According to the Sydney Morning Herald, many survey respondents actually disliked the popular kids at their schools. 56% of those who didn't consider themselves to be in the popular group felt they were happier for it. And 48% of those who felt popular said they were less happy than those who weren't. So if the popular kids aren't necessarily happy or even well-liked, what does popularity mean? Writes the SMH, "Girlfriend says five key characteristics define the popular group, with physical attractiveness being most important. Being able to intimidate others also matters, as does sexual experience, wealth, and regular drug/alcohol use."
These characteristics jibe somewhat with my high school experience. The girls who were widely deemed the most attractive certainly had high status — in that people talked about them a lot and lots of boys had crushes on them. The meanest girls I knew growing up also tended to have a lot of influence — they could control, for instance, who was ostracized and who was accepted — although this faded as I got older and friendliness and extroversion were valued more than intimidation. Still, when I tried to fill out Girlfriend's popularity survey myself, responding as I would have in high school, I just ended up confused.
One of the questions asked, "How would you describe the group you're in?" But I was part of different groups at different times, and toward the end of high school, everyone I knew associated freely enough that the idea of a "group" didn't fully make sense. Then there was, "What makes the cool group 'cool'?" I initially chose the option "Regularly taking drugs/alcohol," because I certainly considered the kids who could drink more than half a beer without worrying what their parents might think to be cooler than me. But then I remembered that some of the kids with the most friends at my school were Christian girls who never touched a drop. The only question I really knew how I would've answered was "Do you wish you were more popular?" — because as a middle school loser who somehow managed to grow up and pass for normal, I was always hungry for more.
The survey's poor methodology aside (it's still online and anyone can take it, including a very much post-high-school me), one thing it shows is how complicated kids' social lives and perceptions are. If we give any credence to the percentages at all, popularity is less about friends and happiness than about status, but it's not clear what this status really means. In some cases it translates into power — the girl who gets to decide who sits at the cool table this week. But in other cases it can just mean unwanted attention — other girls gossiping about you, or boys you don't particularly like talking about your ass. As celebrity gossip sites remind us every day, being a woman of high visibility can make you a target as well as a queen. And while this may be cold comfort to those eating alone in the corner of the cafeteria, it might help grownups give thanks for the ways adult life isn't like high school (more people, less gym class), and work against the ways it still is.