but now they never even speak because they are in different social planes.
My own observations from 7th grade and anecdotes from my friends about their elementary school days lead me to believe that when I was in middle school (around 10 years ago), the popularity game started in 6th grade. (Perhaps nowadays it starts earlier, maybe during elementary school, but I don't really know firsthand.)
So which kids are destined for popularity right at the beginning of 6th grade? I think that physical appearance in the pre-teen years (ages 11-13) is by far the most important cause of middle school popularity. Everyone can spot a good-looking face because those are fairly rare, so handsome boys and pretty girls have a great chance of being popular. In terms of body, the kids who go through puberty early are at an advantage because they are more mature-looking than their peers. During the middle school years, there is an enormous range of shapes and sizes because people go through puberty at different times. The boys who are taller, more muscular, and more athletic have greater chances of popularity, as do the girls who are taller, more physically developed, and more pretty.
For better or for worse, as a pre-teen just starting 6th grade, you have almost no control over your physical appearance. Thus, your chances of attaining popularity at that time is mostly determined by your genes. (caveat: in my middle school, there were shorter, scrawnier boys who were also quite popular, but they usually more than compensated for their smaller stature by having cute pretty-boy faces, a sense of humor, and little-brother charm that girls found 'adorable'. However, like physical looks, gregariousness and charisma also have some genetic basis, so it's still largely outside of one's control.)
But wait ... being good-looking and well-built is no guarantee for popularity, because, after all, one becomes popular by knowing people and forming social connections, not by simply being pretty, right? Well, kinda. Involvement in extra-curricular activities—the right activities—is the most direct cause of early popularity, but usually the better-looking kids are more likely to engage in these cool activities. For boys, sports is the main cool activity, followed by leadership. Mainstream manly team sports like basketball and football are way, way cooler than sports such as table tennis and badminton. For girls, it may be dance, sports, but most importantly, leadership. When I look at my 8th grade yearbook, I saw that girls (mostly popular ones) comprised the entire yearbook staff and most of the student council; the boys were probably too busy playing basketball and gelling their hair. Getting involved in student government (however superficial it may be in middle school), planning pep rallies, organizing school dances and field trips, and other forms of leadership are the most direct routes to popularity. Think about the student leaders in your middle or high school; chances are, a large percentage of these people are popular.
Okay, so if so-called cool extra-curricular activities are the path to popularity, then can't kids become popular simply by joining these activities? Well, not really, because who can join these activities? In theory, anyone can join, but peer pressures provide an environment where only the most physically beautiful and fit people can enter these activities. It's easy to understand how athletes are, on average, more physically precocious and fit than the average middle schooler. But what about student council? Anyone can join, right? It's a democracy! Well, for leadership roles, there might be a precedent of coolness set by upperclassmen: for instance, say that the 7th grade class officers are all tall, good-looking, gregarious people; if a short, scrawny 6th grade dork wanted to be an officer, it would be very intimidating to enter the ranks. Even if that dork did become an officer, he/she may find it harder to fit in with the more popular crowd. There is strong positive feedback: Once kids join activities where there are other popular kids, probably upperclassmen, then they know more popular kids, then they become more popular, their self-esteem rises, then they are encouraged to be even more gregarious, and so on.
A note about race: I think that one's race definitely matters in determining one's chances of attaining popularity. It's just another aspect of one's physical appearance. Of course, the details differ by context, so I can only speak for my own middle school, which I think is representative of suburban California schools in the mid-1990's. My school consisted mostly of white kids (maybe 85%), with maybe 8% Asian kids, 4% black kids, and 3% of Hispanic or other ethnicities. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the popular kids were white. However, among the minorities, the black kids were more likely to be popular than the Hispanic kids, who in turn were more likely to be popular than the Asian kids (when I went to middle school, there were almost no popular Asian kids, but I've heard that things have changed in recent years). Of course, this is only one middle school at one particular time; the details can vary greatly, but my point is that race does matter in determining popularity.
So, to summarize, whether one becomes popular in middle school is largely out of one's conscious control because it is mostly based on one's physical appearance during the early middle school months. If you just don't have the right look, there is very little you can do to overcome it, except if you have amazing communications skills. If you are able to be so charismatic and engaging that people think you are cool even though you look like a 12-year-old Danny DeVito, then you can join student council and crack everyone up with your humor and get people to like you and accept you into the social elite. Often times, though, you'll notice that the people with great inter-personal skills are usually better-looking, because the two complement and reinforce one another in a positive cycle: Good-looking kids get more attention and have more opportunities and incentives to develop their inter-personal skills because they receive even more rewards in terms of positive attention, and repeat ...
Once the social hierarchy solidifies, usually by the end of 7th grade, the momentum from being catapulted into the ranks of the popular kids early-on in middle school carries a teenager throughout his/her high school years. In short, once one becomes popular, it is fairly easy to remain popular. Unfortunately, this also means that if one does not become popular by the end of 7th grade, then it is pretty much impossible to become popular later. (Of course, there are exceptions, people who climb the popularity ladder later in 10th or 11th grades, but the reason why they are exceptions is because they are not the norm.) If you ask high school students to point out the popular kids in their grade from a yearbook, most will be able to identify who these studs and studettes are, but if you ask them why these kids are popular, most will be stumped. In the collective high school consciousness, popular kids, well, were always popular from day one. They have been popular for as long as everyone remembers, which is sometime way back in 6th or 7th grade.
It is possible to fall from the ranks of the popular to the ranks of mortals, but that is highly unlikely because most people who are already popular usually like being popular, and one can remain popular without sacrificing other aspects of one's life. The momentum of popularity is so strong that practically nothing can knock a person down from being popular to being an anonymous dork.
Contrary to common wisdom, popularity and academic achievement are not inversely correlated—there are many popular kids who do pretty well in school, and conversely, there are many unpopular kids who do poorly in school. I knew some really smart popular kids who took many honors and AP classes in high school, and their popularity did not diminish because of their choice to value academics more than some of their other popular peers. If you are truly popular and well-respected, then you won't suddenly be labeled as a geek if you enjoy AP Computer Science, so you won't be afraid to take some joy in coding while at the same time keeping up your weekend partying engagements. The true studs and studettes are the ones who can both be popular and academically successful ... those are the talented people to watch for in the future.
A more visually-striking example of the momentum of popularity is revealed by the answer to the following question: Why is it that some popular kids in high school aren't really that hot? You know what I'm talking about. There are some popular boys who are short and scrawny, or fat and grubby, or have ugly pimple-filled faces, or are otherwise unattractive; likewise, there are some popular girls who aren't in the best shape, don't look very pretty, or are otherwise unattractive. Conversely, there are unpopular kids who are taller, in better shape, more charming, or better looking than some of their more popular peers, but yet they aren't themselves popular. Why is that? Didn't I just argue in the previous section that one's physical appearance is a major determiner of popularity?
Well, one's physical appearance does matter, but what matters most is one's appearance at ages 11-13, during 6th and 7th grades, because that's when the social hierarchy solidifies. After that time, the momentum of popularity can keep a person popular even if he/she grows out of shape, gets terrible acne, or becomes grubby or way stoned during high school. Good-looking 6th/7th graders quickly become popular, but good-looking 10th/11th graders who are not already popular usually cannot become popular. Think about those non-hot popular kids from high school; chances are, they were relatively much hotter than their classmates back in middle school, maybe because they were early bloomers who were the first to physically mature, or because they had cute pre-teen child-star features that grew out to look unflattering in their mid-teen years, etc. Some people are better-looking relative to their peers in earlier years (e.g., ages 11-13) while others are relatively better-looking in later years (e.g., ages 15-18). Many of the unpopular kids aren't actually that bad-looking; they just didn't develop until later, like in the middle of high school, which is unfortunately way too late for them to become popular. Late bloomers lose out in the middle/high school popularity race (but many go on to do fine in college and beyond).
Once the social hierarchy solidifies by the end of middle school, upward mobility becomes extremely difficult. Most kids who are popular remain popular, and most kids who are dorks remain dorks. The extreme makeovers seen on melodramatic movies and TV shows, the stories of the geeky chess club captain blossoming into the prom queen, rarely happen in real life.
But what about late bloomers—kids who look scrawny and awkward in middle school but mature well and become fairly good-looking during high school? Can't they become popular? Well, it's easier for them to become popular than their non-hot unpopular peers, but it's still no easy feat. The popular kids already have their cliques, and moreover, everybody knows who the dorks are, so that even if a dork suddenly transformed into a beautiful swan, his/her peers still remember him/her as a dork. One can change one's physical appearance to a certain extent (given enough determination) by working out, watching one's diet, etc. There are nerdy boys who are quite buff, and nerdy girls who are quite fit, even more so than their popular peers. But it doesn't matter that they are hot in 11th grade; what really matters is that they were not hot back in 6th grade.
So why is it so hard for a dork to transform into a popular kid? Because as soon as a dork begins moving outside of his circle of dorky friends and into higher levels on the social hierarchy, two sets of forces strongly push him back to where he started: First, his friends will think that he is ditching them and selling out in order to try to become popular, thus making him feel guilty that he is trying to abandon them. Second, the popular kids will think that he is a poser and trying too hard to become accepted by them, thus probably making fun of him, however subconsciously. Both of these forces discourage progress towards the goal of popularity, and most dorks who attempt this climb will give up after not much effort and go back to their original group of friends, the comfortable status quo. However, if a dork is truly determined and has some talent, then he can overcome this hurdle and start to get accepted by the popular kids. Unfortunately, this will mean that he must sever his close connections to his former dorky friends, but that's the cost of attaining popularity. In contrast, the kids who are already popular incur no cost by remaining popular because they can still remain with their existing group of friends instead of trying to make new friends.
If a kid moves to a new high school, then he is in a unique position to insert himself anywhere within the social hierarchy, all the way from the most popular studs down to the untouchable social outcasts. Unlike all of the other kids who have already found some position somewhere in the hierarchy and cannot easily move around, the newcomer has no existing position and can thus place himself anywhere. Thus, while the judgment day for everyone else was during 6th or 7th grades where the early bloomers had the advantage, the judgment day for the newcomer is whenever he moves into town, whether that is 9th grade or 11th grade. If he was a scrawny shrimp in 6th grade but grew into a buff jock by 9th grade, nobody would know that he used to be puny, and he could immediately join the football team and reap the benefits of studliness. Of course, it is also just as possible that new kids have trouble adjusting and turn into social outcasts; it's really largely out of their control.
I witnessed this newcomer loophole firsthand when I moved to California in 7th grade. Another kid (let's call him Jeff ... email me if you think you know who this really is) had also just moved into town, and we were in several classes together. While I was a total FOB and quickly fell into the land of total loser, Jeff quickly rose to become one of the most popular guys in the grade. I was astounded at how quickly he took charge and got his name out there. I would observe him talking to people during class, making jokes, and just being so damn charming. It was astounding! He was a pretty good-looking kid who was also pretty fashionable, but he definitely had charisma ... he was definitely cool even though nobody knew his name on the first day of school. 7th grade is still early in the popularity game, but I have no doubt that if he moved into town in 10th grade, he would have still become the most popular kid in school. Throughout middle and high school, he remained popular, well-liked, and well-respected by pretty much everyone in our grade. Some people just have the cool looks and charm, and others just don't. Jeff and me started at the exact same place, both being new kids, but after the first month, he was at the very top and I was at the very bottom. There was nothing I could have done to become popular at that time, because I didn't have the look or the charm or the skills.
My take-home message is the following: You have very little control over whether you will be popular in school, so don't try too hard to become popular if you're not; you'll be much happier if you accept your status and make some good friends.
Now I'll do a bit of preaching: What matters most in the long run is not your status in high school, but it's how well you've dealt with your status. If you are always itching to attain impossible goals, then you will more likely be disappointed or depressed, but if you make the best of your social standing, however dorky, like those uber-geeky boys I saw at In-N-Out earlier this week, then you can be just as happy as the popular kids. Dorks shouldn't resent the popular kids or think that they are dumb by default; in fact, there are many popular kids who are quite smart, and the smart popular kids grow up to rule the world as managers, business people, lawyers, politicians, etc. (the dumb popular kids grow up to be Al Bundy, reminiscing on their glory days as the high school football team captain while selling shoes to old women with smelly feet.) Conversely, popular kids shouldn't make fun of dorks because they seem to be socially awkward and inferior; in fact, many dorks are late bloomers and grow up to be quite socially adept in their college years. I'm not so much of an idealist to suggest that there should be no social hierarchy in school, but in my ideal world, everyone would accept their place on the hierarchy and enjoy their middle and high school experiences with minimal angst.
Epilogue: How to become popular
My message in this article has been pretty fatalistic ... you are pre-destined to either become popular or not, and there's nothing much you can do about it. But let's imagine that you could turn back time and re-live 6th grade all over again. What could you do to become popular? How could you change your fate? Or, let's say that you have kids who are starting 6th grade, and you really want your kids to become popular in school. What advice would you give them? Well, let's turn my theory on its head and use it as a guidebook for gaining popularity.
First of all, you must assess your physical appearance compared to your peers. Are you an early bloomer? Are you taller, buffer, or fitter than your peers? Are you better looking? Or are you scrawny, short, and ugly? You need to first assess your physical status and prepare to compensate appropriately. If you're pretty hot, then you're destined to be popular anyways, but if you're not, then you must compensate with your charisma.
You must start joining all the popular kids activities as soon as possible—student council, sports, planning school dances, etc. You must also conform to all the trends and just be the most outgoing person ever, basically being a social parrot, mimicking what the older cool kids do and trying to be as charming as you can. You need to get in with the cool crowd as soon as humanly possible, because once you're in and can maintain your cover for a year or two, then congratulations, you have solidified yourself within the popular crowd!
But then again, if every step along the way feels so damn contrived and fake, then it will soon take its toll on you. You'll start to feel like a phony, a poser, and an imposter, even though your popular friends won't really see through you (if you're good enough). However, you will eventually start to feel alienated and out of place, because you're playing a role that, well, feels like a role. The real cool kids are cool because they don't try so hard to be cool; they just have that charisma. Why are you trying so hard if you're not happy with yourself? Didn't you want to be popular so that you would be happier? High school popularity is ephemeral, but how you feel about yourself lasts a lifetime.
Last modified: 2007-11-24