What Does ‘Popular’ Mean, Anyway?

pop*u*lar — adjective: regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general.

It’s personal confession time: When I was in high school I was popular. Popular according to the above definition. Popular, as in I had lots of friends and most of my peers and teachers would have described me in positive terms (she’s funny, smart, kind, friendly, hard-working, she brings it … whatever).

I wasn’t beautiful. I didn’t have a body to be envied or a killer wardrobe. My hairstyle was wash ‘n wear and my face was — well, my face — without a stitch of makeup. I wasn’t part of any exclusive group or clique, but overall I was well-liked.

So when I had children and they went to school, I hoped, and I guess you’d say I assumed in my naive, motherly kind of way, that they’d be popular, too. Popular according to the above definition. Because what I didn’t realize was that sometime between the debut of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the cultural shift that created Lindsay Lohan in “Mean Girls”, the meaning of ‘popular’ has changed.

Take a look at this description of what it means to be popular from Urban Dictionary:


girls who are generally blonde(not always)/bitchy/mean/spoiled/”hot/trendy and ALL THAT!” who think they have a certain power over all other people. Mostly brainless and ditsy! They also think that ABSOLUTELY every1 loves them, and like making fun of other people.They always date the hottest guy in the football/Soccer team and often express themselves with phrases like “omg”,”and i was like”,”i mean”,”what a loser”,”this is soooo”.. etc. Popular girls make you feel like you’re worthless, they laugh/talk really loudly so everyone can see how oh so popular they are. They shop at places such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Aeropostale, and Maui Nix. Most of these “popular girls” get drunk, have sex, start more rumors than a year’s supply of National Equirer before the age of eighteen. Once they enter college they realize that the world does not revolve around them. Shortly thereafter they begin to realize being popular for those years in school doesn’t matter in the long run.

Typical popular girls conversation-

Amanda: I can’t believe Brittany’s dating Josh, she’s such a little whore!

Kelsey: I know! You and Josh would be so much cuter together.

(Brittany comes over to table)

Brittany: Amanda I hope you’re not mad that Josh and I are dating, you know I had a huge crush on him too. I am so happy he likes me back!

Amanda: Oh I’m perfectly fine! You’re my best friend!

Brittany: That’s wonderful. I’m off to go find my brain at hollister now!


popular boys are often exceedingly confident, to the point where they are arrogant. They can dress preppy, in Polo and Vineyard Vines, or some take the gangsta approach and try to dress ghetto (even though most of them are white and all of them are rich.) The boys are mostly on sports teams, USUALLY lacrosse, football. Occasionally you may find a runner or a soccer player amongst them. If one of them doesn’t play a sport, he has to become a clown to stay in the group. Clowns are those funny-to-the-point-where-they’re-desperate kids who try to make fun of everyone and everything. Many of the popular guys are partyers who boast about drinking 5 beers and playing 2 rounds of beer pong in some kids basement and having the craziest weekend ever.

In spite of the fact that this was clearly written by someone who was not a member of the club, some themes stand out.

Today’s popular kids grow up way too fast. They are the trend setters at the conformist edge of fashion and style, which includes setting the norms for experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex. In all things teen they determine what’s hot and what’s not. This may seem contradictory, since conformists aren’t generally on the cutting edge, but in teenland it’s not a plus to be different.

At the core of this view of popularity lies the exclusion of those who are not. One mom told me that her child, who was embraced by the popular kids, was conflicted and torn about being part of it. He, like all kids, wanted to be liked and craved a sense of belonging, but he wasn’t willing to buy the package and exclude his friends from outside the ‘it’ group. As a result his teen years were spent stepping in and out of various groups, never really comfortable, feeling somewhat isolated.

Money and status are critical to being seen as popular like never before. You must wear certain brands and shop at certain stores. It’s nearly impossible for kids with financial limitations to compete. A single mom I know told me an excruciating story about losing sleep over her daughter’s desperate need to be included, which called for an expensive pair of designer jeans they couldn’t afford. Long story short, she bought the jeans, but of course it wasn’t enough. She said her daughter’s disappointment at being excluded by the popular girls hurt her heart.

Popular kids are expected to conform to the values of the group, and those values include a strong undercurrent of anti-geek/anti-smart. You will rarely find a popular kid who’s valedictorian of the class. Academic excellence can be seen as exceedingly uncool. That’s not to say that popular kids aren’t smart — they often are. It’s just difficult to tell because they work so hard to hide it. I’ve known countless kids who were academic hot shots until they hit the social pressures of middle school when the popularity wars commonly take hold. The requirement to conform also contributes to bullying and taunting, since members of the popular group are strongly discouraged from speaking out in the face of injustice or cruelty. The result is a tendency toward moral cowardice.

Because of the promise of prestige and belonging, popularity can seem all-important in the lives of kids seeking to define themselves and establish self-confidence. Cliques and ‘in groups’ have always been a part of the adolescent scene, but my take is that they now have a stranglehold on the social hierarchy. You’re in or you’re out, popular or ‘a loser’, and the roles seem more rigidly defined than ever before.

It’s an enigma, this popularity thing. It seems so natural to those who are a part of it and so unreachable to those who aren’t. Does it have to be this way? Are prom queen and loser the only options? Of course not. Kids can, and should, be encouraged to find their own social comfort zone  and connect with other teens who share their values and interests. The right fit is out there, and adults can help create a culture that celebrates that.

No, my own kids aren’t popular — far from it. I like to think they’re funny, smart, kind, friendly, hard-working, and that they bring their best game. That’s plenty. And for the record … I liked the old-school definition better.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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2 responses to “What Does ‘Popular’ Mean, Anyway?”

  1. Xavier Stark

    I think that this article is extremely accurate. I myself am in high school and everyday i see things like this happening. I am not excactally a member of the ‘in’ group but i am not part of the group which is rejected either. I like to think of myself as the ambasador between the two. I can walk up to anyone at my school and start a conversation. However, i dont enjoy talking the the “popular” people about thing which a more learned person would understand more. My group (yes there is a special group which i am a part of) includes the funny people, the truely funny people not “fakes”. It also includes the Intellectuals, such as myself and my girlfriend. We are the “brains behind the opporation” if you will. We enjoy art,literiture,music and most of all history (We are not nerds though). The issue of clothing is not an issue at my school because we wear uniforms. Also, at my school, the people who i know (which is a BIG majority) do not want to be a part of the popular people because the popular people are idiots, the cheerleaders and football players mostly which is in all honesty a stereotype, but a stereotype which is true. It is also quite interesting to seed the popular people with different situations and observe how they react. They are like pupets, all that we had to do to control them was to stear them with different situations and we can make them go in any direction we desire. I suggst you give that little tip to people who are in my position, because after all, are we not all pawns in this cosmic game of chess?

  2. Arianna Erwin

    I highly agree with this I see this happen all the time in school. I’m in the half popular crowd half not so I don’t get picked on but the way that my friends and the other populars treat everyone else as they call “Losers” very bad and meanly. I mean in 5-6 years when you get a job it wont matter if you were popular in middle and high school or not it matters on your education and what you good at but the problem is none of my friends listen or understand when I tell them this!!!

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