Reading Jessica Simpson’s Memoir Helped Me Unpack My Awkward Teenage Encounter with Her
I had nearly an hour in line to figure out what I’d say to Jessica Simpson at her pre-concert autograph signing. My friend Kayla and I played out scenarios in the 98-degree Florida sun, imagining that in just a minute or less, we’d say something so witty and delightful that she’d have to be friends with us. Instead, my sweaty fingers curled the edges of the September 2001 issue of Teen People, where Jessica shared cover space with stories like “Hanging Out with ’NSync on Tour” and “How to Get into College and Survive” (even though I wouldn’t need this advice for another four years). Finally, we were up next. Witty, brilliant, sparkling banter time.
“Um, uh, hi,” I squeaked.
“Hi,” Jessica replied, barely glancing up as she took my crumpled magazine, swirling a fast “JS” and passing it back. My moment was slipping away!
I blurted out something about loving her new album, and she smiled and thanked me before moving on to the next person. I honestly can’t remember the exact words, because all I could think—now that we were two feet away from each other—was she’s so thin. Even thinner than she’d looked in her “Irresistible” music video (a body transformation that also made the magazine’s cover lines). Her jawline and arms were all sharp angles—but once the surprise subsided, the resounding takeaway in my 14-year-old brain wasn’t that she had already looked great before her second-album weight loss (which is 100 percent true). It was, So that’s what it takes to be thin and pretty and successful.
Simpson wasn’t the approachable girl next door from the “I Think I’m in Love with You” video. She was intimidatingly cool, and as I walked away, dejected and cursing my own cringe-y awkwardness, I wondered if maybe if I were more like her, that moment wouldn’t have been so...lackluster (ah, the naïveté of youth). That summer, I started my first diet, so desperate to get “results” and debut a new body by the first day of school that I began furiously counting calories in a journal each day, trading midday snacks for crushed ice, since I’d read somewhere that it curbed mindless munching.
Over the course of the year, I lost 30 pounds, pinching any bit of fat on my stomach in the mirror, as I later learned my idol Jessica did too. The mindset wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t Simpson’s fault—but it wasn’t until I read her new memoir, Open Book, that I began to understand the underlying issues that sparked my crash diet. And hers.
It’s helpful to remember that all this went down in the early aughts—the time when low-rise jeans and baby tees reigned, and when a pop star’s physique seemed indelibly tied to their talent. Simpson has a four-and-a-half-octave range, but over the years, just as much attention—perhaps even more—has been paid to her figure as her singing. Who remembers the endless stories about how she got into Daisy Duke shape for the Dukes of Hazzard? Or how she became the subject of endless fat jokes after rocking “mom jeans” during a chili cook-off performance back in 2009? It took us a full decade to realize that this 2009 Vanity Fair article spent a little too much time waxing poetic about how she was “shaped like a barbell, booming on top and in the middle, skinny as a pencil in between.”
As it turns out, people’s obsession with Simpson’s body has been following her for decades. At church, she sported extra-baggy shirts and vests to hide her figure so that people wouldn’t be distracted by it while she was singing during services. Then, at 17, when then Sony president Tommy Mottola said he’d like to sign her, she was told the first thing she’d need to do was drop 15 pounds. That’s what it would take to “be Jessica Simpson,” he told her, even though at 5-foot-3 and 118 pounds, she was already a perfectly healthy weight.
That was her “crushed ice” moment, though I have no idea whether she ever actually snacked on crushed ice like I did. She turned to a strict diet and diet pills, she writes in her book, a pattern that continued for the next 20 years.
When Simpson started working on her second album, Irresistible, Mottola told her he wanted to make her a combo of Britney Spears and Mariah Carey—and that meant getting even thinner. “I started the Atkins diet hardcore, envying and resenting anybody who could just eat,” the singer writes. “Off the diet, I obsessed over how I looked 24/7; on the diet, I was also hyper-focused on food. It made me nervous.”
But it wasn’t until I read the next few lines that my perspective cracked open: “My anxiety had something to hold on to, and instead of examining my emotions, I could just block them out by focusing on carb counts and waist sizes. If I focused on controlling my outward appearance, I could avoid thinking about my emotions and fears.”
I had to put the book down for a minute. Jessica Simpson, you just took me to church! The more I thought about it, the more it spoke to me. As an awkward teen, I felt anxious about so many things (dating! the future! whether my braces would ever come off!) that I zeroed in on the one thing I thought I could control: my weight. And, in my teenage shorthand, I equated Simpson’s rising fame and success with her outward appearance. Dress for the job you want, millennial high schooler edition.
Understanding that impact as an adult was illuminating, because it’s made me more aware of looking out for those blind spots in my life today, especially as the world feels increasingly out of my control. Where do I feel the urge to channel my anxiety—or numb myself from feeling it at all—and what can I do instead? For me, that’s taking a walk, doing yoga or just journaling, stream-of-consciousness-style, to unravel my emotions as I wade through them.
In the years since, Simpson has made it a point to accept her body as it is. She may not be able to control what’s written about it, but she no longer diets for photo shoots, and she’s made it a priority to feature inclusive sizing in her fashion line, the Jessica Simpson Collection. Most important, she’s no longer conforming to other people’s ideals of what her body should be.
“I knew I needed to separate what really mattered to me and what mattered to my ego,” she writes near the end of the book. “Nobody’s words—compliments or critiques—should define the value of our souls.”