“High School Popularity Contests” and the “Politics of the ‘Like'”

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty, and there is strength.”
– Dr. Maya Angelou

Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.
~ Mahatma Gandhi

Since the start of this year, I had been listening to music from my high school years, in the late 90s and early 2000s. I know, I’m super old school.

I mean, here I am in the ‘blogosphere,’ when everybody’s eyes are on 15 second Reels. Blogging isn’t dead, though. If the printed word isn’t dead, neither is the blog. But I digress. 😊

It was the music I had to enjoy in secret. Within my imagination and my heart. I wouldn’t dare bob my head to the music, resisting the natural tendency, according to the “motor theory of perception”. I wouldn’t dare sway my hips, or attempt to lip sync the lyrics…. Because it was the music I was “not permitted” to enjoy.  It just wasn’t my place.

The song that seemed to be on repeat throughout this year for me was “Iris,” by Goo Goo Dolls: https://youtu.be/NdYWuo9OFAw

I think this song came out the year I entered into High School. I had been listening to it along with a few other songs from that time, reflecting on the 20 years…

My “invisibility” would often make me think that I wasn’t allowed to enjoy the popular music among other things in the way others would. But I really connected to this song and especially this verse:

“Yeah you’d bleed just to know you’re alive. When everything’s meant to be broken, I just want you to know who I am.” 

You just lack confidence, Elsa. That’s it. You just lack confidence. That’s what people might/would say to a shy, timid, reserved, bullied, defeated, depressed young brown Muslim girl. To hide the “inconvenient truth.” That if indeed there is a lack of confidence, it wasn’t just an internal issue. There may be “externalities” that contributed to it, in which we too often sweep under the rug. 

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is the difference of opinion that makes horse races”
– Mark Twain

My 20-year high school graduation anniversary was earlier this summer, June 5th. 20 years. Wow. And there was a 20-year reunion a few weeks ago. It seemed like a lovely celebration. I didn’t go, I was not in town, and I had my responsibilities on my job, and just too many other things on my plate.

I wrote about what the “20 Years” mark meant for me a little less than a year ago, with reference to September 11th in this piece here: http://www.warrioretkqueen.com/twenty-years/.

And for my 20th Anniversary, I was, by chance, present in my hometown in Wisconsin. That day, I did visit my high school.  I drove ‘vigorously’ around the empty parking lot. Lol. It was a Sunday so schools were closed. I couldn’t run through the hall of the highschool, break down the double doors and scream on top of my lungs. 😊

Again, that wasn’t even “my place.”

I wanted to write and share this post at that time, but unfortunately with my new chapter in life, couldn’t put the energy into it. Indeed, there are just bigger battles and issues to address these days, and so many more mountains to climb, and we have to pick and choose the right obstacles and hurdles to give our attention to. But one cannot help but stop and reflect on something like a 20-year anniverary of high school, at a personal level. A 20-year mark of any kind can definitely make you take a step back, and then push forward even stronger, like a slingshot. And even with so much on my plate right now, I really believe since I started this piece earlier this year, as most things I start, I do need to see it through and finish writing it, even if it is a little later than intended, even if does not translate from the mind the way we imagine. And having my graduation of my doctoral program over as well (it was split three different semesters), and the one-year anniversary since my doctoral defense, and still not quite healed after such a tremendous journey, I do need to just rip this bandaid off.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
– Verna Myers

This piece cannot be what I envisioned this to be, as I bring in my personal experience more than the data I had hoped to research, to back it up. But I am hoping my personal experiences can be relatable to some others who’ve had similar experiences in the American education system, particularly those who are minorities or people with disabilities, etc. And I have been wanting to write about this topic of “popularity” and it’s connection to what I believe to be a ‘conflicting’ concept with popularity, and to what has become an increasingly “popular” idea, called “social inclusion.” 

During my doctorate studies, I explored the science of Network Dynamics, and studying social network analysis “connected-the-dots” for me in many ways (pun intended). I took some classes during my doctoral studies, and I also created two different directed reading syllabi on social capital and social network analysis, which I hope to turn into real courses someday. When you study networks as a science, you see the ubiquitous nature of human relations and structures, and you start to see it everywhere. I know now, when I break away from it, that it can go away, but some of the basic concepts, particularly the intuition and the skill that you develop, never goes away. Especially when you realize that you always had that intuition for group dynamics, and always had the brain that analyzed these networks from the get-go. I realized I had the intuition and skill for this since before High School.

“Diversity in the world is a basic characteristic of human society, and also the key condition for a lively and dynamic world as we see today.”
– Jintao Hu

Seeing “networks” everywhere can be a good and a bad thing. It is great to be able to have that understanding of social relations; how power, influence, and relational dynamics are at play in various types of groups. The drawback for some of us “socially awkward social scientists,” is that studying networks can reveal one’s own influence to thyself in their very own networks. And sometimes, it is not fun for some of us to know how low our “eigenvector centrality scores” actually are. 🙂 Sometimes it can be quite depressing.

And in today’s world, when your powerful tweets, Facebook posts, are not “liked” by powerful “algorithms” or brought to the attention of more influential accounts/people on social media, it can be quite disappointing and especially negatively impactful for your mental health. Many studies have indicated how social media negatively impacts our mental health. I know I have personally felt it at times too.

In an increasingly virtual world, I did not anticipate that our virtual realities could possibly manifest our ‘truths,’ in both how we present ourselves online and how the world interprets it, ultimately placing us in categories and boxes based on what’s on the surface of who we are. And the “likes”, “emojis”, “comments” tell us a lot about how people see us and how people take interest in us, or what types of elements of our identity most people prefer to engage. The lack of engagement, or the engagement with specific posts over others also can speak louder than words. Perhaps that is how YouTubers and content creaters nail the algorithms and expand their reach, targeting the audiences based on what most of their viewers prefer to engage, sometimes despite the type of content the creator actually prefers to create. 

In some ways, it is indeed an “inconvenient truth.” But the more we understand this, especially for the education of future generations whose entire life will be on social media, the better we can tackle the negative impacts that come from it (cyber bullying, online popularity contests, pain and disappointment from ‘online rejection,’ ‘evil eyes’ behind the screens (jealousy/envy), etc).

But beyond the virtual world, I didn’t realize when I was leaving High School that so much of the challenges of group dynamics, of ‘popularity contests,’ of ‘social exclusion,’ and ‘belonging’ in groups, existed on every level and domain of education and professional life. I didn’t realize the science of this until I studied social networks and the notion of “influence” and how much relationships matter in policy making circles and development programs.

And from the social-psychological and anthropological perspective, having now spent three decades of my life in the education system in the United States (no I am not an international exchange student, yes, I am a born and raised American Citizen), I have come to the conclusion, sometimes the hard way, that there is much truth to this commonplace maxim “high school never leaves you.”

“Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.” – Archbishop Desmond tutu

Surely we grow and we change. Surely, I have changed in 20 years since my high school graduation. But it has intrigued me, at least at the personal level, how so many of the dynamics, particularly with respect to social inclusion, diversity, and equitable opportunities, stay with you. I remember being so involved, and so everywhere in high school. But it was never enough to make the impact that I felt it could potentially have had. It was never enough.

Does personality matter? I have been trying to address this question throughout my entire life on so many realms. Was it because I had a personality disorder, because my personality was not “popular,” because I had mental illness, and because I was brown, Muslim, and had issues with speaking because of my anxiety? If so, than perhap that is one element that I have been working on changing all my life. Reading a creative writing class project 50-page memory book, I see how much I wanted to change back then, because I knew something was “wrong,” with the way I was treated, and with my personality. I just didn’t know what it was back then. 

I didn’t realize that “the High School popularity contest” was something so ingrained in our social existence, and that I would experience the externalities of the conflict between “popularity” vs. “social inclusion” at every level of my education, even from elementary and middle school, high school, college, Masters, and to the doctorate level education.

I remember sitting in a meeting about “diversity and inclusion” at our University, and making a comment about how the doctoral program sometimes feels like high school, lacking a sense of camaraderie and community, with respect to the insular nature of groups and our inability to “connect.” A professor actually agreed with me and literally stated that the School, even among Professors, felt like high school at times. At a student group meeting, I brought up the issue of “social inclusion” and diversity. Few students looked at me pleased. Others, particularly those running the meeting, not so much. 

As I implied earlier, I look at the current generations in high school right now and I have much advice I would love to impart to them. I think it is important to share the harsh lessons of life to high school students ready to “take on the real world,” and let them know that there are indeed features of High School social dynamics that cut across every aspect of life. And that for many of us, fighting for “inclusion” may be a life-long battle across various spaces and domains. 

I want to be more positive about this, but it is important to also be realistic. If we are talking about “high school cliques”, they can exist in every body or organization or community. Personally, I must say that I never felt a belonging to any “clique”, at any level of education. I had friends, but I never established a “core.”

I don’t think this is anything new, what I am sharing in this post. I think there are issues to be made aware of…. And this is not to offend anyone, but rather to raise awareness and perspective and understanding on social structures that may dominate our ways of life, and always have dominated.  

Naturally, it is human to desire to be loved, liked, appreciated, valued, and be known for our talents, expertise, and strengths, but sometimes, especially in a world where everyone is screaming for attention, where it is easier to be seen, hence more and more people want to be seen and make their voice count and matter, it just won’t happen for everyone.

At a personal level, perhaps I have felt “excluded” many times in my life (sometimes perceived admittedly, but other times evidentially), and it probably started from being the middle child and being the black sheep of my own family. But I cannot say it was just a feeling much of the time. Even feelings come from somewhere, no? I have had to fight for my own social inclusion, and in some cases, fighting for your “inclusion” may make “the exclusion” even more prominent. I failed in many ways that are becoming more and more apparent to me nowadays.

While some of it may just be perception, I feel I had been defiant of this painful reality when it is more than just perception. This defiance has led to a great depression at times. 

And In this era of diversity, equity, inclusiveness, and accessibility, I had hoped I would start to feel a little different, but perhaps the pain is just too deep. When you are in spaces where you are not appreciated for the value you truly possess, it can be dispiriting and a very painful experience. I thought it would change after getting the PhD. 

Yes, we are indeed more than who we were in high school. And we are always growing. But I don’t think I am the only one out there who recognizes that there are elements of those same social, structural, relational dynamics that translate to all spaces and environments.  That concept, “high school never leaves you,” extends to the various aspects of your social connectivity including social media online. For many, the entire education system works against them and requires a lot more effort than others to defeat barriers. For many, high school years were not just the worst years of our lives, it was the entire education system that was working against us. With respect to diversity, equity, inclusion efforts, we cannot be inclusive unless we understand the social dynamics at the level of the classroom and at the earliest stages of our interactions. Inclusion starts from the classroom. 

“Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.” – Kimberle Williams Crenshaw


I didn’t go to my high school reunion. I believe it is important to “show up” no matter if we don’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. And I would certainly have joined if I was in town. However, I can say that sharing this in some way is “showing up.”

Here is my Facebook story, which shares my high school Senior photos and some other personal reflections which I tried to embed a bit here in this post, but won’t rehash the details, so here it is: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10158507413896572&id=634201571 

I will note, from that post, that high school was difficult for me not only because of the ‘invisibility,’ but because of my depression. I had my first suicide attempt in High School. It is hard for many to go back to those moments.

But This will not be YOUR story. You are always rewriting it, and you can rewrite it again and again and again, even if you end up right back where you started again and again and again. You can “change your stars.” The world around you may not have seen your growth and strength. You need to see it.

And I’m not starting from the bottom, or starting over. I’m simply reflecting. The healing process after something so difficult like a doctorate degree, can be challenging for many who struggled through it in very difficult circumstances, and especially when you never had such a drastic transition in your life before, hence this type of pain is new. So you reflect, you dig deep in your past to try to understand it. 

Through the rejection, the bullying, the marginalization… Yes, we moved forward to big things… but as we move forward, those traumas dont have to be erased… We accept them. But is our experience then with them repeated over and over again?

A few months ago, I asked this question on my social media feeds and will share it here: What is our effort for social inclusion if we don’t take a moment to open our hearts and minds to our differences, our unique and collective challenges? Inclusion is a structural and cognitive phenomenon, that involves structural and cognitive solutions.


I wrote in my memory book that I was sad about leaving High School without making any impact at all on anyone. Do people remember me? That shy, timid, “invisible” but ambitious brown girl, with a mental illness and personality disorder she didn’t understand at that time? I know now that most don’t. But my creative writing teacher who gave me an A+ on this assignment, responded to my comment stating:

“I don’t think you failed in making an impact in high school. I think you have made a big difference. Start with the fact that you respect others and truly believe that everyone should be given respect for who they are and not what they are. Your work with Amnesty International as well as your actions every day have backed up this belief of yours. That is a huge difference!”

It was nice to be reminded that while focusing on those who forget us, we sometimes end up forgetting those who remember us, or who do see us. 


Dr. Brene Brown mentioned the following about “Invisibility” in her book Atlas of the Heart:

“Given that we are all here to be seen, known, and loved, invisibility is one of the most painful human experiences. I define invisibility as a function of disconnection and dehumanization, where an individual or group’s humanity and relevance are unacknowledged, ignored, and/or diminished in value or importance.”  

We are all here, to be seen, to be known, to be loved. I’d like to talk about invisibility more another time. But my poem that I wrote when I was 14, before entering into high school, called “Invisible,” demonstrates some understanding and perhaps intuition I had for all this at that time. 

It goes back to the Goo Goo Dolls …. “I just want you to know who I am.” 

It is natural to want to be seen for who you are, and when you are seen for something you are not, or deemed invisible, it can be extremely painful. Sometimes there is sadness and there is anger when you give so much love and heart to things and get nothing back, but you have to keep giving anyway.

Society encourages you to be authentic, speak your truth, and demonstrate authenticity in every way, because that is when you may experience freedom. But it rewards “authenticity” to a select few when it comes to “who really matters” in the world, and hence makes it harder for others to be authentic without those networks of support. 

The problems with diversity exist everywhere. I admire the institutions and organizations that identify and admit to these problems within, more than focusing on the success stories and sharing what they are doing on those fronts to advance efforts towards greater social inclusion. I admire a much greater emphasis on reflexivity.

And in an era of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), I will raise my glass to the ‘outcasts,’ the persons with disabilities (invisible and visible), the bullied, the marginalized, the minorities, women of color, and all others who struggle to have there voice matter, in a world that may leave them behind. 

I am not sure if we can live in a world where this concept of “popularity” and the notion of “social inclusion” can co-exist. However, it would be myopic of me to suggest a complete eradication of the notion of popularity.

But any social change in the psyche must begin with inward reflection and an inward revolution.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“Inclusive efforts” barely existed when I was in high school or where I went to high school. Many struggled and continue to struggle in High school to find their place and belonging. 

I will always be reminded to take comfort in Dr. Maya Angelou’s powerful words about belonging:
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

As I have sought freedom from the pain that has made me want to end my life and kept me alive… Going forward…and forward I must go… I intend to make every single place … “my place” of belonging.

Happy Suicide Prevention Week (Sept 4-10), and Happy Suicide Prevention Month! 

Here is a Flashback video from last year (about suicide prevention DC event) which I just posted on YouTube:


Thank you for listening and reading, and giving my voice, among the many voices out there…., a chance. 

Stay Empowered. Stay Resilient. Stay “Connected.”

Peace, warmth, and blessing, 

Your Sister, 

Dr. Elsa, Warrior Queen

“She wasn’t looking for a Knight, she was looking for a Sword.” – Atticus




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