“How would you picture a person who is obsessed with Ring Dings, Snickers, Twinkies, Milky Ways, and Yankee Doodles? Well, guess again. Claudia is as trim as a model and has perfect skin.” -Stacey’s Big Crush
“We could feed the ballerinas junk food. Welcome to Swine Lake!” – Kristy’s Worst Idea
“Honestly, I don’t understand why Claudia does not look like the Goodyear Blimp”- Stacey vs. the BSC
“She’s a great athlete. You can tell just by looking at her, because she’s sort of small and wiry….”
– Mary Ann’s Makeover
“The girl smiled back. She wasn’t exactly pretty, I decided, but she was pleasant, which was more important.” – Mary Ann Saves The Day
Somewhere around a month into lockdown/ social distancing in my NYC apartment with my husband and cat, I began supplementing “adult” literary choices on my NYC Public Library app with books from the original The Babysitters Club series. Call it regression, or just a needed break from a job that is filled with crafting and editing complicated words and ideas, but within one day, I was quickly tearing through a book a night and planning this piece.
I’m sure many of you read the series. It was insanely popular. It debuted in 1986 and was written by Ann M. Martin (until the 36th book, at which point, ghost writers took over).
The quarantine weeks went by, and I reentered the BSC world, and my own childhood. I felt the expected nostalgia (the detailed outfit descriptions), as well as some irritation (yeah, we get it, Dawn. Connecticut is colder than California. Move on.). I enjoyed the cute babysitting stories. Although, I’m sorry, I have zero patience with Karen and her drama. And of course, there was…the rampant fatphobia.
In the same way that if I asked you what size the Wakefield twins of Sweet Valley were (shout it out if you know it!), you might remember the ubiquitous frequency of food and appearance talk in the BSC books. Upon rereading the series as a 40 year-old woman, I would describe the focus on bodies and eating as more serious than just a glimpse of “how teenage girls talk.” The fatphobic content of the books, which so many young girls devoured, is what I would call distracting, somewhat obsessive, even damaging.
As I spent the late nights of Spring 2020 reading 38 of the BSC books (I commit to my research like Vanessa Pike commits to bad poetry!), I started categorizing the horrible comments about bodies, appearance, food, diets, and food morality. Then I started documenting slut-shaming; misguided race discussions; age-inappropriate relationships; acts of bullying that were definitely violent and never dealt with; and a LOT of ageist/ classist/ ableist language. I had to draw the line somewhere, though, so I’m focusing on fatphobia in this piece. I hope to revisit those other aspects another time- as we know, they’re all connected.
I opened this article by quoting direct content from the books. In case clarification is needed, I’ll explain my objections to these excerpts:
1.)They reinforce horrible ideas about food morality and perpetuate archaic ideas about “what kinds of people” eat certain foods and how food affects the body.
2.) They normalize vicious, degrading fatphobic language.
3.) They reinforce stereotypes and the belief that only small bodies are athletic/active.
4.) They encourage superficiality and subjective standards of beauty. (I thought MaryAnn was “the sensitive one”? But she “decides” who’s pretty? Yikes.)
In my “research”, I sorted through a lot of stereotypes. tropes, and problematic language. One phrase kept popping up, relentlessly. “Pigging Out.” Or, as you may know it, eating pizza with friends. Not in the BSC! Every time these girls eat pizza, it’s referred to as “pigging out.” Every. Time. Have Kristy check the BSC Bylaws because it’s gotta be in there that pizza cannot be consumed unless the term “pigging out” gets its moment!. My annoyance quickly led to alarm. I can’t comprehend how it was ever considered a good idea to use such a derogatory, shaming, self-hating euphemism for enjoying food socially in a book for young people. It seems irresponsible at best, and sadly destructive at worst.
Overreacting, am I? “Pigging out” is just a fun way to talk about eating? Okay, well, how about we discuss the occasion where animal neglect was encouraged as treatment for a “fat” cat? Stay with me here, because I’m not exaggerating. This happened. Here is a delightful passage from Kristy’s Great Idea, inwhich MaryAnn is introduced to a client’s cat, Boo-Boo, who is described as “a mess of a cat” with “eyes that were kinda handsome, but he was fat.” Ugh. The description continues:
“When he stood up, his stomach touched the ground, and when he tried to run, it swayed back and forth. He was gross.”
“MaryAnn couldn’t figure out why Watson was showing Boo-Boo to her. Okay, so he was really, really fat. So what? Certainly he didn’t need to be fed.”
Yes. MaryAnn, a 13 year old girl, believes that the cat doesn’t need to eat because its stomach touches the floor when it runs and she finds that aesthetically unappealing. Damn, that is messed up. If I were a Stoneybrook parent, I’d fire the BSC and take my chances with the high school girls who burned a hole in the couch with a cigarette.
Oh, P. S. Backstory on Boo-Boo- he was put under a spell. He was previously “nice and skinny “ until he dig up the witch neighbor’s flowers and then got fat.” Well, ain’t that just a perfect euphemism for what fatphobic bigots think about fat people! They were “bad” and had no control, and now they’re cursed. Fatphobia is rarely subtle. I’m used to being told that I see microaggressions where they don’t exist. I often agree to disagree. But in this case, if you can read that excerpt and not think it’s inexplicably angry, cruel and toxic, then I really hope you don’t spend a lot of time around insecure adolescents. Or cats.
The BSC series focuses on how much these entrepreneurial, responsible young women love kids. Therefore, we meet a lot of the children they care for. Well, they aren’t spared from the fatphobia wrath, either. In Claudia and Mean Janine, we learn that Jenny Prezzioso (a child) is a “big fat brat.” Lovely. Then there’s Norman. Norman is “overweight (though he’s dieting).” Oh, he’s dieting? Ok, well then I guess he gets a pass. Phew. Thanks for clarifying that he’s dieting, because if not? I was gonna send him off to starve with Boo-Boo.
Examine this with me. This is judgment about a child’s body/character, with an attempt to show his redemption or potential value through the fact that he’s dieting. The story goes on to say that Norman decorates his artwork with drawings “filled with tacos, chili, burritos and tortillas.” He’s chided by Jessie for having left no room for words on his art. I’d argue that Norman is actually putting his words right out there. His words are the drawings of food and they say, sadly, “I’m hungry. I’m a child on a diet, and, like everyone who restricts food intake, I’m thinking about food constantly -because I am HUNGRY.”
Okay, so, thus far, we’ve learned that teenage girls, young kids and cats are all fair game for bodyshaming. Here’s another cool story. The Newtons are the BSC’s favorite clients and Mrs. Newton has a new baby. The BSC heads over to meet the newborn, and Stacey (the “sophisticated” one) reflects, “I was surprised that Mrs. Newton still looked, well… fat.”
Look. I have never given birth, or experienced a pregnancy. But I have known a LOT of pregnant people. And I’ve heard enraging stories about their bodies being touched, appraised, evaluated and joked about – during pregnancy and after delivery, in social and professional settings, by familiar faces and total strangers. I’ve never understood what kind of human being could possibly find that behavior acceptable, or where they learned it.
And that’s what I’m here to explore. The role of media in eating disorders, body dysmorphia and the thriving of diet culture is indisputable. The BSC series raised a generation of enthusiastic readers. Could we make the argument that Ann M. Martin (and ghost writers) did nothing wrong by trying to capture the authenticity of junior high girl vernacular and teenage propensity for shallow, judgmental interactions? I’m not willing to do that. Because, for one thing, I think it’s time we retired the whole “girls are the worst to each other and that’s just how it is” refrain. It’s not helping and it’s not accurate. They learn bullying behavior from sources other than each other. Furthermore, even if the goal in writing books for young people is to capture the phrases and conflicts they experience, there is a way to showcase bullying and coming-of-age insecurity without normalizing it. The examples I’ve included here aren’t things said in catty moments or heated arguments. They were just a part of the narrative, the setting, the culture. The words are never challenged. It’s just the BSC world. No consequences. Just…how it is.
But here‘s where the story gets good. Damn good. Better than Cokie Mason getting her comeuppance (wait, she never really did). Okay, better than Jessie landing the Coppélia role over a pair of abusive racists (who got away with their disgusting behavior, so that doesn’t work either). Hmm. Well, let’s just say it’s better than that time when Claud, Dawn, and several young children were saved from the remote, exotic, uninhabited island in the middle of the, um, Long Island Sound.
This is the reboot. The 2020 Netflix series of The Babysitters Club debuted in July and it is the antidote to everything discussed here. The obvious updates are essential and needed.
Race / ethnicities are different; representation of the LGBTQ community is strong. Families look different. The stories are smarter and the wins are bigger. You won’t hear about pigging out. You’ll listen to 13 year olds discuss a marketing plan, in a way that respects what young women have the capacity to do these days. Or always did, if we took the time to notice.
There’s history and education. We learn that Mimi and her family were detained in Manzanar earlier in her life. MaryAnn educates a doctor who misgenders a child. Stacey advocates for herself when her diabetes is misunderstood. There is an understanding of diversity in learning styles. And a first period shows up in a way that feels new, but also familiar.
The messages are beautiful, but the interactions between the girls are even better. I hope this is how 13 year olds are talking to each other now, even just a bit. This reboot is a success because it’s a collaboration of several generations or “eras.” The young actors in the series are absolutely extraordinary, as are gems like Alicia Silverstone, as Kristy’s mom, a character that was never fully explored in the books.
Is it all perfect? No. There’s a scene where the club is trudging around town trying to get business and they’re tired and uncomfortable. At which point one of them chirps about “getting in our steps!” Meh. Thirteen year olds are still kids. No need for kids to count steps, despite what the misguided War On Childhood Obesity says. Dawn still spews food morality, with no comprehension of the privilege her words hold. But that’s pretty realistic, actually.
And on a somewhat (but not quite) different rant, when will we stop portraying actresses “of a certain age” as self-centered, sloppy, disorganized, insecure and outrageous? Because, as a 40 year old actress, I’d like to see that misogynistic stereotype retired.
What’s been accomplished here is a bright spot in a pretty dark time. I teared up a lot watching, partly because I loved what had been created and partly because I missed an easier time. I had memories of how I’d always get egg yoke in my books as a kid while I read at the breakfast table, and my parents overlooked that I had a book at the table because it was summer. I remembered that my dad had a tradition of picking me up a “getting sick present” whenever I stayed home from school. I’d wake up on the couch around 5:30 to him handing me several new books. Almost always BSC.
I don’t hate these books. Not at all. I loved them. And I respect that the original author was involved in the Netflix series reboot. But my job is to question how we got to a tragically fatphobic society, and that sometimes means questioning people, ideas and memories you love. My ideas here, about how food, bodies and fat were discussed in the mid/early 80’s-90’s may be dismissed with an “it was another time” hand wave. Well, we’ve learned that the impact of past times matter. They matter a lot. And I don’t think for one second that we’ve undone fatphobia. But I think the BSC reboot is a huge step forward.
Now grab your Kid Kit, get out there and let your Boo-Boo stomach sway!