Monday, December 7, 2015

BOOK REPORT : A Popularity Guide

A few years ago I started a mother/daughter book club with a few literary loving friends and their book adoring girls. We all have daughters about the same age and thought it would be fun to let them each take turns picking an age-appropriate book and read it together and then join up for food and conversation. Some guidelines were set forth:
  • No more than about 300 pages
  • Ideally no one in the group has read it before
  • Also ideally, there have to be several copies available in the Boise Public Library system
  • We have around two months to finish each book
 
The book selector and mom host the book club and are in charge of assigning dishes for the potluck dinner, selecting the date, and organizing the discussion questions. We've read some amazing books and done cool things together to celebrate them - like reading The Giver and then going to see the movie and assigning everyone to bring an object from home that they think defines "art" to them for our discussion of Chasing Vermeer.

photo courtesy of www.dispatch.com
 

This past month Brigette and Sage, one of our six mama/daughter pairs, picked the 2014 book Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, a memoir by Maya Van Wagenen. Maya was 14-years-old when she picked up a thrifted copy of the 1950s Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide and decided to read it and give Betty's outdated advice a go during her 8th grade year as a social experiment. Maya was an introverted geek, she says, and secretly took on a different chapter in Betty's book each month of the academic year and journaled about it. From hair to clothes, good grooming to earning money, Maya tried out some of Betty's tips in an effort to see if 60+ year old advice from a mid-century fashion model still held true. And, would it, in fact, make her more popular?

Betty Cornell's book was out of print, I believe, until 2014, when Maya's project inspired a reissuing of it. You can find it at a few bookstores and on Amazon.com, but it's nowhere in our local public library system, so I haven't read it in its entirety. In addition to the quotes printed in Popular, I have found some chapters online, and it's pretty archaic, shallow, and body shaming, to say the least. Some excerpts from her Introduction and chapter 2, "Figure Problems:"

I was accepted as a model, but not for glamorous poses. My early modeling consisted of posing for tubby teen pictures. I soon learned there was not much future in being a tubby teen. So at sixteen I took stock of my situation and decided to really go to work on myself.

I did all the things that you will read about later in this book. I went on a sensible diet, cut out between-meal nibbling (I used to eat enough between meals to satisfy an army), did daily exercises, cleared up my complexion, and styled my hair. And with the help of my family, including Bob, and the advice of my friends and fellow-models, I learned how best to cope with the social situations that came up in both my private and my professional life. At the end of my self-improvement campaign, I was no longer a tubby teen in every sense of the term, I was a real junior-size model with a lot of self-confidence.

The reason I say it’s fun is that every girl, I don’t care who she may be, wants to be attractive and popular. To get to be that kind of girl, all you have to do is try some of my suggestions. They work. What I did, you can do too. I found that the best way to tackle the job is to recognize that success is up to you. If you put real elbow grease into acquiring beauty, poise and polish, you’ll find it pays off with more dates, more fun, more good times. Gee, what more could anyone ask?

But just because your body is restless and refuses to settle down is no reason to despair of having a good figure. It is a question of mind over matter. Start by intelligently figuring out your figure problem. Find out about your body. Are you large-boned or small-boned? Is your tendency toward longness and leanness or to shortness and plumpness? Stand before your mirror and contemplate yourself from head to toe. Fish out the measuring tape and take statistics.

Statistics are alarmingly accurate. Chances are when you take yours you will wish they weren’t so. Those extra pounds that you guessed you might have gained are unequivocally recorded on the tape measure. 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.

Now overweight is nothing to be alarmed about. It is easy enough to do something about it and do something about it sensibly. Don’t lose your head and go on a starvation diet. First talk the matter over intelligently with your family and your doctor. It may be that your extra pounds have come about because of a glandular disturbance. It is more probable that they are a result of overeating. But never take the chance of upsetting your body routine by a silly diet. Always check first with your doctor before you make any plans to lose weight. When you get his O.K., then and only then diet, and diet under his supervision.

Betty goes on to give lots of dieting tips, including full on restricted meal plans, a few of which Maya does try out in the book, but quickly realizes how crappy the diet makes her feel, how she can't think straight, and decides it wasn't worth it for the 1-3 lbs she lost that month. She also wears pearls and white gloves to school, takes on a babysitting job, tries out makeup for the first time, and steps out of her comfort zone by eating lunch at table with a group of kids outside of her social standing and going to prom without a date. Maya is quirky and honest, funny and shy, smart and thoughtful, and takes Betty's old-fashioned wisdom in stride, which is what I loved about her so much. She learns that being true to herself is the most essential, and that being popular means something different to everyone and, maybe, isn't that important after all. In the end, everyone in Maya's rural Texas school near the Mexican border knows who she is and likes her, for her weird way of dressing and her noteworthy actions in the lunchroom. She resonates with one particular bit of wisdom from Betty Cornell, that I do, too:

Being pretty and attractive does help you to be popular, but being pretty and attractive does not and never can guarantee that you will be popular. There is another factor, a very important factor, and that is personality. Personality is that indescribable something that sets you off as a person. It is hard to explain but easy to recognize.

photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/popularthememoir
 
Lucy and I loved this book, and I looked forward every night to cuddling up in my bed and taking turns reading chapters out loud to one another. We laughed about Maya's nerdy professor father and her sweet autistic sister. We cringed at some of the mean kids at her school and related to Maya's thrift store shopping. I ripped up strips of an old tee shirt and put Lucy's hair into rag rollers and we tried to close up our pores with ice cubes at night just like Maya did. These sorts of mother/daughter bonding moments are significant, but the best part about reading this book with her were the discussions we had about being introverted or extroverted, pretty or plain, nerdy or cool, popular or unpopular, and how all of them are just fine ways to be.

That blurry disembodied hand is Lucy sprinkling crushed candy canes on our tiny personal sized bundt cakes. How perfect are our 1950s cake carriers, right?

Last night all twelve of us donned our best (or fake) pearls and cardigans and discussed the book over noodle casserole, classic Jello salad, Betty Crocker's Candy Cane Cake, vintage soda in bottles, deviled eggs and celery stuffed with pimento cheese. We heard from our preteens/teens that this popularity and group/clique stuff is real and consequential, as is your appearance in junior high school. The girls laughed as they took turns trying on my faux Spanx girdle (that I wore once and WTF NEVER AGAIN) and posed for silly photos. Serious conversations were had about how far body positivity has come since the 1950s, how dangerous dieting can be, how it's okay to be shy, and how you don't owe anything to a boy who takes you on a date except a polite thank you. We talked about how maybe it's more important to be kind than popular, and how maybe being inclusive and real can make you popular. Stories were shared about how overrated being pretty is in this country and how our lives are more enriched by being passionate, intellectual, and thoughtful.

 
 
While none of us came out as big fans of Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide in the end, we certainly came out big fans of Popular, and of Maya Van Wagenen. I follow the young author on Twitter and liked her Facebook fan page, and sent her a photo and a note thanking her for her wisdom and honesty, and for being a role model as a writer and a human being. She may not be super pretty nor popular, but we all know there are more important things in life to be, and that beauty and kindness are far more than skin deep. Kind of like a few other girls I know.

1 comment:

  1. Cute photos :)
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    Maria V.

    ReplyDelete