Friday, April 25, 2008

The world makes me hate me

I don't know why it seems I always get the ideas for my deep thinking posts on Fridays, which is my lowest traffic day (seems to be the case everywhere on the internet, actually.) But I have a few thoughts today. Let's see if I can make a coherent post out of them.

Oh, but first, the Romantic Times review of Personal Demons is out! FOUR STARS! Here's what they said (apparently, as RT is unavailable here, but Anna J. typed it in an email for me):

"Kane's clever story is packed with supernatural action and unique characters. The heroine has made some powerful enemies in the past, and they return with a vengeance. She also has a nice love interest going, and it zings with sexual tension. Surprises throughout keep tension and high and the pages turning as it all comes to a satisfying conclusion."

So here's what I'm thinking. This post at Karen Scott's almost inspired me to comment, but as my comment would have been so convoluted and long-winded I decided to do it over here instead.

In a nutshell, she's linked to a new story about the upcoming reissue of the Sweet Valley High books, and a column about how many girls were apparently driven to eating disorders by the Wakefield twins' "perfect size 6" figures, and how that might be even worse now that the scummy decision has been made to make them size 4s for the reissues.

Now, anorexia is A Bad Thing. And I'm not going to say or even imply that the superthin standards of today don't create problems for young girls (or young men. I knew a bulemic guy; it's not like this is a girl-only problem).

But for some reason, perhaps because I was such an avid SVH reader in my preteen/very early teen years (I'd moved on by the time I hit fourteen or so, if memory serves), this struck a bit of a chord with me.

The thing is, I guess the SVH books made me feel bad about myself, too. Not because they were so thin, but because they weren't. At the time I read those books, I was a size zero. I was a late bloomer, see, so I was reading about girls with curvy figures, with lots of friends and boyfriends, when I was wearing a training bra just because people would make fun of me (even more than they already did) if I didn't have a strap across my back. I didn't need it. I was something like 4 feet 8 inches tall; I looked like a seven-year-old. And it was painful. But there was nothing I could do about it.

And given that I think most girls reading those books were probably about the same age as me (who ever saw an actualy seventeen-year-old reading them?), I'm willing to bet the self-esteem issues they might cause would be more on that side of the fence.

It's one reason why I lost interest in the books. It's why I never liked the other series that came out around that time, about an extremely rich girl named Caitlin. Why would I want to read about her? A rich girl who was beautiful and got everything she wanted, and had a gorgeous rich boyfriend and horses and cars? When I sat around listening to records in my room every night while my parents argued in the living room, I wanted to read books about girls like me. But it seemed girls like me weren't interesting enough to write about, unless it was a really depressing book where family members died or something. I wasn't a heroine. I wasn't even a Loyal Best Friend in those books. I was invisible. And I got tired of reading about fun it seemed everyone was having except me, and about people whose lives were so perfect it might as well have been happening on a different planet.

So I gave up. And I found other things to read. And I've been interrupted so many times while writing this (Princess is home sick today) that I no longer remember what my point was supposed to be, sadly.

I guess I just wonder where those books are. I wonder why we're focusing so much on worrying normal girls might become anorexic that we stop worrying about those kids who have no reason to be. Or on those who try to get fat so at least they'll be normal on some level; it's easier to be fat than to be scrawny, I think, or at least I did when I fuitlessly tried to gain weight.

So I guess my overall point is that we're always going to feel bad about something. We're always going to feel not pretty enough, not thin enough, not curvy enough, not smart enough, not popular enough, whatever. And those feelings are human, and important. I don't think I would want to know someone who'd never for a minute felt bad about themselves; they would be insufferable.

And I guess what bothers me about the article Karen quotes is it assumes the books and their intended readers exist in a vacuum, that teenage girls won't bring their own thoughts and experiences to the books as much as I did, and have their own feelings about them. That it's impossible for a girl to read them and not want to be just like the Wakefield twins, instead of reaching a point, as I did, where they were just a couple of vapid princesses whose perfect lives no longer interested me. In order to believe you can be perfect simply by losing weight you have to first believe the rest of perfection is possible, and I never did. I bet a lot of people never did.

So the article strikes me as rather disrespectful to teenagers, in its bland assumption that they will be so cowed by the SVH zeitgeist that they will lose any perspective. That they will instantly see the characters as people they want to be just like in every way, instead of a rather irritating collection of snobs doing pointless things in their zippy cars.

I enjoyed some of the books, sure. There was a time when I waited breathlessly for the next one to come out. And sure, I wished my life could be more like theirs. But I was never moved to attempt to make it so.

Perhaps I was just lazy?


BernardL said...

It's interesting you wanted to be represented in the fiction you read as a teenager. Perfection can only exist in fiction, so I imagine many of us read about perfect lives, because it's the only such glimpse of perfection we'll ever have. Congratulations on the review. :)

Seeley deBorn said...

Okay, the similarities in physical description are stunning here. I remember shopping in the kids section at 14, looking for a dress to wear to the school dance. I couldn't buy anything the ladies section because I had no hips boobs to fill them out, and they sagged on me like they were on the laundry line. Everything in the kids section was, well, for kids. It was devastating. Far moreso than knowing I wasn't like the girls in SVH.

Maybe it's because I was able to differentiate between reality and fiction, but emulating them never crossed my mind. I don't recall ever having it pointed out to me that what I read in stories is just stories, and a completely idealized world created to engage the reader and offer an escape from the mundane, but I sure knew it. Mind you, that didn't stop me from thinking high school would be like Archie comics and Grease. No big disappointement when I realized it wasn't, but I was satisfied to fly under the radar as a non-popular geek who spent a lot of time hanging out with the 'bangers' behind the auto-body shop, so the fact that I wasn't a super-popular blonde cheerleader was of no real concern.

Maybe the bigger issue that needs to be addressed is why people seem to think that what is possible in fiction is attainable in reality.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks Bernard!
I don't think it's so much that I wanted to be represented, as that I would have liked feeling like I wasn't alone. Books and magazines and movies can have a tendency, I think, to make girls like I was feel even more like freaks than we already did, if you know what I mean.

Oh, Seeley, I had so many experiences like that, wanting to buy clothes that just didn't look right on me, wanting to buy dresses that had big empty cups on me. :-) It was absolutely horrible, I agree. And only contributed to the feeling that I was the only one in the world who had those problems. AND, lol, I thought high school would be like Archie too! I was a huge Archie fan, actually. And I got over it too and found my own friends and stopped caring about all that stuff.
No, I never really thought about emulating them, although I did of course try some experiments with cotton balls and tissues. :-) But I knew most people weren't like that and most people's lives weren't like that, and I knew it wasn't "real life". It just got boring, I think, because it was so far beyond my experience.

Robyn said...

I've heard a lot about the size 4 will cause anorexia thing. For me it's like 90210 or Dynasty or any other show about rich people- it's escapism. I was a fat kid and everything made me feel inadequate, but I still had fun with those books and shows and- miracle of miracles! I actually had dates.

I was a little older than the target audience when SVH came out, but I was working in a bookstore when the furor erupted over Elizabeth getting groped by Bruce Patman. Fun times. I wonder if the 'heat' level has changed in the SVH books?

Demon Hunter said...

I read Sweet Valley High in middle school, around age 11. I didn't want to be like the twins. I found them interesting on a superficial level. I wondered why no Black folks were in the books, and I got bored and stopped reading about a world I didn't relate to. I did enjoy them for a while though, then I graduated to romance novels. LOL. :*)

Gabriele C. said...

I think people who read books have a brain of their own.

The influence of a Paris Hilton or even a Heidi Klum is probably greater because it works on those girls who don't read anything but shiny magazines. And they won't touch something with only words and no pics. :)

Just watch that German model show moderated by HK. Simpering, pretty pieces of air, all the participants. And yes, those girls worry about sizes.

kirsten saell said...

What kind of freak am I? I never read a single one. I was all about LOTR and the Belgariad from the time I was about 11. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was reading my mom's Bertrice Small and Rosemary Rogers. (Is it any wonder I've been writing smut fantasy?)

That said, I didn't need anyone to tell me to hate my body. Looking back on it now from my size 13 (or size 22 if I want clothes that will actually fit over my boobs, don't even get me started), I can see how ridiculous it was. I was an unbelievable 5'8" and 37-20-36 at 15 and I still hated the way I looked. And it didn't help at all that it's only now, in my thirties, that I've been able to find pants long enough. I spent my teens and twenties walking around like I was waiting for a freaking flood. How's that for a self esteem boost--body of a goddess, dressed like a dork. sigh.

But the more I read about stuff like this, the more I have to think the problem women have with their bodies is more physiological than psychological. Ever wonder why that fat, hairy-backed gorilla strolling the beach in his speedo can actually believe he's god's gift to women? Ever wonder why that lady at the bakery doesn't seem to care she has a mustache--and that the thicker the mustache grows, the less she seems to care? Is it coincidence that these self-image issues seem to pop up for young women just as their hormones start to kick in? They did a study where they took a bunch of women with poor self-image and low libido and gave them daily testosterone. Even though any genuine changes in appearance were of the increased facial hair variety, without exception, every one of those women felt sexier and more attractive, and less critical about their bodies.

Ego linked to testosterone? Who'da thunk it?

Seeley deBorn said...

That is a terrifying thought KIS. And it explains a hell of a lot.

Devon Ellington said...

You weren't lazy.

You were -- and are -- smart.

You were living YOUR life, not trying to live some fictional life in a book.

And probably the seeds of your writing were born in there, you had imagination, you had THOUGHTS.

I agree, the article is demeaning to teenagers. I know a lot of really cool teenagers who are more interested in figuring out ways to stop global warming than try to be like a vapid character in a book.

I still like the juvenile mystery series from the early 20th century, like the 1904 Ruth Fielding books where she did all these things like be a war nurse and an aviator and STILL move to Hollywood, have a career and a love life. In the early 1900s. And then, in the 50's and 60s, everything backslid in juvenile fiction, unfortunately.

Or Penny Parker, (written by Mildred Wirt Benson, one of the original writers of the Nancy Drew books), who was the ultimate obnoxious, nosy, willful brat -- but not vapid at all.

Anyway, I agree -- there will always be something to feel bad about -- but when we go on and live our lives and find hope and joy and a way to work through it -- we become writers and can bring that joy to others.

BTW, congrats on 4 Stars! I'm THRILLED for you!!!!!

December/Stacia said...

Exactly, Robyn. I think the idea that reading a book about a couple of thin girls will be the catalyst for anorexia is a bit much. Most people are able to separate real life from fiction.
No word on the heat level, lol.

Tyhitia, I guess there was a black character later, a girl who dated the twins' older brother. I vaguely remember the storyline but that was around the time I was losing interest in the books, so I don't have any real memories of it. The article on Karen's blog mentions it and does make some salient points about the racism/homophobia of the SVH world.

Wow, that's an excellent point Gabriele. In order for the books to make a girl anorexic she'd have to actually read them first, and most readers--especially big enough readers to carry on with a series as long and frequently released as SVH--think more independently than that. Hmm. And I do agree about fashion magazines etc. too.

You are a total freak, kis. :-) Wow, I'd still love to have more curves than I do. I'm short-waisted so have basically no waist at all. Bleh.
Wow, that is a really, really fascinating theory about testosterone and self-confidence. I actually think that's really kind of cool.
I remember years ago reading too about how young black girls very rarely suffered the same kind of issues young white girls did, because their culture in general was more accepting of all body sizes. Apparently that's changing now, which I find sad.

Aw, Devon, you've made me blush.

I never read those books, but they sound great. I do recall, though, actually really liking books written for teenage girls in the 50s and early 60s, because the girls all had so much spunk and personality, and they did such interesting things. There was very little focus, it seemed, on dating and boys (for young teenagers)--it was assumed that came later, so in the meantime they actually DID things and had adventures and solved mysteries and stuff. I liked those a lot better. There was very little about money and physical appearance and a lot about smarts.


Michele Lee said...

I'm with you on many points here. First, I sympathize with the feeling of nothing fitting right, even if I am on the other end of the spectrum. Wal-Mart has been putting out all kinds of cute panties with cartoons characters and such and they NEVER have them above a size 8. I'm a 9. They have a wall of "big girl" panties which are always plain white granny panties. Lucky Fredericks of Hollywood caters to me, and gets my money. I feel so excluded, like someone out there is telling me I don't deserve to be playful or happy or sexy just because I'm plus size. I'm sure it's just the same on the smaller end, you feel like people are telling you you aren't a real woman unless you fit the shape they sew for. On either end it's a horrible feeling.

I do think that the people in an uproar over the SVH books are underestimating the teens and tweens that are in the books' readership. I never read books because I wanted to be the people I just wanted to do the things they were doing. I was always me when I daydreamed that I was inside a book's setting. I was just me doing the things that I liked.

For what it's worth all reading box books like The Saddle Club, Thoroughbred, The Babysitters' Club etc. was a job mucking out stalls and a messy bedroom. I did make an effort to do the things that I liked in the books, and they were never destructive things, not even when I started reading horror. Then I just started reading a lot about folklore and legends.

The problems in my life never stemmed from books. I just covered them up with books. I doubt that's changed much for girls hitting that age.

writtenwyrdd said...

At 14 I was my full height of 5'8" and was bony as hell, flat chested exactly in your training bra boat, and I stayed that way all through high school. That never was much of a problem for me because I had other things that made me feel like a complete non-entity and so I read to escape. Never read the SVH becuase they came after my hs years, but sounds like they'd have been too vapid for me. No, I went for Tarzan and other sf/fantasy stories, and those gave me a ne wworld to live in that I liked much better.

But everyone does feel ill-fitting in their world someplace in childhood. Or, at least most of us do. I wouldnt' want to meet anyone who'd never doubted themselves, either. Insufferable prigs who think all problems are the fault of their experiencers piss me off. (Hey, that's what a lot of the New Age gurus basically tell people, too!)

Anyhow, wonderful review,and wonderful thoughts about books. People bring themselves to the equation when reading. They interpret the book.

Sherrill Quinn said...

Terrific review, D!

You've been tagged--check out my blog for details. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

that's a really good point. I think adults sometimes overestimate their own intelligence and savvy and underestimate that of teens. And it is true that a lot of people of very different characteristics don't get featured in books and movies. Personally, I'd just be happy my kid was reading, really.

McKoala said...

Empathy. Skinny teen here too. It wasn't books that made me feel inadequate, though, it was the people around me.

December/Stacia said...

Exactly, Michele. Let's be honest here; books are no different from music in that if they drive you to self-destruction, something was wrong to begin with.

No no, written, a person with no self-doubt would be...well, they'd be Tom Cruise, wouldn't they? And nobody wants that. *shudder*

Oh dear, Sherrill, a tag. At least it will give me something to blog today.

*nods* Yes Charles, they do--both over- and underestimating as you said. And yeah, at least they're reading. My bff has a friend who keeps worrying about why her son won't read--but every time the kid picks up a comic book or something she takes it away and tries to force something else on him. Um...

Exactly, McKoala. And sigh, still trying to get past it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. For some reason there are a lot of books, movies, tv, etc that don't think youngsters actually bring something to the entertainment. -V95