Jessica Weiner has a special place where she always seems to experience those Oprah-esque "ah-ha" lightbulb moments: the bathroom.
It was in her college dormitory's public loo that she noticed a stall's graffiti – graffiti that convinced her not to commit suicide – and in a New York City bookstore ladies room where Weiner was inspired to write Do I Look Fat in This?: Life Doesn't Begin Five Pounds From Now.
That work followed her first book, A Very Hungry Girl, in 2003.
While this second effort has nothing to do with a place used for toileting, it does tackle a subject Weiner believes is an everyday occurrence for women: the language of fat. This language, she writes, is how people speak about and perceive their bodies – and themselves.
"This book is a call to action for women and girls to love the skin they are in," explained Weiner to the nearly two-dozen people gathered at a book-signing in the University of Pennsylvania bookstore. "I don't think any woman I know would talk about their friends the way they talk about their own bodies."
Growing up in Miami, Weiner said she always wanted to look like a Barbie doll. With "typical Jewish characteristics"- definite curves with olive skin and curly dark hair – Weiner said she suffered from deep self-hatred, cursing her genetic makeup for handing her traits that the world didn't deem beautiful.
At age 18, after spending the prior seven years seeking some semblance of body satisfaction and battling all three eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia and binge eating – Weiner found herself locked in that dorm restroom, ready to take her life. But fortunately, she saw the writing on the wall.
"Someone had hung a sign on the back of the stall that read, 'Eating disorders can kill,' " said the 32-year-old self-described "actionist," who travels the nation to inspire others to take control of their lives. "But it wasn't the sign that got me. Underneath it, someone had written in marker, 'Screw you. I'm already dead.' Underneath that, in pencil, someone else wrote, 'So am I.' "
It was then Weiner realized she was surrounded by others struggling with similar issues. Instead of ending her life, she marched to a counseling center, where she began a journey from self-loathing to self-loving, chronicled in her first book.
While on tour for this work, she found herself in the bookstore's bathroom, listening to a woman talk about her thighs and ideal weight. That conversation inspired the current book.
"We need to find a way to reallocate the obsession we have with our bodies, with what matters a whole lot more," said Weiner, who declared March 3 "Fat- Free Day" – 24 hours to talk of things besides calories and carbs. "It's who you love and how you love that really matters."
On a more personal level, the single woman expressed concern that, 20 years after her crisis, Jewish girls still don't have role models in the media. For example, Fran Drescher on The Nanny is loud, abrasive and obnoxious, while Debra Messing's character on Will & Grace is neurotic, sloppy and unmarried.
"We see those images, and we accept those images," said the author, urging the audience to write letters to directors and producers to stop the perpetuation of such stereotypes in the media. "Value yourself enough to not fill up your personal space with imagery and messages that are harmful."
As for the question sounded in the title of her book, Weiner answers that when a woman- or a man, for that matter – asks just that, the underlying issue is, "Am I good enough?"
"I don't care what you say, you know when your butt looks big, or if you feel uncomfortable in an outfit. The question is just code for 'Pay attention to me.' "