On the day my mother gave birth to her one and only child, she weighed 118 pounds. On the day I gave birth to my first of two daughters, I weighed 181.
My mother also held me in her arms as she rode in the front seat of a sedan from Charleston Memorial Hospital to our Kanawha City home. A seat belt would’ve wrinkled her pre-pregnancy clothes, and she needed the freedom to move her arm to and from the ashtray so she could enjoy a familiar cigarette.
Somehow, I grew up without too many illnesses and injuries as a result of roiling around in the backseat of a station wagon and inhaling second hand Viceroys. But my mother’s 1950s influence crept back into my life when I became a teenager, from the size of my waist to the condition of my skin. There was no excuse for letting myself go. A “foundation” was to cover the face and a “foundation” was to flatten the midriff. Imperfections required immediate attention.
There were many of them. I didn’t inherit my mother’s (or my aunt’s) size 4 “figure”, and I didn’t inherit their alabaster skin. Luckily, most of the girls in my junior high were “built” like I was, so I didn’t notice the mess I was becoming due to erratic hormones. But those chemicals didn’t exist back in the day. No, ma’am. If you were fat and your skin was dry (or oily), it was because you ate the wrong foods and you had poor hygiene habits. Yes, ma’am. It was ALL YOUR FAULT.
Why am I reverting to such a painful time? Because those days are making a comeback. You can thank a woman named Betty Cornell for this return to old-fashioned adolescence. Or, you can hate her. But an ugly attitude won’t make you the most popular girl in your set, she says.
In Cornell’s updated Teen-Age Popularity Guide, the former model shares her secrets for knowing what to do and how to act in any situation at any time. “When you’re on parade all day, you learn pretty fast,” she writes. “You smooth off your rough edges in a hurry.”
Cornell believed in 1953 (and still preaches in 2014) that a teenage girl’s social success is all about poise. You don’t have to be the prettiest girl in school, but to be the most popular, you do have to be the most polished.
Polished? You may ask. Like your mother’s silver. Here are a few tips:
Weight: “If you are sensible, you won’t have any figure problems. You’ll watch yourself and catch any bulges or depressions before they have a chance to multiply.”
Skin problems: “Acne, of course, must be treated by a doctor since it involves more knowledge than any layman has. No teen-ager should take it upon herself to fool around with acne.”
Hair: “Beautiful hair is the most important thing a girl has. It can always overcome the handicap of a not-so-pretty face. Your hair can make or break you.”
Makeup: “Work under a strong light so you can see what you’re doing. That way, you can make sure you powder well up into the hairline and down into the area of the neck and ears. Don’t leave any high-water marks.”
Modeling tricks: “Above all, do not change your style before your photography appointment — such experiments may turn out too disastrously, and you don’t want to go down in history looking like a freak.”
Good grooming: “I am firmly of the opinion that almost every teen needs a girdle – not a whaleboned ironclad trap, but some sort of lightweight affair to the control the curves.”
Clothes: “You are wiser to buy clothes that fit the biggest part of you (probably your hips) than to fit your smallest part (probably your waist). Never buy clothes that fit like sausage skins with the intention of losing weight.”
What to wear where: “For Heaven’s sake: Have a little pity on others and a lot of pride in yourself. Put on a skirt when you’re shopping.”
Look pretty, be pretty: “Don’t think that you need to turn into a teacher’s pet. Nothing is farther from the truth. Polishing the apple never turned anybody into a better person.”
It’s a date: “Always remember that public display of affection (even to a fiancé) is never, never done.”
Personality: “If you want to be a popular human being, then you have to stop being an oyster and come out of your shell.”
So what do all of these rules and regulations have to do with becoming a popular girl? Cornell writes that it all comes down to a teen’s ability to get along with people, and that requires having her own life well in hand. And if nothing else, when the bread basket is passed, look the other way.
For most middle and high school girls, carbs are the least of their problems. In a day and age of an “I’ll try anything” insecurity, some teens actually believe model-turned-writer Betty Cornell is their last hope. At least, that’s how 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen felt when she tried every one of Cornell’s tips in an attempt to reverse her status at school. Now a published author (and much better known, if not envied by the movers and shakers), Van Wagenen described herself as among “the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be here.”
Citing Cornell’s book as “vintage wisdom”, the teen commented that she wrote the book Popular to change her own life and to save her little sister from a middle school world of hurt.
After all, no one said pin curls were easy.