Did Sweet Valley High screw me up?

Grazia (UK) - - Contents - Au­thor Ge­or­gia Clark un­picks her child­hood ob­ses­sion with teen cult fic­tion se­ries ‘Sweet Valley High’

I’VE READ EV­ERY SIN­GLE Sweet Valley High book. Even the one where Jes­sica joins a cult run by dreamy Adam Marvel; and the one where El­iz­a­beth dates a were­wolf (he’s not); and even the one where Jess hooks up with a vam­pire (he’s not ei­ther). Grow­ing up in the bland Syd­ney sub­urbs with­out a TV, my life was de­press­ingly (ie, healthily) free of shiny, het­eronor­ma­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture. Un­til I dis­cov­ered Sweet Valley High at the age of 10. Racier than The Baby-sit­ters Club and fo­cused on one mode of beauty, SVH was a soapy, highly suc­cess­ful fic­tion se­ries of more than 600 ti­tles set in the sun­shine of Sweet Valley, Cal­i­for­nia. Think teen ro­mance, im­prob­a­ble drama and lots of Pg-rated pet­ting: it was an ’80s 90210. Through the lead char­ac­ters – iden­ti­cal twins El­iz­a­beth and Jes­sica Wake­field – the se­ries imag­ined two ide­alised parts of my pos­si­ble wom­an­hood, split down the mid­dle. I didn’t need to choose whether to be book­ish, smart and re­spon­si­ble (Liz) or bitchy, flirty and im­pul­sive (Jess). I could be both.

SVH was a time of dis­cov­ery. I had my first or­gasm af­ter read­ing about Bruce Pat­man’s hand on El­iz­a­beth’s breast (she’d bumped her head and had a com­plete per­son­al­ity change; this phe­nom­e­non would be re­versed af­ter bump­ing her head again). And it was in their pages that I learned about beauty. Beauty was

cas­cad­ing and smooth and it smelled like the beach. It was tanned and it was white. It was per­fect. And I was com­pletely un­threat­ened by it. Sixteen, the ages of the Bar­bie doll-es­que Wake­field twins, was aeons away. I didn’t think I would be­come a Wake­field: anything Amer­i­can smacked of un­re­al­ity; I was as likely to be­come a uni­corn. I just didn’t think their per­fec­tion had much to do with me.

I was wrong. Years later, I’d look in the mir­ror and be brought to tears. My skin wasn’t tanned. My eyes weren’t the colour of the Pa­cific Ocean, my smile wasn’t worth a mil­lion dol­lars, and I did not drive a red Fiat Spi­der. But I wasn’t an im­pres­sion­able tween or a moody teen. I was in my late-twen­ties. The feel­ing that I was a hideous troll, with some­thing pre­vent­ing me from ever be­ing truly loved, pressed in on me from all sides. I wept over the phone to my mother, ‘I’m ugly. I’m so ugly.’ ‘You’re not,’ she’d say help­lessly. ‘You’re just not.’ It begged the ques­tion: did Sweet Valley High screw me up?

Sadly, I was not alone in feel­ing un­happy with my ap­pear­ance. Ac­cord­ing to Brave Girls Want, a US al­liance ag­i­tat­ing for bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion of girls in cul­ture, 53% of 13-year-old girls are un­happy with their bod­ies. By the time they’re 17, 78% will be. When they’re adults, it’ll be 91%. Peek into any teen girl’s In­sta­gram and you’ll find the fol­low­ing comments un­der the ubiq­ui­tous selfie: ‘So pretty.’ ‘OMG stun­ning.’ ‘You’re killing it.’ ‘So beau­ti­ful.’ It is repet­i­tive fe­male af­fir­ma­tion and it is about one thing – how pretty you are. The fo­cus on the phys­i­cal is like a job we were all signed up for with­out our con­sent and aren’t al­lowed to quit.

It seems un­avoid­able that SVH – and its froth­ing ob­ses­sion with tight, tan skin and hair the colour of corn silk – laid the ba­sis for my adult life anx­i­eties. Or did it? Beauty is a dou­ble-edged sword: slic­ing our egos even as it shapes and sharp­ens them. A swipe of red lip­stick can brighten our day. Com­pli­ment­ing a co-worker’s skirt makes both her and you feel bet­ter. A per­ceived lack of beauty can make us feel crappy. But beauty is also how we con­nect with other women. It can soothe us. When get­ting ready for a big night out, it helps pump us up. It’s our ar­mour. I asked Au­tumn White­field-mad­rano, au­thor of Face Value: The Hid­den Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, whether SVH might have hurt me as a kid. She pointed out that as I’m blonde-haired and blueeyed, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, yes: ‘We’re more likely to be dis­sat­is­fied in com­par­i­son with some­one who is an ide­alised ver­sion of our­selves.’ She ex­plains that, ‘The fact they were twins mat­ters too. By hav­ing two os­ten­si­bly dif­fer­ent styles and vibes, there’s this idea that there’s more than one way to look good. But be­cause they both per­fectly fit that 1980s beauty stan­dard, it’s like, “Gotcha! There’s still just one way to be pretty.” I’m fairly sure if I weren’t white, the books would have seemed even more alien in that re­gard. In­deed: while the Wake­field twins took my ap­pear­ance and made it per­fect, the books largely ig­nored women of colour. Like any sex­u­al­ity other than straight, this ver­sion of hu­man­ity was sim­ply ig­nored. Per­haps that is another rea­son why it took me so long to un­der­stand that I liked kiss­ing girls. If, say, Lila Fowler – Jes­sica’s fab­u­lously bitchy BFF – had her eye on down-to-earth Regina Mor­row in­stead of pretty boy Pat­man, I might have come to that conclusion quicker. (I can see the retro cover now: Girl Crush: Lila’s new love has the whole town talking!) We can­not be what we can’t see, and SVH nar­rowed the play­ing field of po­ten­tial role mod­els to the size of their wash­board tum­mies.

To com­pli­cate things fur­ther, I un­de­ni­ably loved read­ing SVH. Whether Liz was help­ing a new girl to get over her shy­ness or killing her sis­ter’s boyfriend in a drink-driving ac­ci­dent, the drama had me riv­eted. TV shows, movies and books that fea­ture casts of jaw-drop­pingly at­trac­tive hu­mans can be ex­traor­di­nar­ily en­ter­tain­ing. Not be­cause they fea­ture beau­ti­ful peo­ple. Be­cause they ex­pertly de­liver what their au­di­ences want – hu­mour, ac­tion, emo­tion, all in a very pleas­ing pack­age. In many ways, Sweet Valley High taught me about the power of ad­dic­tive women’s fic­tion.

The an­swer, then, is not to take away pop cul­ture from our­selves and chil­dren (let’s face it, if they want to watch Pretty Lit­tle Liars, they’ll do it with or with­out your per­mis­sion). The so­lu­tion is per­form­ers who don’t all look like the Wake­field twins, and shows, books and movies that have, at their heart, a pro­gres­sive set of val­ues, while still be­ing funny or sexy or dra­matic or emo­tional. It is up to the gate­keep­ers to com­mis­sion them, con­sumers to buy them, and cre­ators (like me) to make them. And that is what I set out to do in my new novel, The Reg­u­lars.

In the book, three young women get their hands on Pretty, a mag­i­cal po­tion that turns the user into their ideal phys­i­cal self for one week at a time. It was so im­por­tant to me that my three main char­ac­ters were not all white and straight and thin and wealthy. Be­cause we need sto­ries that rep­re­sent all body types, all skin colours, all sex­ual ex­pres­sions, all eco­nomic re­al­i­ties. Sto­ries about char­ac­ters who are not de­scribed as ‘per­fect’ at least once a page (hey, I never said SVH books were good.)

These days, I feel a lot bet­ter about my ap­pear­ance. I spend less en­ergy on makeup and be­ing thin. I sur­round my­self with peo­ple who love me, just as I am. I don’t love how I look all the time, but I don’t let those feel­ings run my life: I know they’ll come and go. And that’s OK. I’m not a Wake­field, and thank God, be­cause let’s face it: the Wake­fields were kind of vacu­ous, self-right­eous nar­cis­sists with the col­lec­tive com­plex­ity of a TV din­ner.

Sweet Valley High didn’t help me feel good about my ap­pear­ance, but it didn’t en­tirely screw me up ei­ther. Maybe it was just what I needed to think that I could play a part in pop cul­ture, too.

n ‘The Reg­u­lars’ by Ge­or­gia Clark (£12.99, Si­mon & Schus­ter) is out now

My skin wasn’t TANNED. My smile wasn’t worth a MIL­LION DOL­LARS

Too darn per­fect to live up to – Ge­or­gia (left) spent her teens dream­ing of be­ing Sweet Valley High’s El­iz­a­beth and Jes­sica

An au­thor her­self, Ge­or­gia’s cre­at­ing char­ac­ters we can all iden­tify with

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