first person

Talking to the Popular Girls, 20 Years Later

Photo: Kazunori Nagashima/Getty Images

An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.

In second grade, I experienced a fleeting taste of popularity when my blonde hair earned me a spot as Baby Spice in our grade’s tribute group. Ruby (names have been changed) pulled my hair into two high pigtails, Grace offered to lend me a belly shirt, and suddenly a whole new world opened up before me. I’d go on playdates to practice dance routines with the group and sashay around the lunchroom importantly, talking about whose mom could possibly get us concert tickets. But within a few days, another blonde-haired girl cried to the teacher about feeling left out, and through some murky, but extremely unfair, exercise of power, said teacher ruled that the group was allowed to continue, only with her swapped in for Baby.

I returned to my previous station in life, with the Horse Girls: a group who liked horses (obviously), cared about school, and played with dolls, even if we were a bit old. I knew with utter certainty, however, that Horse Girls don’t get Hot Guys. In third grade, She’s All That came out and I too longed for a movie-like makeover. Through a mix of determination, cruelly distancing myself from the other Horse Girls, and what was probably an administrative decision to divide the popular clique, I ended up cool in fourth grade.

Over the next few years I moved in and out of Grace and Ruby’s orbit. I was close enough to observe their ways, to glean the techniques necessary to pursue Hot Guys — crucial in those pivotal few years when bodies begin to change and boys went from carriers of cooties to potential boyfriends — if not close enough to ever actually feel secure in our friendship.

Later, as our lives diverged further and further, I’d sometimes wonder about the girls I once longed to be. And so, almost two decades after their elementary-school reign, I asked Ruby and Grace if they’d be willing to talk about what those years were like from their perspectives. I was curious about whether being supremely cool came with its own pressures (and, of course, I wondered how they’d learned what a blow job was before I did). I hadn’t seen Grace in a decade or longer; I’d run into Ruby at a bar a few years before. Both wrote me back quickly, agreeing to get on a three-way call — once our favored means for post-school debriefs.

When she answered, Ruby said that another cool girl, Meg, was actually visiting her at that very moment. I couldn’t believe it and suggested we add Meg to the call. “Oh, she’s already on the line,” Ruby said breezily. “Hi, Alex!” Meg added.

I began with a subject at the forefront of my mind in the old days: One of the hardest parts of school always came before even setting foot in the building, when I’d stand in front of my well-stocked closet and decide, for the hundredth time, that I had nothing satisfactory to wear. But when I brought up the Malibu shirts, only Meg knew what I was talking about. So I found myself explaining to Ruby and Grace how in fourth grade, each one of them had a T-shirt (baby blue or pale pink) that said “Malibu” on it in red letters and somehow, these had been deemed the coolest shirts of all time. Back then it seemed almost a coincidence that Ruby and Grace both happened to own them. “Sometimes you’d lend them out and let another girl wear one for a day,” I explained. “Do you remember?” “Vaguely,” one said. “Yeah,” the other said, “only vaguely.” I felt a bit humiliated, as if I’d worshipped them like celebrities, fawning over outfits they’d worn in the pivotal scene of a movie they barely recalled starring in.

Since the Malibu shirts were a dead end, we talked through the larger trends that defined our youth, from Tiffany charm bracelets and Juicy Couture, to So Low fold-over pants and Petit Bateau shirts, to Hervé Chapelier bags and Seven jeans. And while many rich girls at many private schools across New York (and the country) were wearing the same things, in our world, they mostly started with Ruby and Grace before trickling down to the rest of us. I was surprised to learn, upon asking, that Ruby and Grace were simply mimicking older girls, from camp, the country club in Long Island they went to, and even from our own school.

“We all acted like we were teenagers and we were like 8,” Grace said. “Even the way in which we approached boys at that point,” Ruby added. “We had boyfriends in third grade. I had three boyfriends in fourth grade at the same time!” But again, they were the ringleaders and seemed, unfairly, first to everything, from going through puberty to buying bras and thongs to grinding at school dances. On our call, they seemed mostly just surprised by their daring.

Both Grace and Ruby had older siblings and thus were more exposed to teenage antics than the rest of us, who mostly caught glimpses of high schoolers in the school lobby. Meg’s dad worked with the parents of some high schoolers, so there were also older, cooler kids to dote on her. For style tips and social cues, Ruby and Grace were heavily influenced by an eighth-grade girl who took them under her wing when we were in fifth grade. At sleepaway camp, I’d always noticed something similar: older girls picking out the cool ones from younger bunks to dote on. As someone who was never picked for this special attention at camp or school, I was wildly jealous, and also certain these friendships were essential to passing on the chain of command.

But while older girls flitted in and out of the cafeteria, mostly we were on our own. As on remote islands where evolution results in strangely distorted flora and fauna, in the isolation of girlhood — where the only opinions that mattered were those of our peers — we’d quickly developed unique rituals around courtship. The one I remember most clearly was Lists, which were extremely tiny pieces of paper on which you’d write a list of your top crushes, in order of interest. After writing this list, you wouldn’t store it in your Password Journal or hide it in a Christina Aguilera CD case; no, you’d bring it to school with you every day, tucked somewhere on your person. I can still remember the utter high of the day Meg wore home a boy’s fitted hat only to remember that earlier in the day he’d tucked his list inside the inner fold. The miniature ranking was unfurled with a dramatic flair and read aloud. (My name wasn’t on it.)

Ruby and Grace each had their first kiss, at the movies, with two Hot Guys from our grade. As they volleyed back and forth their favorite songs to grind to —“’Hot In Here’!” “No, ‘Peaches and Cream’,” “Oh my god, ‘Peaches and Cream’!” — I finally asked how exactly they’d learned to grind, which we started to do at school dances around fifth grade. Ruby explained that her older sister played music one day and taught her how. In turn, Ruby and Grace had taught the boys from our school, who then tried it out on the rest of us.

“We were the most inappropriate girls,” Grace said, “And the joke is that I was super promiscuous when I was younger but then I got to eighth grade and for years I was very asexual. I blossomed young and then I just stopped.” Ruby said she’d experienced something similar — leading us through our experiences with first and second base, urging us to play Truth or Dare and Suck and Blow, then entering high school and avoiding sexual intimacy for a while.

The thought that I may have had sex before either of them had never before occurred to me. I remembered how mortifying it was not to know how to kiss, or to wonder if I could even go to second base when I didn’t need to wear a bra. At the time, Ruby and Grace seemed utterly confident — but their later spells of abstinence suggested that maybe Ruby and Grace were responding to discomfort of their own.

Still, I was surprised, during our conversation, by how easy they described those years being. “It was just like one big playdate,” Grace said. But then I remembered that they actually hadn’t done much work, had cheated on tests and turned in assignments late, while I took fastidious notes, studied intensely, and got all A’s. For sixth grade, Grace transferred to a school that was more academically rigorous and larger, so she lost her position of most-popular while also having the distraction of more school work. Ruby and Meg carried on as incredibly popular and incredibly uninterested in academics; both now say they regret not focusing more on school. Ruby noted a college wake-up call, when fear of failing out drove her to finally focus on school. It took Meg until after college, which she described squandering on partying and having fun, to realize how much education matters.

Hearing that made me feel kind of smug. I had once wished to be more like them, and now, 20 years later, they were wishing that back then they’d been a bit more like me. But I still can’t believe how much I gave up and how hard I worked at becoming cool simply because I had a crush on a Hot Guy in third grade. “Having the boys’ approval was, like, everything,” Meg said, “and so the meaner you were, the more attractive you were.” I could almost see her shrugging on the other end of the line.

I’m pretty disgusted by the way we treated one another, but Ruby, Grace, and Meg seemed much more willing to chalk it up to typical adolescent behavior. Why we let male attention rule our entire world and why we were so devastatingly mean to each other still confounds me. To them the answer seemed at once utterly obvious and also unremarkable. “Because we were immature,” Grace said. “We didn’t know any better,” Ruby added. We were young and many girls deal with cliques, but we also did know better. Or, at least, I did. I began to consider that maybe I’d been unable to hack it with the cool girls precisely because I couldn’t ignore that sickening feeling of knowing better. It seems likely that peak popularity involves pushing that feeling aside, making your position and what it requires feel inevitable rather than a daily choice.

I thought I left the Horse Girls behind when I joined the popular crew, but I carried with me the experience of female friendships sans cruelty. And while I found myself able to be cliquey and cruel in fourth grade, I think those earlier experiences made me less willing to endure endless rounds of it. For better or worse, I’ve always responded to authority figures, and teachers’ disappointment in our behavior got to me in a way that Grace, Ruby, and Meg seemed immune to.

Meg was most candid about the way popularity didn’t just fall into anyone’s lap and, instead, required careful maintenance. “It was almost like an evaluation every year, like, who are we gonna let be friends with us?” she said, adding, “Because it’s a challenge to get into it so you feel privileged to be a part of it.” Grace and Ruby were a bit more skeptical. Ruby pointed out that now one of the Horse Girls is friends with a Cool Boy and she, herself, is friends with a semi-loser from our high school. (They talk twice a week on the phone.) “Do you guys ever think that we thought we were cool but maybe it wasn’t necessarily like we were the cool girls, it was just like in our minds that was the way it was, but, in actuality, it wasn’t really that way?” Grace asked, like a former cool girl would.

I knew she was wrong, but in a way I’d never be able to convince her of, because she didn’t know what it felt like to be kicked out of the Spice Girls group, to desperately hope you’d get to borrow the Malibu shirt, to have a Hot Boy grinding against you but to be focusing instead on the girl you knew was doing it right and to try, as hard as you could, to copy her without appearing to. Even now, I wonder, upon reading this, what they will think.

Talking to the Popular Girls, 20 Years Later