By Jose A. Rodriguez

Ah, to be young again and circumnavigate the vagaries of the pre-teen social scene. Those who can successfully exploit the system tend to be the most popular, and we all know who they were: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the preppy kids, and the more attractive kids. These people tended to be more aggressive, more self-confident, and very hungry for attention. Some would say these individuals simply possess better people skills; other would argue that they prey on the socially awkward in order to maintain their social standing. Either way, some studies have shown that the more popular a student is, the more likely it is that they will be financially successful. According to a study reported by the UK Times, for every friend a student has, their income was 2% higher.

For students with fewer friends—or who are simply unpopular—this poses somewhat of a disadvantage. Allow me to provide some unsolicited advice.

First things first: appearance. The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” does not really apply in the pre-teen social realm. A 1986 study by Seymour Fisher entitled Development and Structure of the Body Image found that, from a young age, people choose their friends based on appearance. For instance, while obesity is accompanied by a range of health problems (high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, etc), it is also accompanied by ridicule from one’s peers. In a Yale study entitled “Adolescent Obesity, Overt and Relational Peer Victimization, and Romantic Relationships,” researchers determined that obese students tended to be more victimized by their peers and have fewer dates than their average weight peers. Obviously, this lowers self-esteem, leads to depression, and neither of those is likely to boost one’s popularity. In addition to weight, clothing is another important factor in appearance. Wearing old, generic, hand-me-downs simply will not do. Brand name and trendy clothes will not only help you blend in with the popular crowd, but will improve self-image and confidence, both of which are key ingredients to popularity. And, finally, good health and cleanliness are usually pre-requisites for joining the popular crowd. It’s hard to make friends and have people like you when you smell like a gym sock, especially when your coke-bottle lenses are grimy and you’re huffing on an inhaler every other sentence. According to researcher Nathan Popkins of Northwestern University, a low self-image perpetuates low self-esteem. So, conversely, looking more attractive will raise your self-esteem, making you more confident and more popular. The bottom-line is this: if you can look like the rest of the popular kids, then you won’t stick out like a sore thumb and feel sorry for yourself. You’ll be more likely to fit in and be popular.

Most people will tell socially awkward people to just “be themselves,” as though that would simply solve all their problems and make them popular. Here’s the flaw in that advice: you are being yourself, and it isn’t working. Having long hair and carrying the Dungeons and Dragons core rule book is what repels people—and that’s who you are. Think about your online social networks: the way you market yourself online is not the real you. It’s the you that you have invented to make yourself seem likeable, personable, confident, and acceptable. Apply this concept in the real world. Join one of your school’s athletic teams and sport a Letterman jacket; if you can’t make the team, find a Letterman jacket at a local thrift store or buy one online. These jackets will make you more well liked and accepted, which will undoubtedly expand your friend pool. Rather than carrying the Dungeons and Dragons core rule book, carry a football or the latest cell phone. If you’re particularly brave, you’ll be holding a girl’s hand. We all have an identity that longs to be expressed, but sometimes that identity prevents us from making friends and being popular. End the identity crisis and start marching to the beat of everyone else’s drum.

Before embarking on the quest for popularity, it would behoove one to become familiar with the various social groups that would need to be infiltrated. Within these social networks, you will be able to network and develop friendships. Obviously, there are the jocks; they are bulking, half-witted, Letterman-wearing, ego-centric, sacks of popularity and they know it. They often times have charisma, which they not only use to cultivate chicks on the cheerleader squad, but they also use it to get a good enough grade in any class so they can continue to play on the team. Speaking of the cheerleaders, they are the hardest group to penetrate—socially speaking. They seem to speak in code, and they travel in single file in order to hide their numbers. Don’t even bother speaking to them without a Letterman jacket. Another group that you might encounter is the high achievers. The high achievers are very busy; when they are not doing homework, they’re involved in ASB, clubs, and working in the community. Other groups include skaters (or the pot heads), the Goth Kids, and the Fashionistas. If you can move in and out of these groups, remembering to conform to their style and behaviors, then you should have little problem making friends and having people like you for being just like them.

Actually, ignore everything I’ve written.

There is no reason to change your behavior. So you won’t make as much money in your career as the popular kids—so what? And who says that will be true? I’m sure Bill Gates or Gary Gygax were not the most popular kids in school, yet they both became rich, happy, successful, and influential. I know that at times school social scene can be stressful and that there can be a yearning to be one of the “cool” guys, but hear me out: these are not your Golden Years. There is more to life than how many friends you have, or how many times you get invited to a party. Life is about pursuing what makes you happy. And to do that you have to be yourself.

Shakespeare once wrote: “To thine own self be true.” Truer words were never spoken… or written. If you want to wander the halls with your Dungeons and Dragons core rule book, while wearing sweat pants and sporting long hair, then do it if that’s what makes you happy. You have to “March to the beat of your own drum,” as Henry David Thoreau once wrote. Not everyone is going to like you and that is a sad truth, but it is one you have to accept if you want to be happy. And just because people do not like you does not mean that you’re a freak or something. The only person who has to like you is you. After high school, these people will not be around, but you will still have to live with yourself. Studies have shown that people who are comfortable in their own skin, who know their strengths and weaknesses, and are true to themselves, are much happier people.
In the end, are you going to look into the mirror and see everyone else, or are you going to look in the mirror and see yourself. If it’s the latter, you’ll find that it’s much easier to get through life as yourself, rather than constantly trying to be someone you’re not.