Jennifer Weiner on Representations of Fatness and the Line Between Affirmation and Self-Loathing
The Author of Big Summer Wonders About Love
and Digital Connection
Twenty years ago, when I began my career as a novelist, I was a twentysomething-year-old newspaper reporter with a broken heart.
I’d been dating a nice Jewish guy for over two years. I imagined that we’d be getting married. He was imagining things differently. While I was the one who suggested we take a break, he was the one who heard “break up,” and while I went home to think about things, he went home and immediately began dating someone else.
Back then in the late 1990s, the Internet was barely a thing; Google did not exist. This made the stalking very difficult. Instead of telling my kids how, when I was their age, I had to walk five miles! Uphill! In the snow! to get to school, someday I will tell them that, to keep tabs on my ex, I had to call his answering machine while he was at work and attempt to discern his mood and romantic circumstances by listening to the outgoing message on his answering machine (then I’ll explain what an answering machine was).
Don’t call him, I would tell myself. Don’t call him don’t call him. Until one day I finally broke down and called him. He picked up on the first ring, and I heard another girl’s voice in the background. He lived in a studio apartment. The phone was on the ledge right next to his bed, so, if he picked up on the first ring, that meant that he was in bed. With a girl who wasn’t me.
I cried pretty much non-stop for the better part of a month. I believed that I would never love again. And, because it was 1998, the year ofTitanic, I would drive, and cry, and sing “My Heart Will Go On,” mostly because I wasn’t sure if it was true. I’d never been in pain like that. I thought about him endlessly and talked about him endlessly until one day I finally decided: Enough.
I asked myself, What do I know how to do? And I answered, I know how to tell a story. I’d been a reader my entire life, an English major in college, journalist for almost nine years, I’d published a few short stories and written many more. I decided that I was going to tell myself a story, a story about a girl like me and a guy like him, where the girl got a happy ending. . . and where the girl, like me, was fat.
If you are a young person, you might be thinking, What’s the big deal? You’ve grown up with Lizzo on the radio, Dumplin’ on Netflix, Melissa McCarthy on the big screen, and Aidy Bryant on the small one.
My generation did not have that. No plus-size movie stars or romantic leads on TV. We did have Carnie Wilson, the not-very-big big girl in the band Wilson Phillips. In the music videos, they’d shoot poor Carnie in close-up only, tight on a carefully-selected angle of her face, and if they had to show her in her entirety, they would put her behind a boulder or a grand piano.
Okay, but that’s music videos, you might be thinking. What about books? Surely there were fat girls in books!
And there were. They could be the funny fat sidekick, or they could lose weight, shed their ugly duckling skin and become swans, thus getting their happy endings. Fat was visual and creative shorthand for lazy, stupid, low-class, and if you were fat in real life, your job, your life’s work, was to make yourself smaller.
This was work that I took seriously. By the time I sat down and began writing Good in Bed, I had spent almost a decade on a diet. There was the nutritionist I paid to see weekly who told me to eat no more than 1200 calories a day and there was Weight Watchers, rounds 1, 2 and 3. When I was 26, I managed to get myself into a clinical trial for a weight-loss drug, which was eventually approved by the FDA, then pulled off the market after the women who were taking it began dying of heart attacks.
I remember that, instead of being angry that we’d been possibly used as guinea pigs for a dangerous drug, some women were angry that they couldn’t take it any longer. Sadly, they’d say, It was the only thing that worked.
After ten years of that, I decided that all of the energy and time and mental energy I was spending on weight loss could be better spent elsewhere. I’d always struggled to square my dieting with my feminism. I believed that women should be heard and seen and have an equal place in the world, even as I was striving to make myself smaller, to literally make less of myself.
I was hungry all the time, which was distracting. The longing that I’d seen for a potentially deadly drug was also concerning—the idea that, if there was a choice between being thin and being dead, some of the women I’d met would have to think about it.
Then I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and a quote hit me hard: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
I did not want to be sedated or obedient; I did not want to be tractable, I did not want to be a pawn of capitalism, or all the big corporations that profited off of female misery and the lose-regain-repeat cycle of weight loss, and I definitely didn’t want to die. I decided that I was done with dieting. My big girl, I decided, would stay big, and get her happy ending in spite of it.
I didn’t think that what I was doing was brave or revolutionary. I also wasn’t thinking too much about getting the book published. Good in Bed was just a story I was telling myself, in my spare bedroom, on the Mac Classic my father had bought for me my last year of college. It was like being my own Scheherazade; telling myself a tale where a girl like me could find love and fulfillment and a rewarding life.
Then, to my great surprise and delight, the book was published. I’ve spent 20 years having young women write to me or approach me at readings and say That was my story; that was me. At first, I wondered, How? How can it be my story, and your story, too? It was disheartening, realizing how widespread insecurity was, how deeply it ran, how no woman seemed to escape it.
Young women’s quests continue to interest me, even though I’m no longer a young woman myself. Some of the questions they face are universal: which job? Which city? Which partner? Which life? But now, there’s the added layer that social media adds, the way women today live their lives out loud, in public, with friends and family and strangers watching, and weighing in.
They have to think about how to present themselves, not just in person, but in the pictures and videos they post. How do they frame the shots? What do they put out there, and what do they keep quiet? How do they decide?
I was thinking about social media as I started to write Big Summer. I wanted another young, plus-size heroine, smart and funny and curious; sensitive and thin-skinned and tender. I wanted the internet to feel almost like a character in the story. As a plus-size Instagram influencer who’s Extremely Online and who is just beginning to make money from her platform, Daphne lives with the Internet’s presence and its voice always in her head.
Social media is the place where she feels affirmed. It is also the place where she’s been hurt, where the very worst things she thinks about herself pop up regularly in the comment section. It is, paradoxically, a place where she can be the most authentically herself, and the place where she most feels the need to edit and improve, to show herself as she wishes she could be and not as she really is.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Nick, the love interest, tells Daphne at one point, when they’re having a soul-baring discussion and Daphne reaches, automatically, for her phone. He wonders how she can put herself out there, with the specter of trolls and the possibility of public shaming. She tries to tell him about the community she’s found, the affirmation, what it means to log on and see bodies like her own, not as “before” pictures in diet ads, but just as women living their lives.
“Yes, people pretend, and yes, they dogpile, and they edit the bad parts out of their lives. But that isn’t the only thing that happens. Young people—young women—get to tell their stories and find an audience.” Even as I spoke, I was thinking about the girl who’d asked, How can I be brave like you?, and how, so far, the best answer I’d come up with was telling her to fake it.”
Twenty years ago, I was a single girl trying to figure out her life. Today, I’m the mother of a teenager and a 12-year-old; young women on the cusp of their own big adventures, with tools and challenges that I didn’t have. Will social media help them find connections and community? Will it be a place where they could be bullied or hurt?
The answer to both questions is yes. Yes, good things are possible. Yes, bad things can happen. Yes, these days there’s more diversity of representation. Yes, there’s the potential for pile-ons and shaming. And all I can do, as their mother, is the same thing I have done for each of my imperfect, striving heroines: teach them as much as I can; love them as well as I can, then launch them into the world, and hope for the best.
Jennifer Weiner’s novel, Big Summer, is available from Atria.