For the June 3 cover story of Newsweek, writer Susannah Meadows returned to her former high school in El Cajon, California, to see how girls treat each other. She found that participation in church and youth group is a common trait for those who are confident and happy.
Her article, "Meet the Gamma Girls," comes in the wake of recent books that portray high schools as a mean, brutal world of teenage girl popularity. In Queen Bees & Wannabes, author Rosalind Wiseman breaks the high school social scale into two definitions: the "queen bees" and the "wannabes." The former are powerful popular girls who rule the school, while the latter are those who aggressively attempt to be the queen bee.
Washington Post writer Laura Sessions Stepp also recently picked up on the high school and middle school culture of queen bees and wannabes or "alphas" and "betas." She added a third category to the list: "gammas." Explains Meadows: "Gammas don't long to be invited to parties—they're too busy writing an opinion column in the school paper or surfing and horseback riding … [A gamma girl is] defined by what she does, rather than by her popularity rating."
The Newsweek piece profiles a handful of gammas who are independent, friendly, and emotionally healthy students active in sports, extracurricular activities, and their family lives. Gamma girls regularly attend youth group and their values "are bolstered by open discussion at church and a strong faith."
In ten years of working with Young Life, a national evangelistic ministry targeting high school students, Orlando area director O.J. Aldrich has seen the active pursuit of popularity actually decrease among high school girls. He attributes part of that success (as does the Newsweek article) to a rise in female sports. This gives girls a place they can be themselves and an instant social group. Meadows writes that youth ministries serve the same purpose for gammas, but what about alphas and betas?
Young Life attracts a wide mix of high school girls, Aldrich says, but by the nature of its work, it tends to attract more alphas and betas than gammas.
"With Young Life, we are really going after a lot of the kids who may not go to a typical youth ministry," Aldrich says. "We tend to get a lot of the popular kids or ones that are really trying to be. Ninety percent of what we do is being present at schools. At sporting events, at the social gatherings at school, at the mall, the girls that are there are very much the social-scene girls."
Reaching out to these groups, especially betas, is important. "The interaction our leaders have with those that are trying so hard to be popular is very significant because someone accepts them for who they are," Aldrich says. "That group is probably the one we see the biggest change in when they accept Christ. It is a radical change that they are not chasing after these things. They hear there is a God who loves them where they are at."
A youth group environment is also important for the queen bees. "For the ones that are already popular, they feel life is pretty full for them," Aldrich says. "They don't see a need for God in their life until they really hear the gospel or until they are in a setting where some of the stuff they rely on all the time fades away."
When given the gospel, alphas and betas tend to react differently, Aldrich says. "The alphas hear the gospel in terms of the emptiness of popularity, and that they are chasing after something," he says. "They can come to a place of acceptance in Christ. Betas find acceptance, but there's also this comfort that they are okay. Christ allows them to be whole."
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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For more articles on trends among young people and ministry, see our Youth archive.
Last month, Christianity Today profiled rock group Superchic[k], a band aimed at helping teens (especially girls) graduate from high school with their self-esteem and individual identities intact.