less than sweet

I remember it like this, but I could be wrong (I so often am)–I was joking, awhile back, about how much weight I had lost, when I could stop losing weight, what my goal weight should be. If I would ever be happy with what size I was. I don’t remember what size I was, when I had this conversation. But I remember talking about Sweet Valley High. I said, you know what? Do you remember the Sweet Valley High books? About the two blonde twin sisters who lived in California? I read that whole series. I was fascinated with it. And I remember that they were a perfect size six. That’s what I wanted to be, when I was a fat kid. That’s what I was always shooting for. To be a perfect size six. That’s what I want!

I didn’t have to say all that, because my friend knew about Sweet Valley High. Everyone my age remembers Sweet Valley High. She knew what I meant when I said perfect size six, and she said to me those books were written in the ’80s. A six size then is like, a size zero now. Ridiculous, insulting vanity sizing seized hold years ago, continues on and becomes worse, apparently, every season, so of course that’s true. The perfect size six is a completely insane goal. Why did it fascinate me so much? Because I grew up with it–every one of those fucking books talked about Elizabeth and Jessica and their perfect size six bodies, and how beautiful, beloved, popular they were. I was an impressionable child. I still am. It stuck. How many girls did it stick with? How many girls bought into Francine Pascal’s idea that physical perfection can be encapsulated in a size?



As sweet Weet wrote yesterday, Random House is reissuing the books. When I first heard about it, I was
excited. These books were my childhood. An article I read four years
ago, now, in The Believer, talked
about the effect that SVH had on my generation. Not profound, exactly,
but they made an impression. And the author called the Sweet Valley
High series “historical fiction,” and that rings true. It is so much
personal history, wrapped up tight in my adolescence and ideas of how
life should be lived and friendships made and how high school was
supposed to go, and it’s also a snapshot of a very particular time in
history, isn’t it? The SVH books are so much of the eighties. Which is
why they need to be updated for a whole new generation of girls to have
their heads screwed with, filled with lessons no girl needs to read.

Among the updates: the perfect size is size four, now. Six is not
perfect. Six, you might even go so far as to extrapolate, might be fat.
I am mostly shocked that the editors had enough restraint to only drop
Elizabeth and Jessica down a single size–why are they not a size zero,
that ultimate signal of waifish perfection? Do they think they’re being
responsible, the editors, in just a tiny bit of whittling that they can
blame on being very concerned with the idea of keeping important things
like clothing manufacturers’ sizing standards accurate and up-to-date?  

Being told a size six was perfection was screwed up then; being told a
size four is perfect is just as screwed up, if not more so–don’t we know
better by now? Aren’t we more aware of exactly how damaging that can
be? Why are we revisiting an entire generation’s insecurities on the
next generation? Haven’t we already got enough problems with six year
old anorexics, for god’s sake? A part of me is just grateful that kids aren’t going to realize that it used to be a size six, and all that change implies.

I remember joking that I wanted to be a size six, but of course there
was a part of me that really wanted it, that was fascinated by the
possibility, and what it implied. But even a six isn’t good enough any
more, is that what you’re telling me, Random House? Will I have to wait
for vanity sizing to get even more ridiculous, before I feel like I’m
good enough? Personally, I’m tired of waiting to be good enough. I
wanted to say: How amazing would it have been, if they had been revised
into perfect size tens, or twelves, or fourteens, right? But that’s the
wrong way to think about it. How about this: How amazing would it have
been, if their sizes had just been left out?

  12 comments for “less than sweet

  1. Sassy
    March 28, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    I’m pissed that they made it size 4 – either leave it alone or take it out. Or say something non-size specific like perfectly fit.
    I’m going to tell random house. I think we all should email them and tell them that they are helping to hurt a generation of girls.

    polson@randomhouse.com is the CEO. join me.

  2. Kat
    March 28, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    I have been a lurker for some time now, but something just clicked as I read the above that I had to tell you all.
    I remember, word for word, two quotes from the SVH books;

    “Jessica turned her perfect size six figure and placed the fruit platter on the table”

    ” ‘Elizabeth, I love your outfit!’ ‘Thanks, though I don’t really know if a bikini qualifies as an outfit!’ replied Liz as she twirled her perfect size six figure”

    I remember nothing else of the plotlines at all – just these two quotes. I hadn’t even realised how disturbing that was or linked it with the body image issue. But its now so obvious that that’s why these sentences stuck in my twelve year old brain. How worrying that this is now going to screw up a whole new genaration of readers.

  3. March 28, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Wow, the perfect size six or four thing IS disturbing and I wish it was just left out as well. I wonder why a tiny blonde haired blue eyed girl is seen as perfection when there are so many interesting traits out there to appreciate. I didn’t read SVH, was more of a Babysitter’s Club books fan and I liked how each girl in that series had a different look and style and personality.

  4. Jackie
    March 28, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Remember the SVH book where Jessica and her friends made some chubby girl run around the race track until she lost weight? They wouldn’t be friends with her or let her into their club/group until she slimmed down.

    Does anyone remember if the book said what size she was?

  5. Angie
    March 28, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    I also only remember the comments about the girls being size 6 and blond with blue eyes. Screwed up!

    But I don’t think that SVH had any part in the opinions I formed about body image. I remember having negative body thoughts as early as 2nd grade, before I had heard of the book series. Maybe Barbie had something to do with it? I don’t know, food for thought. But I do think that I might not have been so interested in the SVH series if they had made the girls to be more normal like myself. At that age, I was more interested in reading about how “perfect” girls live, since I had no clue what that was like.

  6. March 29, 2008 at 9:31 am

    I read all the SVH books (well, all of them that came out while I was still interested. Last time I checked the racks when I was 16 or so they were up to #200 or something crazy like that.) I loved the books in the weirdest way because I knew they were trashy and I liked it. I liked reading about the perfect people in this California high school and I literally cried when Regina od’d on cocaine because, omg, she was SO sweet and that was so unfair.

    I remember even as a little girl feeling like the books were messed up and completely unrealistic. They were sort of my pre-teen porn – a guilty pleasure. I remember rolling my eyes at the “perfect size six” line in every book. Actually, every book had a whole paragraph describing the twins’ perfection and I got to the point that I knew when it was coming and I just skipped to the next page because it bored me.

    So I guess we can hope that there are other little girls out there who will just roll their eyes and enjoy the trashy aspect of SVH, but I know there are many girls who won’t see it like I did and will think that size 4 (not to mention blond, blue-eyed and tan) is perfection.

    PS I loved the Baby-Sitters Club. There was a character for everyone in those books.

  7. March 29, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    That makes me SO MAD.

    I am SO MAD.

    I’m too mad to come up with anything more than that.

    MAD.

  8. Elk
    March 29, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Well if women would just stop being so self-conscious about people knowing how big they are, they could just measure their sizes in inches like men’s sizes and we could at least kill silliness of women comparing each other based on made-up sizes that change every few years.

  9. LaLa
    March 31, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I think the 80s were a dangerous era for us all – scrawny to the point of emaciated was in. But I think it’s important to point out that we know so much more now about self esteem issues than anyone was even paying attention to back then. We had Sweet Valley High, but girls today (thank God)have the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, where four different friends with very different body types all fit in to the same pair of magical jeans – the subtest of that is so important to young girls – no matter waht our size outside, we’re all the same. I also think we’re responsible for being the role models to the new generation – role models that we never had. If you hate on your body in front of a young girl (muttering about your cottage cheese in a dressing room counts) you’re showing her that it’s ok for her to hate on hers.

  10. Kim
    April 2, 2008 at 10:05 am

    I do remember the book about the fat girl running around the track, but I don’t think anyone made her…didn’t someone play a cruel joke on her by having some boy ask her to a dance or something and she had the last laugh by losing weight? Maybe I’m way off…that was a long time ago.

    What I find even sadder than SVH is the books that dealt with kids who actually were my size back then like “The Cat Ate my Gymsuit” and “Blubber”. I know there were others and it’s just all so sad.

  11. Amy
    April 4, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I remember when I was about ten or eleven, I went shopping with my grandmother at the mall. She got caught up talking with one of her friends in a department store, and I was bored, so I asked if I could go try on clothes and she said sure.

    That infernal “perfect size six” line kept running through my head. Up until that point, I was still wearing juniors sizes (big ones, but still) and had never tried on misses clothes. I picked up sixes, because that’s “perfect” right? That’s what the twins wore! I remember sobbing and sobbing in the dressing room when none of the size six clothes even remotely fit. No one ever found out what I had done, no one ever knew I was crying, but I never read another one of those books again. They just weren’t the same.

  12. kt
    May 2, 2008 at 12:20 am

    The saddest part it that little Jessica and Elizabeth are still teenagers. Eternally small-eternally young. Eternally unfettered and undeveloped due to never having gone through the whole “growing up thing.” To many, this is the perfect woman. Uncomplicated and predictable.

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