The heroine of Jennifer Weiner’s latest big summer read, Big Summer, is a plus-size Instagram influencer who accepts a surprising invitation: her erstwhile friend, Drue, would like Daphne to be her maid of honor, despite a falling-out six years prior (a Cape Cod mansion and a coterie of single men await). Here, Ms. Weiner explains her love-hate relationship with Instagram.
"A Story is a Story"
By Jennifer Weiner
There were social media platforms that I embraced as soon as they emerged; places that felt immediately like great fits.
Instagram was not among them.
I understood Facebook—it’s for making connections. I get Twitter—it’s words, and I’m a word person; and it prizes brevity and wit and it lets me live-tweet The Bachelor. But Instagram? Instagram is pictures, I would say. And I’m not a picture person.
I didn’t want to do it. I also didn’t really have a choice. So, back in 2015, I opened an account. Over the years, I’ve been able to see the good, the bad, and even the criminal, all of which became inspiration for my new novel Big Summer, and to my own life on Instagram.
The good first. If you type the hashtag #bodypositivity or #plussizefitness or #lovemycurves or #effyourbeautystandards into the search bar, you will be rewarded with, as Daphne, the heroine of Big Summer puts it, “articles. Blogs. Twitter feeds with handles like @YourFatFriend and @PlusSizeFeminist. Health at Every Size websites. Body positive Instagram accounts. Outfit-of-the-day Snapchats that featured girls with their wobbly thighs and belly rolls on display. All the parts I’d tried to hide, out there in the open. Big girls, some my size, some smaller, some larger, in bathing suits and lingerie, in yoga poses, on cruise ships and beaches and in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue.”
It’s a marvel. And it’s not something that I had growing up. In those dark days, there was very little representation of plus-size women, and what there was fell into a handful of categories. There were the before pictures in before-and-after diet testimonials, or in fiction, where a fat ugly duckling would be required, through the devices of plot and diets that only existed in fiction, to lose a hundred pounds before landing Prince Charming. There was the sassy best friend. There was the walking sight gag (I still cringe every time I think of the plus-size actress in Scream who dies a horrible death because her butt’s too big to allow her to squeeze underneath a descending garage door). Mostly, women my size were just invisible, erased, hidden, tucked behind grand pianos or convenient boulders, like Carnie Wilson in every Wilson Phillips video.
The idea that girls and women today can feast at this banquet of representation, can see all of those possibilities and absorb them, not just as theoreticals but as lived truths… that matters. It matters a lot. It matters because the part of the brain that processes visual information is much older and more powerful than the part that deals with logic and hypothesis. Telling a teenager in 1986, You will have a happy life, you will fall in love, you will be successful is a lot different than showing a teenager in 2020 images of women her size doing those things. I love that those images exist, and I loved writing about a young woman discovering her confidence and self-esteem and launching herself as a plus-size fashion influencer.
Of course, the focus on the visual is both a blessing and curse. Take books. Books are words on a page; and writing is the act of sitting somewhere and putting those words on a page. None of that makes for very compelling viewing. Which means that certain corners of the “bookstagram” world end up focusing a lot on the one piece of books that is visual – the covers. Sometimes, those cover shots show up along with a vigorous discussion of a book’s content or a thoughtful and nuanced review. Other times, it’s just Here is a stack of books with pink covers! Or, Here is a beautifully styled image I created, using a book cover and flowers and props. If I had a nickel for every post I’ve seen of a book in a bed with a gorgeous latte, or a book next to a single lily or tulip leaning gracefully in a Mason jar full of water, I would have a lot of nickels.
I don’t mind books being pretty, or having a life as objets d’arte. I care deeply about the covers on my books—yes, I want them to give browsers a sense of the story inside, but I also want them to just, you know, look good. In my home, I arrange my books by color. But if the book in a post could be literally any book, when books become merely décor, the same as a vase or a bouquet or an attractive frozen drink… well, what’s even the point? Why not arrange fruit, or vintage postcards, or flowers?
The best I can say about accounts like those is that at least they’re not hurting anyone. And it’s possible that maybe some casual scroller could be taken by a pretty picture long enough to read the words on the cover, which would prompt her to go elsewhere on the Internet to get some sense as to what the story’s about and if that book might be for her.
But if Bookstagram is harmless, there are places where Instagram does hurt, where it misleads, where it traffics in feelings of inadequacy and envy; where it exists just to sell and allows users to perform a version of reality that has nothing to do with the truth.
The longer I’ve been on Instagram, the more fascinated I’ve become with its darker corners. Whether it was the Hot Millenial Influencer getting people to spend hundreds of dollars to attend live events for which she’d never bothered to book venues, or the couple who invited their followers to watch an authentic and unrehearsed engagement scavenger hunt unfold on Stories, only for viewers to discover that what they were seeing had not only been scripted but had also been sponsored, the seamier, seedier, scammier side of Instagram is endlessly fascinating, and a few of those scams ended up making cameos in Big Summer.
These days, in addition to reading and writing, science and math, kids are taught media literacy. My daughters are learning, and I am, too, how to be savvy consumers of what they see online, to understand that every image is the result of a series of choices: What’s in the shot? How is it framed? What filter was used? How is it tagged, cropped, lit, edited, framed, hashtagged? Just as importantly as what’s being shown, what’s been cropped, erased, deleted, or not even photographed at all?
As reluctant a participant as I was back in 2015, I’ve come to realize that Instagram is both a place to find stories, and another place to tell them. Maybe it doesn’t use the language with which I’m the most comfortable, but a story is a story, and I live for stories. Which means it’s where I belong, after all.
The bestselling author of "Big Summer" on how she ultimately embraced the confounding, perilous world of one of social media's most popular platforms.