Early one morning in November, five hundred clinicians gathered at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott for the twenty-third annual Renfrew Center Foundation conference, devoted to the understanding and treatment of eating disorders. The keynote speaker, Jennifer Weiner, the best-selling novelist, was there to offer a personal perspective on weight issues, with a talk entitled “The F Word: On Growing Up Big, Speaking Out Loud and Raising Betty Friedan Girls in a Britney Spears World.”
The Renfrew foundation’s Web site described Weiner’s 2001 début, “Good in Bed,” now in its fifty-seventh printing, as “the first ‘chick-lit’ novel featuring a large protagonist.” The character, Cannie Shapiro, established the template for a number of Weiner’s subsequent heroines: clever, quippy young women whose dress size tends to be well into the double digits. Her characters navigate the perils presented by lacklustre boyfriends or disappointing husbands, slender mean girls, dysfunctional families, and self-esteem issues. “Nobody’s going to date me looking like this,” Cannie tells the tall, handsome, kindly doctor who interviews her for a weight-loss study. “I’m going to die alone, and my dog’s going to eat my face, and no one will find us until the smell seeps out under the door.” Despite their travails, Weiner’s heroines arrive at happy endings that defy cultural prejudices while upholding the implausible conventions of a Hollywood romantic comedy. (Cannie’s tall, handsome, kindly doctor falls madly in love with her.) Weiner’s second novel, “In Her Shoes,” was actually made into a romantic comedy, in 2005; it starred Toni Collette, as the brainy, full-figured heroine, and Cameron Diaz—featured prominently on movie posters—as her skinny, feckless sister.
Weiner, who is forty-three, was outfitted as if for a cocktail party, in a scarlet sleeveless dress and nude stilettos. Her makeup had been applied, before dawn, by a professional; her long, dark-brown hair was loose and shiny. She looked pretty and polished but approachable, like a co-host on “The View.” Weiner, who has a degree in English literature from Princeton, is cognizant of the expectations that attend a writer of commercial women’s fiction. “Handbags are important signifiers,” she told me. (Lately, she has leaned heavily on an orange Givenchy tote.) Her outfit projected confidence, but it also gave her an opportunity to reveal a winning vulnerability. After ascending the podium, she began, “Good morning, Renfrew Center clinicians and therapists. Or, as I have been affectionately referring to you in my head, the people I don’t need to wear Spanx for.”