It’s morning in Manhattan, and Carol Weston, MA Spanish ’79, logs onto her computer in her Upper West Side apartment. Her e-mail has proliferated overnight with what she calls “girl mail”—teens asking about boyfriend problems, school pressures, bodies they worry are too large or too small, their BFFs, their fears.
One letter, from “nervous n scared,” begins, “hey:) so i have a problem,” and then describes the problem in graphic detail, leaving nothing to the imagination. It ends with “like wat do u think it is..? n how can i fix it…plz i need ur advice.”
Weston dashes off an answer to the anxious teen, writing in the vernacular, right down to the punctuation and emoticons:
“you say you had ‘safe sex’—to me this means you used a condom, but you didn’t mention a condom. . . .
“pls don’t just assume that it’s safe unless you use a condom. . . .
“it’s possible that you have a bladder infection and i would recommend that you . . .”
Weston offers several tips and advises the teen to go to the doctor if she doesn’t feel better soon. She ends with a message she delivers regularly: “take care of YOURSELF.”
For more than 25 years, Carol Weston has dispensed advice to girls: in “Dear Carol,” her Girls’ Life magazine column, in books, at school visits, and even on YouTube. She sometimes receives letters from grown women thanking her for being there when they were young.
To talk to her, you’d never realize that Weston is considered the doyenne of girls’ advice. She seems endlessly young. Her voice is warm and effervescent. Her conversation bubbles with thoughts that move about rapidly, like water on a quick boil. But when her career comes up, the conversation slows down as she reflects. She seems genuinely surprised at how her life’s path laid itself down. “I wanted to write the great American novel,” she says.
Instead, she’s developed a body of work predicated on helping girls navigate their world. Her first book, Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You, has been in print since 1985 and is in its fourth edition. Even her much-adored novels, the Melanie Martin series for young readers, provide valuable lessons as experienced by the title character.
Weston’s affair with the advice format began when she was 11. Her next-door neighbor and best friend shared with her a subscription to a teen magazine that featured a regular advice column, and Weston was hooked. “I’ve always been a sensible person,” she says. “I had common sense before I knew how uncommon that was.”
At 19, she snagged her first writing assignment with Seventeen magazine, which segued into writing quizzes and little essays like “Foreign Fling” and “Is There Life after Nineteen?” for various publications, including Cosmopolitan. Just a few years later, she landed her first contract to write a book for young women and girls, and later became the advice columnist for Girls’ Life.
Yet originally, Weston intended to focus on the more literary side of writing. She graduated from Yale with a degree in French/Spanish comparative literature. She immediately enrolled in Middlebury’s Spanish School and spent a year in Spain, where she met her husband, playwright Rob Ackerman ’80, on his junior year abroad, and their 30-year partnership—two writers, editing and supporting each other—began. “We were so young,” she marvels. Realizing that her daughters are about the same age now, she adds laughing, “Don’t try this at home, folks.”
When she received her first contract to write Girltalk, she was thrilled to have “a chance to tell younger girls everything I could think of.” Never having had a younger sister herself, she approached the project as if she were writing for her husband’s sister.
“She was 13 when I met her, and I imagined her heading off to boarding school. I had to be sure to tell her everything—from healthy eating to having fun but not being fast. I truly poured my heart into it.”
The book’s table of contents offers an entertaining peek at the straightforward yet humorous approach Weston uses to make serious subjects palatable. For example, in the first section called “Looking and Feeling Your Best,” chapters include “Is Your Period a Question Mark?” “Don’t Window Shop at the Bakery and Forty-nine Other Dos and Don’ts,” “Eating Disorders: Dying to Be Thin,” and “Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away.”
According to Weston, Girltalk was a first of its kind. The booksellers didn’t know where to shelve it. There weren’t self-help sections. Sometimes they put the book in the women’s section, sometimes on the counters. The fact that it has been translated into Chinese, Russian, Polish, Mandarin, Czech, Vietnamese, and other languages seems to validate what Weston believes, that “girls are girls the world over; the heart of a girl is the heart of a girl.”
A huge part of her career involves answering teen mail. She does not have assistants or receive remuneration. She simply believes it’s important. “The first letter I ever received was from a girl who had been raped by her father, and she had two little sisters, and she was pregnant. I swear this was the first letter I got. My eyes are teary as I talk about it now. I wanted to be a writer—I didn’t know I was veering into social work.”
Beyond helping scores of girls, Weston was able to use their mail to connect with her own daughters, Emme (a student at Middlebury, Class of 2013), and Lizzi, now a Yale graduate. Weston made a point of asking them to read and comment on her column and book drafts, which allowed them to acquire important information without being preached to.
“Friends would ask me if I went to ‘Dear Carol’ when I had a problem,” says Emme, “but I didn’t need to. I already knew what was up because I’d been doing Mom a ‘favor’ and reading her books and columns.”
Emme also remembers looking through her mother’s mail and offering her teen perspective, helping her get “her voice right . . . She’d have bags of mail, and we’d help. We’d make suggestions about language, like, ‘Mom nobody says hunk; that’s ’80s. Say hottie.’ Or, ‘Mom, don’t use the word soapbox; that sounds old.’”
The morning is winding down and Weston is about ready to head out for a walk with a friend, but there are two teen letters still to deal with. The first is from a girl who is distraught that her best friend has found a new best friend. Weston understands her anguish. “If you are having trouble with your best friend or your mom or your dad or your boyfriend, this is huge. Everything else gets dwarfed by these concerns.”
She pauses, thinking about her mail. “I’ve written back to a bazillion girls. If I counted I’d probably stop.”
The second letter provides the reason that she does not stop: “Hey Carol, your book gave me the power to change! thanks a lot, with lots of love, Debora from Indonesia.”