Dear Carol

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.”

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  1. […] I photographed author and advice columnist Carol Weston this past March and the article has just run in the spring issue of Middlebury Magazine. […]

  2. Dear Carol,
    So, I have a boyfriend, and we have been dating for almost 10 months now. But the problem is I get really jealous easily. He has to tell me everyday about how much he loves me and that he only wants me because I get so jealous. And if I see him even talk to another girl my stomach starts to hurt and I just become upset and then he does too! I don’t understand why I get so jealous and I need help to stop it, because I worry about it constantly. Please help me!

  3. Dear Carol,
    I have been friends with these two boys since the begging of the school year. Lately one has been flirting with me and then people say he is saying mean things about me and saying he hates me, but when I ask him he says that he doesn’t say this stuff and he does want to be my friend. What should I do? Today the other one asked me if I wanted to come with him and watch him at his basketball game so, I’m not sure if he likes me or not and if I should like say something to him. Please help me!

  4. From Carol:

    Dear Katherine,

    Sounds like you and the boys are all still figuring out how you feel about each other.

    I hope the boy isn’t saying mean things. That would be lame and a shame. As for watching the other one play basketball, sure, why not? But only if you feel like it and you’re allowed to go. My best advice is just to take your time as you all learn more about each other and also about how you feel toward each other. Stay kind and friendly and don’t feel that you have to make any decisions, especially since you aren’t sure of your feelings. Time will help clarify all this!

    Yours,

    Carol
    carolweston.com

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  5. Dear Carol,
    I’m in 7th grade and I like a boy in 8th grade. At the beginning of the school year he showed signs he liked me too. We would always pair up as dance partners in Spanish when we had to dance and we talked ALL the time. Well, one of my friends figured out that I like him and she promised she wouldn’t tell because I would rather be friends than be nothing. Well, she told him any way. Now he’s avoiding my in the halls and won’t really talk to me any more. What do I

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    do? I need help. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he won’t even really look at me. He talked to me a tiny bit like 2-3 weeks ago but not at all since then. I don’t know what to do, I really like this boy.

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  6. Dear Carol, I’m in 7th grade and I like a boy in 8th grade. At the beginning of the school year he showed signs he liked me too. We would always pair up as dance partners in Spanish when we had to dance and we talked ALL the time. Well, one of my friends figured out that I like him and she promised she wouldn’t tell because I would rather be friends than be nothing. Well, she told him any way. Now he’s avoiding my in the halls and won’t really talk to me any more. What do IView Moredo? I need help. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he won’t even really look at me. He talked to

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    me a tiny bit like 2-3 weeks ago but not at all since then. I don’t know what to do, I really like this boy. – See more at: http://sites.middlebury.edu/middmag/2011/05/24/dear-carol/#comment-3131402

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  7. Dear Hannah,
    Hang in there! Sometimes summer vacation shakes things up for everyone, and if you won’t be seeing him this summer, it’s probably best to try not to think about him too too too much and to keep saying hi to new boys too.
    That said, it sounds like he probably has feelings for you too — all that dancing and talking does count, after all.
    You can’t force things, so take it slow but if you see him again before the school year ends, ask him about summer plans and just be your friendly sweet self. You’re young and there will be lots of dancing and talking in your future, so good luck and know that his awkwardness

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    may even mean that he likes you too but isn’t ready to go public with private feelings.
    Take care!
    Carol carolweston.com

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  8. Dear Carol,
    Unlike most girls my age, I am not too focused on guys. However, I am curious about what being in an actual relationship is like. I am a very artistic person; painting, drawing, writing and music all appeal to me but I don’t really hang out with the guys in my art class. As for other guys my age, I have a tendency to find them a bit irritating at least. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Comment Policy

We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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