Inside the Brown Bag

The Advice

By Peg Brown

It certainly is way too late for me—about 55 years too late. However, with my seventieth birthday just a few months away, I thought I’d just buy it anyway—Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide. As it turns out, the guide was originally published in 1953—certainly in time for me to have taken full advantage of its sage wisdom written by fashion model who had contracts throughout the 1940s and 1950s with such prestigious firms as the Ford Modeling Agency in New York City.

I probably would never have known about the guide had not a recent newspaper article caught my eye — “Teen follows ‘50s popularity guide and it works (minus the girdle).” Apparently a 13-year-old from Brownsville, Texas, who considered herself “one step above substitute teachers,” found the guide and, deciding she had nothing to lose, secretly followed it for a year, recording her experiences as she conducted her experiment. As she implemented Cornell’s suggestions, her popularity grew, she found herself with more friends, and—you guessed it—wrote a book about her experiences called Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek! by Maya Van Wagenen.

Anticipating I could pick up some pointers that might move me up a few notches in the popularity rankings of my high school class, and with just a few weeks to prepare for my seventieth, I ordered the original book from Amazon.

Chapter I—Introduction: A good start. Betty started her modeling career posing for “tubby teen pictures.” So far, I can identify. Next nugget — “recognize that success is up to you.” So far, so good. I was always a control freak.

Chapter 2—Figure Problems: Oh, oh. I sense a challenge. “What you feared has come to pass, what a popped button or a pulled seam has been plainly insinuating for some time, is true: you are overweight.” The executive summary of the rest of that chapter—deal with it. After wading through sample menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner as suggested by Betty, and looking at my high school picture, I realized that I had failed this chapter in my bid to become popular in high school.

On to Chapter 3—Skin Problems: I was lucky as a teen—I didn’t have too many skin problems that a good cleaning or a good squeeze couldn’t solve.

Chapter 4—Hair: On this point, I felt I must have scored some popularity points in my youth. I inherited a thick head of hair—unfortunately, it was not blond—but it was most often clean, neat and coiffed. According to Betty, I did miss choosing the best hairstyle for my round face—it should have been long, “styled with interest at the top,” smoothed away from the face and simple. I probably got half credit on this point in the popularity department.

Chapter 5—Makeup: I didn’t even read this chapter. I was and still am a complete washout when it comes to makeup. I still consider wearing lipstick and mascara to be a sign that I am attending something akin to a royal coronation. Definitely a popularity demerit.

Chapter 6—Good Grooming: I think I must have picked up a few popularity points here. I used deodorant, shaved my legs (well, not so much in the winter when I wore knee socks), always had fresh underwear—and yes, wore a girdle to school every day of my life beginning in junior high as Betty suggested. She also advises teens to wear bras—like I had a choice in that department—chubby, remember. I also polished my shoes (I actually got my own shoe-shining kit at age 7—what was that about?), wore slips, fastened my nylons to the garter belt at the reinforced top and ironed my clothes.

Chapter 8—Clothes: Thanks to my Mother, I probably scored points here. I was definitely the tailored type and most of my clothes reflected that style—except for the red crinolines. I did have classic basics as the core of my wardrobe—and when I didn’t, I raided my Mother’s sweater drawer after she left for work. I was given to indulging in a bit of “frou-frou,” but in general my choice in clothes would probably be best described as—OK—boring—but consistent!!

Chapter 9—What to Wear Where: This actually wasn’t a problem. We had to wear skirts or dresses to school (not even allowed to wear those risqué culottes). I had decent underwear, although I didn’t have what Betty describes as the prerequisite black bra—that came later (wink, wink). I definitely never wore what Betty describes as “the tawdry, the tinselly, the tacky.” (Not that I wasn’t occasionally tempted.) I had a few going to church ensembles and formal wear that was in keeping with the norm of the day. What I didn’t have (and Betty almost considers these indispensable), was a strand of pearls—a strand of REAL pearls. All in all, I think I must have picked up a few more points in this category.

Chapter 10—Money (How to Earn Extra) and Chapter 11—On the Job, I just skipped. Other than baby-sitting, I never had a job in high school and, very fortunately, I didn’t have to rely on that income to build a wardrobe.

Chapter 12—Look Pretty—Be Pretty: Betty’s point here—be nice to everyone—you’ll be more popular. I know as I’ve aged, I scored fewer points in this category. Let’s leave it at that.

I skipped most of the rest of the book, glancing casually at the calorie list, illustrations of suggested exercises, directions on writing personal thank you notes, how to behave away from home (who traveled ever?), and being shy—never one of my problems.

Having read this guide, albeit too late in life, where did I fall on the popularity meter oh so long ago? The top tier of popular classmates was, as today, as always—the athletes. And in my day, they were mostly male—with the exception of the cheerleaders. So, not Tier I.

Tier II were the “cool kids”—best defined as those who shared friends in upper classes, knew all the new dances, always got invited to the in-parties and the prom, served as class officers, shared secrets in the girls’ bathroom, had the best clothes and were fairly good students. Although, the class clowns were always part of this group.

Tier III—The smart kids. Here’s where it starts to get fuzzy. There was much cross over between these top three Tiers—athletes were class officers—so were smart kids. All were well groomed. So here’s where it gets confusing.

Unlike Maya, I was not bullied, I think I was a step above substitute teachers—I was never part of the athletic crowd (except when someone wanted to get on the good side of my Father, the coach); I was NEVER part of the “cool kids”—and, I did fairly well academically—but was well out of reach of the really smart crowd.

On second thought, maybe Betty’s book wouldn’t have helped improve my popularity ranking after all.

What did I learn in preparation for my next two decades? I’m wearing my pearls—but I am ditching the girdle!