Okay, I'll admit it. This post on High School Hell had me panicked. Because you see, I was lucky. Generally my high school experience was pretty decent. I don't have any of the obvious stories of being bullied, hazed or slushied in the face.
|No Slushies were sacrificed during |
my high school experience.
For sure, those memories would be truly horrific to revisit, and I'd never wish them on anyone, but let's face it, they'd make a killer blog post.
Instead, my lack of Big Hellish Moments has had me thinking about the more nuanced ways that high school was a demonic experience. And honestly, I don't like what I've remembered.
This is me in my senior year. Cute huh? I'm really rockin' the 80s asymmetrical wedge cut, aren't I? And here's me with my friend, Doug in our Class Actors photo from our year book. Aside from being a major thespian, I was also a classically trained singer and could belt out an Italian aria or a Barbra Streisand tune on command. Basically I was the original Lea Michele, just a little less annoying. And I had friends, got good grades and occasionally had a boyfriend. Sounds pretty great, huh?
Yeah, in hindsight, I'd say so, too. But oddly enough, despite these major accomplishments, I was pretty insecure. No matter what, I didn't think I was pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough or popular enough to compete with the big kids. There was always an unrelenting drive to be better, cooler than I was. And that led me to do some pretty uncool things. Like sometimes I dumped a friend in favor of hanging out with more upwardly social kids, jerks who never really accepted me anyway. Probably because I wasn't being true to myself, and they saw me for the fraud that I was.
All this introspection got me thinking about the messages teens get from popular culture and what drives this insidious insecurity and aspiration to be something we're not. For the record, I know there are plenty of books, movies and television shows that explicitly drive home the point that--girls especially--should be happy in their own skin and just be themselves. Those notwithstanding, insecurity still grips teens and shakes their self esteem, driving them to succumb to peer pressure and conform to other people's idea of what's cool. So where do these notions come from?
We've all seen movies where the popular girl takes a dorky loser under her wing and gives her a make over. Once she's "beautiful" she fits in with the popular crowd, gets the guy and lives happily ever after.
Remember Clueless? Alicia Silverstone's character, Cher Horowitz adopts the "tragically unhip"Tai Fraser, steers her away from the stakeboarding slacker she likes and teaches her the mysteries of popularity. We root for Tai as she climbs the social ladder and in fact, surpasses her teacher, relegating Cher from queen bee to a mere member of the popular court.
|Tai goes from Tragically Unhip to...|
And who could forget what the Pink ladies do to Olivia Newton John's Sandy in Grease? Sandy starts out the perfect goody-two-shoes square. After a brief summer fling, John Travolta's Danny Zuko, the coolest, leatherest wearing guy in school, has broken her heart. Once school starts, they can't be together because he's a bad boy and she's...well, definitely not a bad girl. At least until the pink ladies pierce her ears, teach her to smoke and squeeze her into some spandex pants.
Then it's all, "You're the One that I Want" do wop do watty waah and everyone's happy. Well, everyone but poor pregnant, unwed Rizzo, but that's another story.
These movies are undoubtedly entertaining, but I can't help but wonder how much they contribute to lowering teens' self esteem. Sure, they're fun and make us root for the underdog, but at what cost? The only way the underdog becomes the top dog is by changing who she fundamentally is and "climbing up" the social ladder. Who does she leave behind in favor of her new "friends"? Are Cher and the Pink Ladies worth it? Unfortunately it took me way too long to decide they weren't.
In my book, THE HOODOO APPRENTICE, my heroine, Emma isn't a popular girl. In fact, beside her secret crush, Cooper Beaumont, and brother, Jack, she doesn't have many friends. Shy and artistic, she spends a lot of time on her own, sketching nature. Her unusual familiarity with herbs and plants is one reason the old Gullah root worker takes her on as an apprentice when Jack is stricken with a wicked flesh-eating curse. If Emma hadn't been true to herself, and instead given up her unique talents to join some dumb group of populars in school, she wouldn't have the skills she'd need to help save her brother. I for one am glad she didn't. I'm sure Jack appreciates it too.
So what do you think? How does popular culture shape teens' perspectives on themselves and their self esteem? Did kids at your schools relentlessly strive to climb the social ladder? What did conformity cost them?