Escaping Wonderland (& the Wrong Kind of Popularity)

Hello, dear internet friends,

I’m with Aly & AJ on this one: The greatest time of year is here. Okay, “greatest” may be too broad. This season doesn’t have to be everyone’s favorite, but it is mine. While the holidays can certainly be busy and overwhelming, this year I’m ready to embrace each sparkling moment. I hope to be present with the ones I love, slow down to appreciate decked-out front yards, and make plenty of time to watch holiday movies and shows.

I have become a connoisseur of Netflix’s seasonal offerings. Did you know that there are four Vanessa Hudgens characters in the Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe? It’s true, and I’d love to talk to you about it. Outside of that tinsel-tangled web of doppelgängers and fake European countries, my favorite festive show on the platform is “Dash & Lily,” a one-season series based on a young adult novel. Lily, a Christmas-loving human ray of sunshine, leaves a notebook of clues to decode inside New York City’s famous bookstore, The Strand. Sarcastic and surly Dash picks it up, kicking off a Christmas break of the pair sending each other on dares throughout the city, getting to know each other—and themselves—along the way.

It’s a sweet love story, a traveling tale of Christmas in New York. It’s also about fitting in—or rather, finding where you belong. As we get to know Lily, we see that she struggles to fit in with her peers. While reading a book on the subway, she looks over wistfully at the three girls next to her who are interacting over stuff in their phones. In another scene, Lily is caroling at a park with her adult neighbors when she spots a group of her soccer teammates. One appears to look her way but doesn’t wave or invite her over.

As Lily reveals to Dash in their notebook, life wasn’t always this way for her. Without spoiling the details, an experience of social rejection in middle school changed everything. Before then, she believed that she’d always belong by being herself. “After that,” she writes, “I started to feel like Alice in Wonderland, like school was full of all these rules that didn’t make sense.”

I came to view that scene through a new lens after finishing a book called Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships by Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist and the Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association. Taking readers through scientific research on the subject, Prinstein shows how popularity impacts our lives well beyond our middle and high school days. While the book is written for adults, I think anyone of any age can benefit from understanding the two types of popularity as he defines them. The first is status, or what I call capital-P Popular. As Prinstein explains, this type of popularity becomes apparent in adolescence and defines individuals who are well-known and powerful amongst a given group. The second type of popularity, likability, is the one we understand from when we’re very little. Likable people engage in kind, inclusive behaviors with the aim of truly connecting with others.

The disorienting shift that Lily experienced was status overtaking likability in her middle-school world. I can certainly relate. When I was little, I found it easy to get along with other kids. I honestly thought I was best friends with “everyone,” meaning all the girls in my multiage class of first and second graders. For me, the transition to a new social order felt more like a slow fall down the rabbit hole than an abrupt change. I learned that people might spill your secrets, make fun of you to someone else (who would tell you about it), or exclude you for no obvious reason. I found it all so painful and impossible to understand that I latched onto the only solution I could come up with: I needed to change myself—especially how I looked—to fit in. To be Popular. Then I could be fully happy again.

I wish I could go back and teach my younger self about the two types of popularity, but Prinstein’s book helped me understand how the challenges of status and benefits of connection don’t end with graduation. It’s never too late to make changes. The main reason I struggle with social media is that it feels like being in middle school, holding my breath to see who “likes” me. Since last month, I’ve kept up with cutting back on my use. I’ve been surprised by how different life has felt, considering I didn’t think of myself as someone overly plugged in. Without the backdrop of all that social noise, moments of genuine connection have felt more properly highlighted. It’s a little like being six again. I’m just happy to be invited to play.

The difference is, I know now I can’t really be best friends with everyone. What Lily’s story shows is that you don’t need everybody to see you. Finding just one person you can take off your social mask around can be transformative. Meeting them through a hidden notebook at a famous bookstore may be highly unlikely, but you never know what a simple lunchtime “Can I sit with you?” will do. I made a lifelong friend that way.

So, I never achieved capital-P Popularity. And I’ve come to realize that, at least for me, social media can be the same status game by a different name. But you know what? I have friendships that are as simple and sturdy as they felt in the years before I knew Popular. I don’t take them for granted because I know what it’s like to get lost on the wrong side of Wonderland.

xoxo

Marie

“Dash & Lily” is available for streaming on Netflix.

Popular by Mitch Prinstein can be purchased at Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

GP Reads—Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen

Hello, dear internet friends!

One thing I would love to do in my lifetime is write (and then publish) a book. This certainly isn’t a new dream for me; in fact, I spent a good chunk of the summer before I turned 19 putting together a book proposal. That particular project was never fully realized, but I still consider the time well-spent.

Fast-forward to today. I’m at a place now where I’m taking steps to make that dream a reality. Or perhaps I’m taking steps in preparation for taking steps to make that dream a reality. Either way, I decided a comfortable starting place would be to see what related YA/teen nonfiction books had come out since I last looked, as that’s the genre I imagine my future book project would fall under. After I gathered a list, I decided to start working my way through the titles. And then I realized I’d like to share my finds with you, in case you’d find them of interest. So today, I’m sharing with you my first pick, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen.

popular-cropped
Please excuse the barcode covering Maya’s name… Shout out to Lincoln City Libraries for lending this to me!

Popular is the true story of Maya’s eighth grade year, but the inspiration behind it came from a book written—and purchased—long before Maya was even born. That book is Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell and published in 1951. Years later, Maya’s dad purchased the interesting, now-vintage book at a thrift store. Years after that, the book made its way out of storage and into the hands of Maya—and so this journey begins.

At first, Maya simply finds the book “quirky,” but then her mom gives a suggestion: Maya could follow the book’s advice on how to become popular throughout her eighth grade year and write about what happens. Like many a middle schooler given advice by their mother, Maya initially rejects this idea. But Maya, by her account, has never had the experience of being popular; in her ranking of her school’s “popularity scale,” she places herself at “the lowest level of people at school who weren’t paid to be here.” She decides to give the experiment ago.

And go all in she does. Each month, Maya tests out a different category of Betty’s advice. She tries everything from wearing Vaseline on her eyelids to sitting at each table in the cafeteria. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maya gets mixed results and reactions along the way, but by the end, Maya is transformed—and I’d definitely say that the ending is a happy one.

Maya’s story was very relatable to me. In middle school (and high school), I did have good friends, but I definitely didn’t consider myself popular. And for much of that time, I really, really wanted to be. I thought, misguidedly, that being popular was the key to ultimate happiness.

Looking back on that time in my life gives me a kind of achy feeling. I can’t help but think, Man, with everything I know now, I could do that time so much better. Although I never experienced life on the “popular” side, I can say that over time, that label ceases to matter, but good friendships don’t. Also, the things that help me establish real connections with others—being in the moment, listening, sharing my joy—also make me feel happier, and again, have nothing to do with labels. That all may sound kind of cheesy, but it’s so true, it hurts.

This book definitely ignited that ache, but in a good way. Because—without giving too much away—Maya proves my line of thinking right. She puts the conventional notion of popularity to the test, and in the process, learns what that word really means to her, as well as how she wants to live her life going forward. Which is a lot for any one person to do in a year, let alone someone also navigating the halls of middle school. But Maya does it—and, thankfully, she brings us along on the journey.

So, whether you are a preteen or teen, or you know one, or you just want to vicariously ease your own ache about what might have been, I recommend this book. It’s a pretty quick read—and a powerful one.

xoxo

Marie

P.S. If you have any recommendations for my teen nonfiction reading list, let me know in the comments! Or send me an email at xomarielorene@gmail.com!