Why is it so important to be popular?

Adolescence (12–18) Read more from
Chapter Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Adolescents are in the process of establishing their own identity while also establishing independence from their parents. Adolescent fashion trends often reflect these dual goals. Many styles that become popular with adolescents reflect rejection of basic adult norms and assumptions about self-presentation. For example from earliest childhood, parents teach their children that clothes should be neat, clean, orderly, and attractive, and should promote a socially acceptable image. In contrast, consider the adolescent fashions of the 1960s in which clothes were ripped and tattered and hair was long and shaggy. In the hip-hop style, which has lasted with some changes since the 1980s, clothes are baggy and fit poorly, modeled after the belt-less pants of incarcerated prisoners. The goth style promotes a morbid image of violence and religious transgression. These rebellious styles often exude a good deal of vitality, and frequently become absorbed (and diluted) into mainstream fashion.

More than ever before, adolescents are highly attuned to the dynamics of the social group. We are all familiar with the phenomena of cliques, popularity, peer pressure, and terms such as “coolness” and “geekiness.” These all represent aspects of adolescent social organization. Just as wolf packs organize into hierarchies of social status, so do human societies. In adolescence, when children move away from their parents toward membership in a new social group, these markers of social organization become acutely important. Boundaries between the in group and the out group and between the elite and low status individuals are communicated fluently through a system of ever-changing symbols. Group etiquette and rituals are reflected in language, clothing, cars, electronic gadgets, and taste in music.

Adults are constantly astonished at the importance placed on a seemingly trivial distinction in shoe style, haircut, or method of folding a baseball cap, but woe to the adolescent who misses out on such distinctions. Why are adolescents so painfully obsessed with these signs of group acceptance and social status? If these are universal aspects of human social organization, why don’t adults place the same importance on popularity and peer acceptance? Adults are not immune to consideration of social status. Consider the market for luxury cars and designer clothes, as well as the importance of occupational and financial success to many adults’ self-esteem. However, adults can put such issues in greater perspective.

Unlike adolescents whose acute self-consciousness makes them magnify any social gaffe into world-shattering proportions, adults are more forgiving of their own and others’ social imperfections. They are also better able to distinguish between social relationships that truly matter to them and those that have less relevance to their daily lives.

Parents often are puzzled, and even worried, when their teenage children begin to dress unconventionally or change their appearance in other ways, but this is actually a very common expression of the search for self-identity (iStock).


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