High school is forever

High school is forever, writes Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine. Teens are stuck with an identity — nerd, princess, jock, brain, rebel — that sticks with them, in some form, even after they move into the adult world.

Until the Depression, most American adolescents worked alongside adults, Senior writes. Now they live in a world of adolescents that she calls “corrosive” and “traumatizing.”

Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

In 2000, three psychologists asked tenth-graders which Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be. At age 24, the self-evaluations were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors.

. . .  one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.

My identity was formed long before high school. People thought I was smart and funny. Since many of my classmates were Jewish, good students were admired, not teased. Middle school was socially challenging, but I survived. (I was voted “girl most likely to succeed” in eighth grade, though they didn’t specify in what.) High school was tracked, which I loved. I wrote for the school newspaper, yearbook, literary magazine and Student Stunts. Was it really that awful for the average kid? Perhaps I was just lucky.

About Joanne


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    I read the article and wish I could have my 20 minutes back.

    “At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls..”

    Stupid false choice.

    Most girls don’t easily fall into one or the other categories. Most of the popular girls I went to high school with were both pretty and smart – maybe not valedictorian smart, but college ready smart. Looks and brians aren’t mutually exclusive. Maintaining a position of (pathetic) power in high school takes a certain amount of native intelligence. Issue of class and socio-economics play a significant roll as well.

  2. How these categories fit together varies so much by location…where I went to K-8, the popular kids were college-prep, and the band and brains folks that I was friends with were on the periphery of that…if you weren’t too much of a social climber, you were probably pretty happy. I moved several states away…and found that the brains where into drugs and drinking, while the band kids were pretty clean cut. I stuck with my band friends, who encouraged me to work hard even if they didn’t. By the time I started school in 9th grade, apparently I knew who I was enough to find a fit where there wasn’t really one.

  3. I stopped reading at this:

    which Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be.

    Once your limits have been set by a bunch of aged, pop-culture movie stereotypes… well, it just doesn’t seem like science any more. Maybe the researchers are 1990s HS grads?

  4. The problem with labels is obvious–they are rarely encyclopedic. Most kids straddle a couple of different social groups in high school.

    For example, as a high schooler, I was a three letter a year athlete (cross country, soccer and track & field) so I ran (literally and figuratively) with athletes. But at the same time, I excelled in some academic areas (sciences and history) such that I also ran with the so-called brainy crowd.

    My first high school may have been more socially stratified, in part because of its sheer size of over 4,000 students. My second high school, being much smaller (about 1600 students) the social strata were not nearly as defined and so there is not as much stratification or labeling.

    Yeah, high school can be traumatic on so many levels, but when sociologists buy into the labels–how is it to be addressed?