Maya Van Wagenen's story puts popularity to the test

I was fascinated this week reading the story of Maya Van Wagenen, the 15-year-old American schoolgirl who’s found fame and fortune by following a self-help manual from the 1950s.

Van Wagenen is a self-described social outcast. For one year, when she was 13, she conducted an experiment in which she followed the advice of Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide to the letter and kept a diary of her progress. Cornell's book, written in 1951, covers topics such as posture, grooming and wearing pearls.

Van Wagenen is now a “literary sensation”, movie rights have been optioned and Time has hailed her as one of the most influential teenagers in America.

And, yes, she is more popular than she was before her experiment.

Here’s the rub. I can’t remember, and maybe it’s because after 35 years my memory is fading, ever having, as a teenager, the desire to be popular. Sure I wanted people to like me, I still do, but if people didn’t like me for who I was I wasn’t going to change for them.

I still live by that credo. I know I annoy some people, but the ones who really get you put up with a lot of stuff.


Perhaps in middle-class country NSW in the late 1970s there wasn’t a great social divide. There weren’t the jocks and the volleyball girls and the geeks and the gangs that Van Wagenen encountered in Texas. Or if you were in one group, you were in a couple of others as well, and no one had a permanent classification. That’s how I remember it at least.

I get it that kids want to fit in. No one wants to be an outcast. But when it comes down to it, did Van Wagenen do the right thing?

For me, the best thing to come out of it is that she actually stuck to something for a year, doing it, writing about it, and even now, a few years down the track, following it through, and even writing a novel as part of her two-book deal with the publishers. Anyone with children of a certain age knows that getting them to maintain interest in something for any period of time is a challenge.

But why should we promote this quest to be popular?

I know I said I wouldn’t write about a certain 13-year-old any more but I asked her about this one, and all is OK, and she said she didn’t know if she was popular and that it didn’t really matter if she wasn’t. She has a lovely group of friends, and in recent years she’s moved in and out of friendship groups without much trouble.

There have been some bumps along the way but working out where you fit in the world is all part of being a teenager. It shouldn’t be about changing to fit in where you think you should fit in. You’ll find your place.

The other 13-year-old in the news this week is Willow Smith, photographed in bed with a half-naked 20-year-old family friend, actor Moises Arias.

Her parents, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, are reportedly under investigation now, as the photograph, up briefly on social media, sparked a little controversy. Mum Jada had a spray, saying that people were projecting their own interpretation on to it, adding that both she and dad Will had no problem with it. That should be the end of the story.

Who knows their 13-year-old better than anyone else? Their parents. And whether or not the Smiths have a parenting philosophy different to your own is none of anyone’s business.

Willow Smith will grow up in her own time even if that time is a lot quicker than most.

And something else that keeps circulating on the edge of all this is the Twitter stream of Text Publishing which, this week, has linked to some terribly interesting discussions on books for young adult girls.

Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth About Alice, looks at the “bad girls” of YA fiction, from The Scarlet Letter to the Sweet Valley High books.

On Flavorwire Elisabeth Donnelly takes Caitlin Moran to task about Moran’s comments about the lack of YA books for girls that don’t involve them getting bitten by vampires. Donnelly even went as far as compiling a list of 15 Teen Feminist Books that girls should read. (I haven’t read any of them! But will keep the list with me for when my daughter is just a little older. Not quite sure she’s ready for the concept of slut-shaming just yet.)

So, by the end of the week my head is twirling with all sorts of things. Changing yourself to become popular, perspectives on inappropriateness and what we should be encouraging our daughters to read and why. And I came to the conclusion that we should just let our daughters be. And be there for them.