Did Sweet Valley High screw me up?
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