Jennifer Weiner Takes Aim at Our Fat-Phobic, Diet-Obsessed Culture
A chat with the bestselling writer of ‘The Breakaway’
Bestselling rom-com writer Jennifer Weiner’s lead characters tend to be, in her words, “hot messes.” You might remember In Her Shoes’ hard-partying bed hopper Maggie Faller (played perfectly by Cameron Diaz in the film co-starring Toni Collette) or Good in Bed’s Cannie Shapiro, a recently dumped Bridget Jones-esque entertainment journalist with daddy issues, inspired by the Philadelphia-based author’s life (and played by we’ll see who soon enough in Mindy Kaling’s upcoming adaptation).
Abby Stern, the loveable protagonist of Weiner’s 19th book, begins The Breakaway firmly rooted in hot-mess territory: She’s 30-something-and-counting, aimlessly adrift between Uber-driving gigs, is (mostly) single and kicks the book off with a sexy one-night stand after her girlfriend’s bachelorette. Like Bridget Jones, Abby is “curvy … Rubenesque if you like your euphemisms, obese if you were a doctor,” or “fat, which is what Abby called herself.” Unlike the Spanx-wearing, perpetually calorie-counting Jones, however, Abby has the benefit of 22 years of fat-acceptance theory to challenge and rethink the way bigger women are depicted on page and screen.
Inspired by the “almond moms” internet craze that is taking aim at unhealthy body image standards, Weiner’s new book challenges fat shaming from the inside out. The crisis kicks off when Abby — a fat-but-fit cyclist with a hot-doctor fiancé at home — leads a bike tour along New York’s famous Empire Trail. What was supposed to be a relaxing, scenic ride gets curveballed after her one-night stand, Sebastien, resurfaces, and Abby’s ever-critical mom crashes the trip in hopes to make amends. Will Abby stick with her hot doc or hook back up with the one that got away? We called up Jennifer Weiner to discuss the ever-popular allure of the love triangle, nice boys versus bad boys, biking the Empire Trail in real life, as well as the poor apparel choices of Aidan Shaw in And Just Like That … .
Rosemary Counter: This is your 19th book and 17th novel since 2001’s Good in Bed. You’ve been just a little bit productive.
Jennifer Weiner: Haha, yes. I feel so elderly and decrepit when I think about it. I’ve been doing this for 22 years now, so that just feels bananas. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but every single time I get so stressed and so anxious. You want absolutely everyone to love it, which, of course, just isn’t how books work. My eldest daughter just went away to college, which I can barely believe, and a book’s a lot like dropping your kid off at school. You have all these hopes and dreams, you’ve put your very best effort in, and you want it to be happy and successful. It’s scary and exhilarating and amazing and completely out of your control. But it’s true, that walking into a bookstore and seeing someone pick up your book never gets old.
RC: Do you ever walk up to them and say, “Do you like that? I wrote it.”
JW: One time I saw a woman at the gym reading Good in Bed and I thought, ‘Ohmigod, look at that, should I say something? Am I being weird?’ Finally I decided to say something so I said, “That’s my book.” She looked at me strangely and said, “No, it’s not. It’s mine.” These days I quietly take notice and don’t say anything.
RC: I love how your protagonists, even Abby, never quite have life together.
JW: They’re hot messes, yes. You can say it!
RC: Whatever you call it, it’s a nice relief to hang out with a character who’s not a sleek, high-level fashion executive in New York.
JW: For me, if you start with a character like that, who has everything figured out, where’s your novel? What’s the story? You need someone who’s somewhat chaotic, because the job of the writer is to bring the character to a better place. This time, I knew I wanted to write about cycling because I was doing a lot of it in real life, so I imagined a woman who would rediscover herself through riding a bike. There’s something about riding and freedom. When you’re a kid, your bike is your bridge to independence. You can take yourself where you want to go.
RC: Do you remember when you learned to ride a bike?
JW: I do, of course. I was only about six, but my parents didn’t believe in training wheels. I remember being on a very tiny bike and my mother yelling, “Pedal! Pedal! Pedal!” I got the pedalling part, but not the steering part, so I rode right into a mailbox. I’m a much better cycler now, and actually rode almost the entire Empire Trail, from Buffalo to New York City. I did parts of it last summer and parts of it this spring. I’m also in a cycling club here in Philadelphia, so there’s a lot of my own personal experience in there.
RC: This book really tackles fat-shaming and diet culture. How did you dive into that world?
JW: I listened to this great podcast called Maintenance Phase, and they did a whole episode on fat camps. I listened, thinking it would be this scathing exposé about these terrible places that put kids on a lifetime path of hating themselves and their bodies. I didn’t expect the kids to say, “This is the only time and place I’ve ever felt normal.” Because they’re surrounded by kids like them, they often find their first boyfriend or girlfriend, they have their first kisses and first loves. Some lose weight, but some don’t. Abby’s first boyfriend does, but she does not. I’m interested in how or if that would change their relationship. I did a lot of thinking about Abby: Who is she, where is she in her life and what is she trying to figure out? At the same moment in time, in the culture — do you remember that weird “almond mom” thing?
RC: Oh boy, do I ever. [Almond moms are women who’ve bought into diet culture and heavily monitor their child’s eating habits, by counting almonds, for example.]
JW: Almond moms were big in my day, with their SnackWell’s cookies and stuff, so it’s nice that we’re finally seeing them being called out. Despite her almond mom, Abby is trying very hard to accept herself just as she is and live as happily as possible in the body she’s in. But, she’s still a woman in the world, so she still has insecurities that pop up, even as she has these two hot guys that are both totally into her. Oh, I just love a love triangle.
RC: They’re universal! On one hand, you’ve got the nice guy, and on the other, a bad boy. I’m thinking Carrie Bradshaw’s competing loves, Aidan and Big.
JW: It’s a familiar dynamic, because there’s no right answer. One’s kind-hearted and steady and you know he’s gonna be there for you. But the other is the one that makes your heart beat a bit faster.
RC: I can’t spoil it for readers by saying who Abby chooses, but which one would you choose?
JW: First of all, thanks for not telling. Next, oh man, I don’t know. It’s all situational and it all depends on so many things. Who the people are, where they are in life, what you saw in your parents’ marriage, if you’re looking for a father for your children, everything and anything. But, I guess my ultimate feeling is you can always hope a bad boy will settle down as he gets older, but a guy who’s boring is probably not going to get more exciting. Who would you choose?
RC: I’ve gone back and forth on Big and Aidan for 20 years. I’m starting to think maybe it’s not about them at all and all about me.
JW: I thought I was Team Aiden, I really did. Then he showed up last week in that jacket. Now I’m rethinking every choice I’ve ever made.