Author's message: A woman's size doesn't matter

Jennifer Weiner has written 10 novels "to change the way women see themselves."
Jennifer Weiner has written 10 novels "to change the way women see themselves." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 18, 2013

'Mom always saw me."

By that, author Jennifer Weiner meant that her mother knew who she was and saw her as capable enough to be a "modern cultural icon" messaging other women through social media, journalism, and the lives of her plus-sized heroines in 10 novels to date.

"I want to accept my daughters the same way," says Weiner, 43, casually scrunched, with shoes off and bare feet tucked beneath her, on a couch in a Philadelphia hotel. Weiner, whose two daughters are in single digits age-wise, was there to give the keynote speech at the Renfrew Center Foundation Eating Disorders Conference last weekend.

Acceptance was a key word in her speech, as well as why Weiner, who lives in Philadelphia, was invited to address an eating disorders conference. She has never had an eating disorder, but she knows how weight stigma can hurt.

Her "peasant stock" lineage appeared early. Her nose and bosom "grew into adulthood" by eighth grade. And she was even dubbed "Fat Jennifer" to distinguish her from four other Jennifers on her summer trip to Israel.

"I knew pretty soon that I was never going to be a tall, slender blonde," she said.

But, the connection with her equally robust-figured mother helped her transcend cultural norms for thinness. Weiner opted to just be herself - largely courageous, opinionated, funny, intelligent, and in love with reading and writing. She wasn't immune to social pain during a transition that lasted beyond her days at Princeton University and into her early years as a journalist, including a stint of features writing at The Inquirer.

Her emphasis on connection - helping her learn how and with whom she "fit in" - resonated at the three-day conference.

Neuroscientists have found that the pain of social rejection has the same central nervous center responses as physical injury or illness, said Amy Banks, M.D., who in her conference speech referenced Weiner's novels for highlighting the pain that so many women feel from weight stigma.

Low dopamine levels are blamed for an anorexic's poorly working brain.

When dopamine levels are affected by stressors such as social rejection, the rewards we rely on to feel good and succeed in relationships are affected, so "we look for other ways to get dopamine," Banks said. "Unfortunately many of those ways are bad behaviors that create chronic disconnection and isolation."

Banks' therapeutic intervention is all about having positive moments, like smiles, friendly conversations, and joyful moments with pets and loved ones, to stimulate dopamine pathways. "Healthy relationships equal healthy levels of dopamine," she said.

Conference attendee Maureen Watts, a registered dietitian from Culpepper, Va., who has read three of Weiner's novels and was buying a fourth, felt a connection to her even though Watts has never been heavy.

"Her books speak to average, normal people," Watts said. "Jennifer is outspoken about no one having to fit into a mold." Plus, the books are "funny, and if I am enjoying the story, I feel better in general, and if I'm happy, the kids and my husband are happy."

Weiner said her mission as a writer is to "illuminate the world and change the way women see themselves. Let them dream the way the world could be - big girls can have happy endings too."

Her novels have been New York Times bestsellers.  

Weiner said she has always been out of step; when she wrote her first book, she found herself odd-girl-out again, because the protagonist was large. One potential publisher asked her to slim down the main character so the book might have a better chance. Weiner refused and set out to find another publisher. And she did, in Simon & Schuster.

Her trip to Israel turned out to be a turning point. On her return, her father had moved out and her mother came out of the closet. Weiner tried to cope by toning down her personality, as if that had caused her parents' divorce, and by finding kids who "got sarcasm," she said.

That sustained her until college, when the rowing coach said she would have to lose weight to stay on the team. She quit and joined the newspaper, which became her true love, where she was able to use the feminist skills her now-lesbian mother taught her and her fearless voice to "fix things and make them better."

During her keynote, her face and voice softened when she talked about her parents meeting and falling in love, even though they later divorced. Then she coldcocked the audience, describing how her father eventually "derailed" and told her she was fat, ugly, and would not amount to much.

What happened next?

She looked for comfort from her mother, who countered with, "You are capable and will be able to take care of yourself." Her father later vanished from their lives and died in 2008. She was never able to tell him how she felt, nor has she written about it - yet.

In a 2012 essay for Allure magazine, Weiner recounts a moment when her then-9-year-old daughter described a classmate she didn't like as "fat."

She told her daughter, "there are plenty of reasons for not liking someone. What she looks like isn't one of them."

Diane R. Girardot is a private mental health counselor and writer in Chadds Ford.

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