I always wanted to be a Claudia, but I know deep-down that I’m a Stacey.
Let me explain. I think of Claudia Kishi and Stacey McGill—two characters from Ann M Martin’s The Baby-sitters Club book series, for those of you living sad, BSC-free lives—as two sides of the same very beautiful, exquisitely complex coin. Claudia and Stacey are BFFs, of course. They met in seventh grade when they literally ran into each other in the hallway. As Stacey put it, “We realized we were dressed alike — in very trendy clothes — and somehow we hit it off.” Stacey and Claudia are by far the most fashionable members of the Baby-sitters Club. But Claudia is a “wild dresser” while Stacey is “sophisticated.” Claudia is a spangle of braided belts and homemade earrings, while Stacey is Benetton and black ballet flats. Claudia hides candy all over her room—there are literally chocolate bars and Lifesavers spilling out of her pillowcases—while Stacey is diabetic and daydreams about rivers of chocolate that she cannot drink from.
Looking back at the Baby-sitter’s Club series, which turned 30 this past summer, I started thinking about how Stacey and Claudia each approach art, style, creativity, and, yes, sugar—and what they’ve come to represent for me along the way. I think of Claudia as joy and creativity topped with even more creativity; Stacey is joy and creativity restrained. Religiously reading the BSC books when I was younger, I related most to Stacey’s struggles, but I aspired most to be like Claudia. I think that combination of inspiration and identification was what made the series so important for so many of us. Each book helped us to navigate our struggles and goals while figuring out our places in the world—and, of course, what we wanted to wear along the way.
Growing up, I would model my outfits after Claudia’s, trying my best to wear batshit crazy creative ensembles formed from puff paint and giant earrings and a sneaker-shaped purse I managed to inherit from my sister. I knew that personal style could be a vessel through which to convey your deepest, most complexly awesome self to the world each and every single beautiful day. And I knew that because of Claudia. In her, I saw all the vastly glorious possibility of art.
But as much as I yearned to be like Claudia, I felt a pull of resigned familiarity toward Stacey—a connection that has only grown stronger as I’ve gotten older.
Stacey was the club member who moved to Connecticut from New York, just like I did when I was eight years old. She grew up in a world ruled by status symbols and strict fashion rules. Stacey’s dad’s job, her parents’ divorce, and her illness drag her cruelly from New York to Connecticut, then back and forth again (the whiplash of BSC #13 Goodbye, Stacey, Goodbye and #28 Welcome Back, Stacey! is almost too much for a reader to handle, let alone 13-year-old Stacey herself). My parents’ divorce, my mom’s remarriage and second divorce, and moving because of my step-dad’s job all made Stacy’s feeling of upheaval familiar to me, and I related to the feeling of leaving the more cultured New York for more provincial Connecticut.
Stacey, too, loves fashion and style. But she approaches it from a different angle than Claudia—from the status-laden sophistication of growing up on New York City’s Upper West Side. For Claudia, fashion is a form of art; it’s all about experimentation and fun. One of her fashion icons, for example, is Ms. Frizzle from The Magic Schoolbus. Here’s Claudia describing a Frizzle-inspired concept art piece of an outfit that she wears to keep herself feeling positive on the day of a rough math test:
“I decided that my theme for the day would be The Sea. I put on a blue skirt with brightly colored tropical fish printed all over it. Then I put on a green blouse. I figured that could represent seaweed or something. I pulled my hair into a ponytail, over to one side, and I pined it with a sand-dollar barrette I made last summer.
‘Claudia!’ my mom called up the stairs. ‘You’re going to be late!’
I ran to my closet and pulled out a pair of shoes. They’re the plastic kind called ‘jellies’ that I had decorated with stickers of seahorses and shells. I looked at myself in the mirror as I slid the shoes on. Was it too much? I shook my head. I looked great. I looked like someone who didn’t care about what grade she got on a dumb old math test.”
Claudia literally uses fashion to build herself up when the world has knocked her down with its bogus requirement that she understand something as banal and irrelevant to her blissed-out view on life as math. She uses it to rise above the feelings of self-doubt that the world imposes on her. This is honestly fashion at its finest—it’s everything I want my sense of personal style to be. It’s why I used to stay up late every night—basically until I got my first full-time job and got too tired to—perfecting my outfit for the next day. An outfit that can remind you exactly how little your math grade, or your dumb day job, has to do with the awesome and fucking enlightened woman that you are is the best kind of outfit.
To me, Stacey represents what happens to art when capitalism and illness and other unfortunate realities of the world get involved. Rather than grimacing at the very thought of math and vexing it away with Frizzle-style other-worldly outfits, Stacey embraces numbers and money. She has straight A’s in math class. She is the fucking BSC Treasurer, for God’s sake.
In contrast to Claudia’s seashell sticker-covered jelly shoes approach to style, Stacey’s look is more buttoned-up, sleek and polished. Her favorite place to shop is Bloomingdale’s—a store that’s basically synonymous with expensive designer labels and status symbols. Here’s Stacey describing a trip to Bloomie’s with her suburban girl-gang in tow:
“Bloomingdale’s is huge. I’ve actually gotten lost in it. And there’s so much to see, you hardly know where to look. Counter after counter and rack after rack spreads before you. There’s jewelry, clothing, fur coats, lingerie, toys, furniture, housewares, electronics. People come after you, offering samples or telling you about specials. It can actually be a little overwhelming.”
It can actually be a little overwhelming. This sentence perfectly describes not just the physical feeling of walking through a stuffy, over-stimulating department store where Gucci bags and jewelry jangle in the heat, but I also think it sums up the oppressive effect of New York Girl Sophistication on Stacey’s personal style and outlook. It’s hard to feel a sense of self-assured freedom; of confidence in whatever crazy beautiful thing you felt drawn to wear or do today, when there’s a crowd of hands spraying perfume samples on you and voices telling you what you should be wearing. It seems pretty easy to “get lost in it”—pretty hard to not lose sight of yourself.
That place of losing oneself to all the outside messages the world throws at you—especially those in accordance with status-laden corporate America—is where I feel a sad sense of identification with Stacey. I think that I’m a Stacey because capitalism is a reality—because I need money to live, which requires that I stifle my own creativity. Maybe I’m a Claudia ’cause I went to school for my MFA in poetry, but I’m a Stacey ’cause I worked as a corporate copywriter to support myself while I did it. Later, I did the most Stacey thing of all and accepted a full-time copywriting job at Bloomingdale’s. I’m pretty sure a 30-something Stacey would have been working right beside me.
Book #3 in the series, The Truth About Stacey, introduces readers to Stacey’s struggles with diabetes. The tagline on the front cover reads, “Stacey’s different… and it’s harder on her than anyone knows.” Stacey is of course “different” because she has diabetes. She has to give herself shots every day, and she’s forced to eat apples when everyone else is eating ice cream. As a kid, I related to her struggle with childhood illness; to the feeling of missing out—I was diagnosed with asthma when I was seven, and I spent way too much time in the school nurse’s office with stomach aches that made me keel over with pain. But the deep dark-secret language of the book’s title—the truth about Stacey too terrifying even to name—spoke to me in a different way, too.
Check out how Stacey introduces her life in Stoneybrook, Connecticut to the reader in The Truth About Stacey:
“That’s where I live now, in this teeny-weeny town in Connecticut. Let me tell you, it’s quite a shock after life in New York City. New York is a big place. Stoneybrook is not. There is only one middle school here, and I go to it. We all do. (We’re in seventh grade.) In New York there are about a billion middle school. In fact, in New York there are about a billion of everything — people, cars, buildings, stores, pigeons, friends, and things to do. Here, there’s, well, there’s… not much, really.”
Stacey’s monumental disappointment with her present life is almost too sad to handle. She’s super bummed out, she’s bored and jaded, and she’s only thirteen.
Onto Stacey’s character, I read a darker “truth” that went even deeper than her diabetes. I think that Stacey’s sad—that she feels stifled by her upbringing, torn apart by her family, and tortured by her disease—and that she turns those feelings inward with some pretty self-destructive behaviors. It is so typically teen girl—inside, she says things like, “Each time I have to get on the train and travel to see my father, I’m reminded of the divorce.” But on the outside she dots her i’s with hearts.
Take for example book #43, Stacey’s Emergency, wherein Stacey decides to say fuck it to her diabetes and eat a bunch of homemade fudge and Ring-Dings (the latter of which she steals from Claudia’s bedroom—#SoDark) in part because she’s really upset about her parents’ recent divorce, and the triangulation of parental shit-talking that has resulted from it. The book’s climax takes place on a Metro North train, which is how Stacey is forced to travel back and forth from Connecticut to New York to see her dad. Stacey’s blood sugar is all out of whack, but she hasn’t told her parents because they’re already dealing with their divorce and she doesn’t want to bother them:
“A few times recently I’ve seen some numbers that haven’t been what they should be. Plus, lately, I’ve been hungrier and thirstier than usual — and also tired…. I haven’t told Mom about the blood tests, though. She’s been through a lot in the past months. […] I don’t want Mom to have to worry about me as well as everything else.”
On the train, Stacey feels super tired and becomes so-fucking-thirsty that she goes into the train bathroom repeatedly and drinks straight from the bathroom sink. I remember this as such a sad, terrifying scene—this thirteen-year-old girl who’s secretly getting sicker and sicker and has gone off her diet, and is carrying a heavy suitcase and riding a train alone all to please her stressed-out parents. The metaphor that is Metro North adds so much extra weight to it for those of us who, like myself, have regularly ridden the New York area commuter rail to and fro different family members and different parts of ourselves. Whenever I’m on a Metro North train, and I’m feeling fucked up by recent family visit feelings, I cup my hands and think of Stacey, and I know exactly which baby-sitter I am.
This is not to say that Claudia doesn’t feel pain and pressure too—I know that she does. She basically has to hide everything she loves—her art and her books and her chocolate bars—from her parents, who want her to be more school-focused and practical like her sister. But I always felt like Claudia approached her struggles differently than Stacey did, and that confidence in herself as an artist was key to that. To me, even the chaos of Claudia’s room—candy spilling out of drawers, mystery books hidden in hollow books, her very own phone line, her friends hanging out and laughing and running a business amidst all of it—felt sort of like art in and of itself. With all its false doors and secret hiding spots, Claudia’s room, like Claudia herself, seemed to vibrate with sheer creative possibility. For all the pressure that was thrown at her, she somehow always seems to rise above it, like a beautiful phoenix in a Ms. Frizzle outfit.
I always wanted to be like Claudia when I was younger, and I still do. I wanna lose myself in art and fashion and Nancy Drew and get so sugar-high on all of it that I levitate above the rest of the pathetically grounded world. I wanna spend every waking hour meticulously putting together outfits so radly transformative that I do not give a shit about the pain that each day is bound to hold. But I have to work so I have money, and also so I don’t have a never-ending anxiety attack. I have to eat well and take my inhaler every day and exercise regularly and take care of my body and my well-being ‘cause that’s what grown-ups do, I think. At least the kind of grownup I wanna be. So I temper my inner Claudia with my inner Stacey. I soothe my inner Stacey with my inner Claudia. I let myself be Claudia ’cause I know Stacey will keep me safe. I let myself be Stacey ’cause I know Claudia will keep me feeling alive.
The real truth about Stacey, and about Claudia, of course, is that I read onto these young girl characters what I needed to see at the time. I read these books yearning to see my deepest fears and my deepest hopes reflected back at me. I think that’s part of why the series mattered to me so much as a young reader, and why it still does today. The Baby-sitters Club books were our fashion magazines, our business plans, our friendship manuals, and our interior roadmaps as we started to figure out the world. They helped us navigate creativity and practicality, joy and pain, and become grown-ups along the way—the girls we always wanted to be, and the girls we always knew we were.