Becoming Miss Popular

An old-fashioned girls’ guide to comportment inspired a teenage girl to sit up straight, make new friends and even sport a girdle

 

Many years ago, when I was in my late teens, I found a publication called The Teenage Book in a second-hand shop. Published in the late 1940s, this gorgeously illustrated volume, whose contributors included James Mason and Peter Ustinov, offered “girls of 17 to 19” advice on everything from grooming (“Would your internal plumbing pass a sanitary inspector?”) and good posture (“A charming girl needs to know but two things: how to sit well and how to accept a compliment”) to voting (“Will the country vote Labour again in 1950? The issue will be decided by the intelligent young women who are in their teens today.”)

I adored The Teenage Book and found it hilarious and charming. I never, however, thought of taking its advice seriously. But maybe I should have, and not just because my posture could do with improvement. Because two years ago, when an American teenager called Maya Van Wagenen decided to follow the instructions in Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, a 1951 book by a teen model, it transformed her life. Maya was 13 and living with her parents and younger siblings in a small Texas town when her mother unearthed a copy of the book and said, “Maya, you should follow the advice this year, in eighth grade, and write about what happens.”

“I said no, very firmly,” says the now 15-year-old Maya. But the idea wouldn’t go away, and so she decided that for the entire school year she would follow Betty’s rules. She sat up straighter, dressed more smartly, put Vaseline on her eyelids and talked to schoolmates she didn’t know. And she didn’t tell anyone why she was doing it. The result was a more confident attitude and a memoir called Popular, based on the diary she kept throughout the project.

In the 1951 book, Betty doesn’t mince her words – these are orders. But Maya found that this made the experiment easier. “She’s so blunt it makes it impossible to get around. If she says ‘do this’, it’s not just a friendly suggestion.” But this, she says, “was helpful to me because [it meant] I couldn’t make excuses.” It also meant that she wasn’t tempted to fudge the rules – like finding the modern equivalent of Betty Cornell’s recommended outfits. Which is how a 21st century 13-year-old ended up donning pearls, formal gloves and, briefly, a very uncomfortable girdle.

“There were times when I saw myself in the mirror wearing those clothes when I thought, well, maybe there’s an easier way to do it, maybe I can get around this, maybe I don’t have to wear the girdle,” she says. “But then I thought, this is a real social experiment and I really want to see the results. So I did it to the best of my ability. That was important to me; the honest following of her tips and, hopefully, the honest result.”

This wasn’t always easy. Her decision to keep the project a secret meant she couldn’t even tell her increasingly baffled best friend Kenzie why she was acting so strangely. Schoolmates sniggered. A well-meaning teacher thought her family couldn’t afford proper clothes. But she drew strength from seeing herself as the protagonist of a story. “I think if you live like that it makes you braver, and that was something that built my confidence and continues to build it.”

But were there times when she thought “Screw all of you, I don’t care whether you like me or not”? A few years before the project, she says, she kept her head down and didn’t reach out beyond her small group. “And even that group of people was occasionally mean to me. But I think deep down everybody wants to be liked, and to have friends. There’s a line in Betty’s book that convinced me about that; she says that as much as you say you really don’t care, there’s a part of you that really does.”

Popularity is often defined in terms of conformity and exclusion. At one stage, Maya looks at her school’s in-crowd and worries that popularity means having to “be a bitch to everyone except for your friends”.

In Betty’s book, however, she found a more positive interpretation of popularity, one that’s about being liked because you’re friendly and kind, not feared because you shut people out. So she tried to talk to strangers, and eventually started sitting with a new group in the school cafeteria every day.

“Growing up I’d been bullied . . . so I didn’t like big groups. The scariest thing was definitely sitting at all those new tables and meeting new people, and putting myself out there in a position where I could be completely shut down.”

And yet everyone, even the school’s most popular kids, talked to her. When she asked them all if they thought they were popular, almost everyone said no. It was a revelation.

“I saw that all the barriers we put up around ourselves were not really there and that hierarchy did not really exist in the way that we thought it did.”

The project has had long-term effects. Firstly, of course, there’s the book, which came about after Maya sent her account of the year to her uncle and then his friend passed it to a literary agent. The film rights have been sold, and she’s currently working on a novel. But following Betty’s advice has also transformed Maya’s social life. Just after the school year documented in Popular, Maya’s family moved to Georgia. “I’d never been so well prepared to adjust to a new location . . . I’m definitely a different person. I’m a more confident and, I hope, more aware person than I was when I started it. And I have more friends now than I’ve ever had.”

One of those friends is Betty Cornell herself. Maya’s dad found Betty’s daughter on Facebook and eventually Maya and Betty, who is now 87, started writing to each other.

“It was interesting because in my head she was my imaginary friend, always telling me to sit up straighter and giving me the courage and pushing me into situations that were hard at first but ultimately very positive.” While Maya may have abandoned Betty’s trademark gloves and girdles, when we chat on Skype, I see she’s still wearing pearls – a gift from Betty whom she’s now met in person several times. “When we met, I definitely felt like I knew her already, and she had read my book so she felt like she knew me. We both felt this connection to the other person. And we’d both, in the best way that we could, tried to share a universal truth.”

Popular: A Memoir by Maya Van Wagenen is published by Penguin (£7.99)

BEING POPULAR 1950s STYLE

Popularity depends on your ability to get along with people, all kinds of people, and the better you learn to adjust to each situation the more easily you will make friends.

- Never look sloppy outside your own room. Be neat.

- First and foremost, make-up should look natural, not artificial.

- It may seem like a little thing, but an ungainly walk can be the ruin of even the most attractive girl.

- You will do the best you can if you get up the gumption to develop your own style, preserve your personality and make like an individual.

Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide has been reissued by Penguin (£9.99)

 

AN IRISH TEEN TRIES THE GUIDE

Rosie Stebbing is a 15-year-old transition-year student

She wakes up in the morning and, after eating a poached egg and scrubbing her face, steps into her girdle and stockings. She puts on a clean white blouse and full navy skirt, then takes her hair out of its rollers. She powders her face and applies a slick of lipstick before fastening a strand of pearls around her neck.

You might expect her to reach for her Zimmer frame next, but she picks up her schoolbag before running out the door to catch the bus. She is an American teenager living 60 years ago – and she’s popular, because she follows the rules of Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide.

Cornell tackles problems that are still common, such as figure issues, and gives sensible advice for girls who want to lose weight – no silly diets, and check first with your doctor.

But what about underweight girls? Cornell says they should ask their chubbier friends what foods are fattening. Call me sensitive, but that kind of question isn’t going to make you popular – especially not in the jungle of secondary school, where every year divides into mini tribes.

Cliques were different back then: the book describes “crowd customs”, such as “everybody wearing one blue and one white sock . . . or shaking hands in a special way”.

Oh, Betty, if only it was that easy. These days “crowd customs” include smothering yourself in fake tan and throwing up at parties. Give me a secret handshake any day.

The guide has a positive message that can be applied to any era: the right attitude to life will never go out of fashion.

Today everybody seems so afraid of stepping out of line. Cornell pushes you to go out of your comfort zone and talk to new people, and her message still holds true: get out there and be the best version of yourself that you can be. String of pearls optional.

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