So there I was, in my mother-in-law’s living room in Sarasota, lips wrapped around the spit valve of a purple pool float, doing my best to inflate it, so I could don a sun hat white and a black bathing suit and sneak into the community pool (where a large sign warned “NO INFLATABLE DEVICES ALLOWED”) where I would try to recreate the illustration on the cover of my new book, The summer place. How I blew, and sucked, and blew again; As the world wavered and black spots appeared before my eyes, I had two thoughts.
The first was, I don’t think Ernest Hemingway’s editor made him do that.
The second: I’m really lucky.
Because, twenty years ago, if I had wanted to recreate one of the covers of my book, using my own body, it would have involved losing 100 kilos, and also my head.
I started my career in the era of photo covers, where a publisher bought a stock photo, and that image became your cover image. The idea was for the covers to be ambitious, to feature society-approved lean bodies, without ever showing any of these models’ faces, so that readers could imagine their own features atop those arms, legs and flexible torsos. I didn’t find these covers particularly appealing, but I saw them everywhere, and I trusted that I was an outlier, that the people at my publishing house knew what they were doing.
In more than twenty years of career, publishing has changed.
Things got off to a promising start with good in bed, my debut in 2001. This cover showed a pair of legs crossed, on a bed, with a dreamy blue background. You can just make out manicured nails in the foreground and a piece of cheesecake on a plate next to it. The legs weren’t particularly wide, but they weren’t exactly skinny either. I was happy.
And came In his shoes. For this cover, my editor chose an image of two pairs of feet, in pastel-colored strappy high-heeled shoes. The feet both seem to belong to women of the same size, even though the sisters in the story are not the same size at all… but, just like in the dark, all the cats are gray from the ankle to the feet, all women look kind of the same. I was happy. Until I learned that my editor hadn’t bought the exclusive rights to the image, and that the same feet, in the same strappy shoes (in a different color scheme) had also been used on the cover of a book called Best Erotic Fetish.
For small earthquakes, in 2004, the cover showed a glorious profusion of golden-red curls, with a woman’s arm and hand obscuring her face. “Can we enlarge his arm?” I asked, and the art department was able to gradually enlarge the forearm. I called it a win and hoped things would change.
But then came good night person in 2006. The book was about a new mom who felt desperately out of place in the suburbs, struggling to come to terms with her body with twenty pounds of impossible-to-lose baby weight (at one point in the story, my protagonist, Kate Klein, jokes saying that when kids turn five, it’s not a baby’s weight anymore, it’s just her weight.) The cover, however, featured a mannequin-sized woman, from the neck down, because no faces. Worse, the woman was oddly bent, contorted in a pose that suggested the only mystery she wanted to solve was where to find the nearest restroom.
I protested. They insisted. Skinny IBS Supermodel stayed.
The low point came with my 2009 novel, best friends forever. BFF was the story of two girls, fat and thin, former best friends who find themselves in each other’s lives after a classmate disappears during their fifteenth high school reunion. When I got the cover, it was two girls, thinner and thinner, wearing cute summer dresses, strolling down a boardwalk toward the beach. Both women were shown from behind, and the woman on the right was clutching the back of her sundress in a way that suggested she was pulling her folds out of her ass crack.
I told my editor that the woman who was supposed to be Addie, my plus-size character, was way too skinny. And it looked like she was choosing a wedgie. And that it all looked like a jerk advertisement.
I protested. They insisted. The ad/wedgie shower choice remained.
2010: Faceless skinny women sitting on the beach in beach blankets Fly home.
2011: Skinny faceless woman perched on a desk on the cover of Then you came.
2012: Faceless skinny woman in a swimming pool on the cover of The next best thing (at least the pool and the picture were both beautiful and inviting like a David Hockney photograph).
And then, just when I thought I couldn’t take on one more skinny covergirl, the trend shifted to no women at all, just images of stuff on the cover. My 2014 book, Everything collapses, had an image of a roller coaster instead of a human being. In 2015, with Who do you Love, I have a red paper clip instead of people. My paperbacks have been repackaged, with all those skinny women replaced with pictures of things – pairs of shoes, a baby in a diaper, a white picket fence, a hat and an umbrella by someone’s front door. a. I didn’t understand, but, as always, I trusted the people at my publishing house. However, I had pretty much given up hope of seeing a woman on the cover that matched the woman on the page. But still, the objects – even the weirdest ones – were infinitely better than the parade of size zeros.
But then, in 2019, I got my wish. Instead of photographs of people or images of objects, publishers began to use illustrations. And the women on the cover of Mrs Everything were not small. They were presumably plus size. They looked good. They assorted. I could have cried with joy.
Today, I’m thrilled to say that I’m on my fourth book in a row with an illustration of a taller woman on the cover, and some of my repackaged backlists now feature women of a similar proportion. The ladies are still faceless, because you can’t win them all over, and readers don’t seem any more repelled by a taller woman on the cover than they were repelled by a taller woman on the pages.
In more than twenty years of career, publishing has changed. So has the world, and I’ve seen pop culture take small steps toward body positivity, or at least body neutrality, and embracing the idea that yes, Virginia, fat women can have happy, fulfilling lives that includes joyful and fulfilling sex. . When I was a teenager, I watched music videos featuring the not particularly tall Carnie Wilson hidden behind rocks and strategically placed grand pianos.
Young women today have Lizzo, living their best lives in shapewear and swimsuits and sometimes nothing at all. When I was young, romance novels only had thin heroines. Today, there are shelves full of books featuring fuller protagonists, with covers unapologetically depicting those full characters. In the pre-social media era, the only way to see bigger bodies was like “before” in advertisements for diet shakes or gyms. Today, with careful curation, you can have a full stream of diverse bodies of all races, ethnicities, and sizes, doing yoga, or dancing, or lifting weights, or trying on clothes, or caring for their pets. or goofing off with their kids or traveling with their partners, or just living their life, in the body they have, and not putting off the joy or the big trips or the pretty dresses until they’ve lost extra pounds.
It got better. And I couldn’t be happier.
The summer place by Jennifer Weiner is available through Atria Books.