Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West
NOTA DE LEITURA
Antes de começar a ler o livro de Lindy West, é boa ideia ver as fotografias dela no Google Images. A moça, de 34 anos (nasceu em 1982) é alta, muito larga e gordíssima. Não admira que levasse muito tempo a fazer as pazes com o seu corpo.
Escreve bem em estilo polémico, embora se lhe possam fazer algumas reservas. Alguém a criticou por ter o costume de inserir nos seus artigos textos em maiúsculas, o que é antipático, ideia com que eu concordo.
Como hei-de traduzir o título do livro – Shrill? Sem desprimor, acho que poderia ser “guincho”, um grito de raiva que se ouve bem longe.
O livro é autobiográfico e termina mais ou menos com o seu casamento com um músico mestiço chamado Ahamefule J. Oluo em 2015.
Lindy ataca algumas manias tipicamente americanas: a misoginia, a reprovação do aborto, sexismo, racismo e especialmente as que mais lhe interessam: “fat shaming” (gozar com as gordas) e “rape jokes” (piadas sobre violações). Argumentos não lhe faltam. Indigna-se sobretudo com as “trolls”, mensagens provocadoras na Internet com o intuito de suscitar o máximo de discussões.
Refere ela que se viu obrigada a fazer um aborto, quando engravidou sem querer numa relação muito morna com um companheiro que não queria de modo nenhum ser pai.
As “trolls” são muito facilitadas pelas mensagens breves do Twitter e o livro contém exemplos de grande ordinarice. Nas guerras que travou contra os provocadores, a autora considera-se como vencedora, nomeadamente no que se refere às piadas sobre violações, onde ela demonstrou que o facto de serem piadas não as torna menos reprováveis.
Sobre a misoginia americana, a autora não usa um argumento que suponho tenha algum peso. A pornografia nos USA é especialmente misógina, muito mais que a europeia. Ora isso pode ter um peso na educação sexual dos adolescentes. Será o mesmo que acontece na Europa, onde a educação sexual dos jovens é influenciada pela pornografia que consomem e os leva a considerar perfeitamente normais comportamentos que as parceiras femininas consideram anómalos.
A autora é colunista do Guardian, onde publicou textos a seguir transcritos.
21 JULY 2015
My wedding was perfect – and I was fat as hell the whole time
As a fat woman, you are told to disguise, shrink or flatter your body. But I wasn’t going to hide at my wedding – the older I get, the harder it is to depoliticise simple acts
Aham and I got engaged on my birthday. He took me to dinner, suggested a “quick nightcap” at our neighbourhood bar, and then, surprise! Everyone was there – our friends, our families, the kids, four random people who were just trying to get a damn drink on a Sunday night without being accidental set dressing in somebody else’s raucous public proposal (sorry, dudes). I was so happy. He took my hand and led me to the back; there was a paper banner that said my name (the bartender made it – we go there a lot); there was a live string duet. I was confused. Why was there a sombre cello at my birthday party? Why was my boyfriend doing his Intense Face? Wait, it’s almost 10pm on a school night and we’re at a bar – why ARE the kids here? Then it all happened at once: the knee, the ring, the speech, the question, the tears. All the hits. It was a full-blown grand gesture.
Months later, I asked him why he did it that way – such a big spectacle, such an event, not precisely our style – and I expected something cliched but sweet, like, “I wanted to make sure our community was a part of our marriage,” or, “I wanted everyone to know how much I love you.” Instead, his response cracked me up: “One time when you were drunk you told me, ‘If you ever propose to me, don’t do it in the bullshit way that dudes usually treat fat girls. Like it’s a secret, or you’re just trying to keep me from leaving you. Thin girls get public proposals, like those dudes are winning a fucking prize. Fat chicks deserve that, too.’” I probably would have finessed it a bit if I’d been sober, but way to lean in, bossy, drunk past-Lindy!
It’s not that I’d ever particularly yearned for a grand gesture – the relationship I cherish lives in our tiny private moments (and, as I’d later discover at my bridal shower, I’m surprisingly uncomfortable being the object of public sincerity) – but the older I get and the longer I live in a fat body, the harder it is to depoliticise even simple acts. A public proposal to a publicly valued body might be personally significant, but culturally it shifts nothing. A public proposal to a publicly reviled body is a political statement.
I’ve dated men who relished me in private but refused to be seen with me on the street, or who told me, explicitly, that we had no serious future because they were afraid their friends would laugh at them. I’ve been eagerly approached by men who clearly saw me as nothing but an arousingly taboo body type, which I find equally demoralising (other fat people don’t mind, I know – that’s cool, too). I just wanted to be a person, and, if I was lucky, to fall in love with a person – neither in spite of my body nor because of it. Once I finally did, I wanted to crystallise that, make it solid, and broadcast it where younger versions of myself could find it.
“I grew up assuming that I would never get married,” I wrote back in November, in a piece called Why I can’t wait to be a fat bride, “because marriage was for thin women, the kind of women who deserved to be collected. How could I be a bride when I was already what men most feared their wives would become? I was themise en place for a midlife crisis. I was the Ghost of Adultery Future. At least, that’s what I’d been taught. And that’s why I can’t goddamn wait to be a fat bride.”
Well, I don’t hide any more in my everyday life, and I definitely wasn’t going to hide at my wedding
And: “When I think back on my teenage self, what I really needed to hear wasn’t that someone might love me one day if I lost enough weight to qualify as human – it was that I was worthy of love now, just as I was. So I’ll be fat on my wedding day. Because being fat and happy and in love in public is still a radical act.”
We got married a week ago at my favourite place – a log cabin that my parents bought when I was a few years old and have painstakingly fixed up over the intervening 30 years.
My dad didn’t make it to my wedding, but even though I believed that death is a hard return, I can always feel him at the cabin. I walked down the aisle to a recording of him playing Someone to Watch Over Me on the piano; my fiance wore a blue plaid suit; a bald eagle flapped over the ceremony; the food was transcendent; my sister’s fondant camellias slid off the cake; someone spilled red wine on one of the beds; I got my period; it poured after a month of uninterrupted sunshine, then abruptly stopped just as we emerged from the tent to dance; a friend of mine got confused about the route to the bathroom and walked into my mom’s bedroom naked. Oh, and Aham’s 100-year-old great-grandmother had a tiny stroke on the way to the wedding, went to the hospital, got better, AND STILL CAME AND PARTIED. It was a gorgeous, chaotic, loving, perfect day.
As a fat woman, if you ask for help or guidance on almost any topic, what you inevitably hear is some version of “Take up less space.” Diminish yourself. Feeling sick? Make your body smaller. Can’t find love? Make your body smaller. Undervalued at work? Make your body smaller. Can’t make your body smaller? Hide your body. Can’t hide your body? “Flatter” your body (ie make it look smaller). Choose an empire waist. Cover your arms. Your body is too unattractive. Your body is too expensive. Your body is too unruly. We want to see less of you, or preferably none at all.
“The first thing that a plus-size wedding dress must be in the eyes of the wedding-dress industry is ‘flattering’,” says my friend and wedding planner Alithea O’Dell. “Their primary concern is to hide your body, which is just absurd when you think about how much inspiration and thought and talent goes into designing straight-sized dresses. Those dresses can be many things – a show stopper, glamorous, beautiful, delicate, sexy – before they are ‘flattering’.”
I skipped the bridal boutiques altogether. My friend, artist and designer Mark Mitchell, and I conceived of the most beautiful dress we could imagine, which, according to the old orthodoxies, just happened to be the least “flattering” dress possible for a fat chick: a strapless, skin-tight mermaid gown exploding with silk flowers. The flowers – my god, the wisteria! – added extra bulk in areas I’m supposed to try and “slim”. The silhouette accentuated my stomach instead of camouflaging it. My arms looked like what they are – strong, and big. I didn’t wear Spanx. I was beautiful.
But “beauty” is a fraught concept. There’s an awkward three-way tension between wedding culture and feminism and fat acceptance – because of what “acceptance” demands of women in our culture, a lot of fat activism takes the form of fat women trying to “prove” that they can wear the trappings of male fantasy and traditional gender roles just as well as thin women. Fat women can be pretty. Fat women can get married. Fat women can “get” conventionally attractive husbands. But how is that constructive? Male approval isn’t where my self-worth comes from – and that realisation was a huge part of what made my current relationship healthy and fulfilling. Respectability politics might boost mainstream attitudes toward fat people in the short-term, but what does it do for women in general in the long-term? How can I simultaneously fight for women to be free of patriarchal standards and for fat women to be allowed to participate in those standards?
My short answer is that I am far more interested in expanding the realm of self-expression for fat people than in adding to the already extensive list of what we “can” and “can’t” wear. But I also asked Alithea how she reconciles that tension as a wedding planner, a feminist, and a fat woman. “I agree,” she said, “that sometimes women will still internalise these patriarchal ideas we are taught about how we MUST get married, we MUST be as beautiful as possible, we MUST be loved by a cis man, and if we don’t, we aren’t truly happy or successful. Obviously, this is bullshit. Of course a partner brings us happiness in so many ways that others can’t, but there is a fundamental structure of love, and happiness, and true peace most of us must find in ourselves before we find happiness with a partner, otherwise it’s like a beautiful house built on a shitty foundation. The strongest conflict I navigate is the one between feminism and the capitalism that is so deeply interwoven into weddings. Capitalism is not feminist – it is built on preying on cheap labour, by literally enslaving people to manufacture things so other people get rich. The wedding industrial complex has convinced us that the only ‘good’ weddings are the weddings that cost the most. But I see weddings as a tradition, a ceremony, and those things are important in all cultures. So I work with my clients to strip away the gross stuff that doesn’t feel right, the stuff they’re told they ‘need’, and rebuild a wedding into a ceremony and a party that is reflective of their values, something that they are proud of and feels like an honest celebration of their love.”
Choose your rituals, but make them yours. If you want to look like a flower market ate fat Betty Draper and then barfed her up in the middle of a haunted forest (YEEEESSS!), great choice. If you want to get married to a burrito while wearing a barrel with suspenders, I’m cool with it. If you think the very concept of marriage is hot garbage, that’s legit. But regardless, remember that you absolutely do not have to “fix” your body, chase after “flattering”, be somebody’s dark secret, or beg for permission to be happy.
And to my 16-year-old self, if you’re reading this, listen to Alithea; she is wise: “When I enter into a relationship, I am not filling a hole that society has dug out of my soul, telling me that I am fat, and because I am fat I am ugly, and because I am ugly I am unlovable. I am there, in their bed and in their life, for the purest of reasons, not because I am insecure and need the external validation that a patriarchal society has taught us to seek. I am not seeking validation from a partner, I am seeking partnership in that partner.”
I have never in my life been fatter than I was on my wedding day, I have never shown my body in such an uncompromising way, and I have never felt more at home in that body. I was fully myself, and I was happy. We are happy. This life is yours, fat girls. Eat it up.
Sunday 8 May 2016
The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed it for a long time and let it shrink my life
As a child, Lindy West was told she was ‘off the charts’. In this exclusive extract from her new book, Shrill, she explains how society’s fixation on thinness warps women’s lives – and why she would rather be ‘fat’ than ‘big’
I’ve always been a great big person. In the months after I was born, the doctor was so alarmed by the circumference of my head that she insisted my parents bring me back, over and over, to be weighed and measured and held up for scrutiny next to the “normal” babies. My head was “off the charts”, she said. Science literally had not produced a chart expansive enough to account for my monster dome. “Off the charts” became a West family joke over the years – I always deflected it, saying it was because of my giant brain – but I absorbed the message nonetheless. I was too big, from birth. Abnormally big.
Medical-anomaly big. Unchartably big. There were people-sized people, and then there was me. So, what do you do when you’re too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you can’t with your body. You diet. You starve, you run until you taste blood in your throat, you count out your almonds, you try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh.
I got good at being small early on – socially, if not physically. In public, until I was eight, I would speak only to my mother, and even then only in whispers, pressing my face into her leg. I retreated into fantasy novels, movies, computer games and, eventually, comedy – places where I could feel safe, assume any personality, fit into any space. I preferred tracing to drawing. Drawing was too bold an act of creation, too presumptuous.
My dad was friends with Bob Dorough, an old jazz guy who wrote all the songs for Multiplication Rock, an educational kids’ show and Schoolhouse Rock’s maths-themed sibling. He’s that breezy, froggy voice on Three Is a Magic Number – if you grew up in the US, you’d recognise it. “A man and a woman had a little baby, yes, they did. They had three-ee-ee in the family ...” Bob signed a vinyl copy of Multiplication Rock for me when I was two or three years old. “Dear Lindy,” it said, “get big!” I hid that record as a teenager, afraid that people would see the inscription and think: “She took that a little too seriously.”
I dislike “big” as a euphemism, maybe because it’s the one chosen most often by people who mean well, who love me and are trying to be gentle with my feelings. I don’t want the people who love me to avoid the reality of my body. I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable with its size and shape, to tacitly endorse the idea that fat is shameful, to pretend I’m something I’m not out of deference to a system that hates me. I don’t want to be gentled, like I’m something wild and alarming. (If I’m going to be wild and alarming, I’ll do it on my terms.) I don’t want them to think I need a euphemism at all.
“Big” is a word we use to cajole a child: “Be a big girl!” “Act like the big kids!” Having it applied to you as an adult is a cloaked reminder of what people really think, of the way we infantilise and desexualise fat people. Fat people are helpless babies enslaved by their most capricious cravings. Fat people don’t know what’s best for them. Fat people need to be guided and scolded like children. Having that awkward, babyish word dragging on you every day of your life, from childhood into maturity, well, maybe it’s no wonder I prefer hot chocolate to whisky and substitute Harry Potter audiobooks for therapy.
Every cell in my body would rather be “fat” than “big”.
Grownups speak the truth. Over time, the knowledge that I was too big made my life smaller and smaller. I insisted that shoes and accessories were just “my thing”, because my friends didn’t realise I couldn’t shop for clothes at regular shops and I was too mortified to explain it to them. I backed out of dinner plans if I remembered the restaurant had particularly narrow aisles or rickety chairs. I ordered salad even if everyone else was having fish and chips. I pretended to hate skiing because my giant men’s ski pants made me look like a chimney and I was terrified my bulk would tip me off the chairlift. I stayed home as my friends went hiking, biking, sailing, climbing, diving, exploring – I was sure I couldn’t keep up, and what if we got into a scrape? They couldn’t boost me up a cliff or lower me down an embankment or squeeze me through a tight fissure or hoist me from the hot jaws of a bear. I never revealed a single crush, convinced that the idea of my disgusting body as a sexual being would send people – even people who loved me – into fits of projectile vomiting (or worse, pity). I didn’t go swimming for a decade.
As I imperceptibly rounded the corner into adulthood – 14, 15, 16, 17 – I watched my friends elongate and arch into these effortless, exquisite things. I waited. I remained a stump. I wasn’t jealous, exactly; I loved them, but I felt cheated.
We each get just a few years to be perfect. To be young and smooth and decorative and collectible. That’s what I’d been sold. I was missing my window, I could feel it pulling at my navel (my obsessively hidden, hated navel), and I scrabbled, desperate and frantic. Deep down, in my honest places, I knew it was already gone – I had stretch marks and cellulite long before 20 – but they tell you that, if you hate yourself hard enough, you can grab a tail feather or two of perfection. Chasing perfection was your duty and your birthright, as a woman, and I would never know what it was like – this thing, this most important thing for girls.
I missed it. I failed. I wasn’t a woman.
You only get one life. I missed it. Society’s monomaniacal fixation on female thinness isn’t a distant abstraction, something to be pulled apart by academics in women’s studies classrooms or leveraged for traffic in shallow “body-positive” listicles (“Check Out These 11 Fat Chicks Who You Somehow Still Kind of Want to Bang – No 7 Is Almost Like a Regular Woman!”). It is a constant, pervasive taint that warps every woman’s life. And, by extension, it is in the amniotic fluid of every major cultural shift.
Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise women to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws, rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time – that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.
I watched my friends become slender and beautiful, I watched them get picked and wear J Crew and step into small boats without fear, but I also watched them starve and harm themselves, get lost and sink. They were picked by bad people, people who hurt them on purpose, eroded their confidence and kept them trapped in an endless chase. The real scam is that being bones isn’t enough, either. The game is rigged. There is no perfection.
I listened to Howard Stern every morning in college on his eponymous 90s radio show. The Howard Stern Show was magnificent entertainment. It felt like a family. Except that, for female listeners, membership in that family came at a price. Stern would do this thing (the thing, I think, that most non- listeners associate with the show) where hot chicks would turn up at the studio and he would look them over like a horse vet – running his hands over their withers and flanks, inspecting their bite and the sway of their back, honking their massive horse jugs – and tell them, in intricate detail, what was wrong with their bodies. There was literally always something. If they were eight stone, they could stand to be seven. If they were six, gross. (“Why did you do that to your body, sweetie?”) If they were a C cup, they’d be hotter as a DD. They should stop working out so much – those legs are too muscular. Their 29in waist was subpar – come back when it’s a 26.
Then there was me: 16 stone, 40in waist, no idea what bra size, because I’d never bothered to buy a nice one, because who would see it? Frumpy, miserable, cylindrical. The distance between my failure of a body and perfection stretched away beyond the horizon. According to Stern, even girls who were there weren’t there.
If you want to be a part of this community that you love, I realised – this family that keeps you sane in a shitty, boring world, this million-dollar enterprise that you fund with your consumer clout, just as much as male listeners – you have to participate, with a smile, in your own disintegration. You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard administered by men.
When I was 22 and all I wanted was to blend in, that rejection was crushing and hopeless and lonely. Years later, when I was finally ready to stand out, the realisation that the mainstream didn’t want me was freeing and galvanising. It gave me something to fight for. It taught me that women are an army.
When I look at photographs of my 22-year-old self, so convinced of her own defectiveness, I see a perfectly normal girl and I think about aliens. If an alien – a gaseous orb or a polyamorous cat person or whatever – came to Earth, it wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between me and Angelina Jolie, let alone rank us by hotness. It’d be like: “Uh, yeah, so those ones have the under-the-face fat sacks, and the other kind has that dangly pants nose. Fuck, these things are gross. I can’t wait to get back to the omnidirectional orgy gardens of Vlaxnoid.”
The “perfect body” is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life, and shrink it – my real life, populated by my real body. Don’t let fiction tell you what to do. In the omnidirectional orgy gardens of Vlaxnoid, no one cares about your arm flab.
Fat female role models
As a kid, I never saw anyone remotely like myself on TV. Or in the movies, or in video games, or at the children’s theatre, or in books, or anywhere at all in my field of vision. There simply were no young, funny, capable, strong, good fat girls. A fat man can be Tony Soprano, he can be Dan from Roseanne (still my No 1 celeb crush), he can be John Candy, funny without being a human sight gag. But fat women were sexless mothers, pathetic punch lines or gruesome villains. Don’t believe me? It’s cool –I wrote it down.
Here is a list of fat female role models available in my youth.
Lady Kluck was a loud, fat chicken-woman who took care of Maid Marian (and, presumably, may have wet-nursed her with chicken milk?!) in Disney’s Robin Hood.
Kluck was so fat, in fact, that she was nearly the size of an adult male bear. Being a 28-stone chicken, she wasn’t afraid to throw down in a fight with a lion and a gay snake (even though the lion was her boss! #LeanIn), and she had monstro jugs, but in a maternal, sexless way, which is a total rip-off. (It’s weird that motherhood is coded as sexless, by the way. I know most of society is clueless about the female reproductive system, but if there’s one thing most babies have in common it’s that your dad goofed in your mum.)
Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller
In order to assist Robin Hood in ripping off Prince John’s bejewelled decadence caravan, Baloo (I know this bear’s name is technically Little John, but he is clearly a character played by a bear actor named Baloo who also plays himself in The Jungle Book) adorns himself with scarves and rags and golden bangles and whirls around like an impish sirocco, utterly beguiling PJ’s guard rhinos and incapacitating them with boners. Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller luxuriates in every curve of his huge, sensuous bear butt; self-consciousness is not in his vocabulary. He knows he looks good. The most depressing thing I realised while making this list is that Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller was the most positive role model of my youth.
The Queen of Hearts
I don’t even know this bitch’s deal. In Alice in Wonderland, her only personality trait is “likes the colour red”. She doesn’t seem to do any governing, aside from executing minors for losing at croquet, and she is married to a 1ft-tall baby with a moustache. She is, now that I think about it, the perfect feminazi caricature: fat, loud, irrational, violent, overbearing, constantly hitting a hedgehog with a flamingo. Oh, shit. She taught me everything I know.
I am deeply torn on Piggy. For a lot of fat women, Piggy is it. She is powerful and uncompromising, assertive in her sexuality and wholly self- possessed, with an ostentatious glamour usually denied to anyone over a size eight. Her being a pig affords fat fans the opportunity to reclaim that barb with defiant irony – she invented glorifying obesity.
But also, you guys, Miss Piggy is kind of a rapist. Maybe if you love Kermie so much you should respect his bodily autonomy. The dude is physically running away from you.
Morla the Aged One
A depressed turtle from The NeverEnding Story who’s so fat and dirty people literally get her confused with a mountain.
I guess it’s forgivable that one of the secondary antagonists of The Secret of NIMH is a shrieking shrew of a woman who is also a literal shrew named Auntie Shrew, because the hero of the movie is also a lady and she is strong and brave. But, like, seriously? Auntie Shrew? Thanks for giving her a pinwheel of snaggle-fangs to go with the cornucopia of misogynistic stereotypes she calls a personality.
Sure, the Trunchbull in Matilda is a bitter, intractable, sadistic she-monster who doesn’t even feel a shred of fat solidarity with Bruce Bogtrotter (seriously, Trunch?), but can you imagine being the Trunchbull? And growing up with Miss Effing Honey? The world is not kind to big, ugly women. Sometimes, bitterness is the only defence.
Question: how come, when the teapot and cup turn back into humans at the end of Beauty and the Beast, Chip is a four-year-old boy, but his mother, Mrs Potts, is like 107? Perhaps you’re thinking: “Lindy, you’re remembering it wrong. That kindly, white-haired, snowman-shaped Mrs Doubtfire situation must be Chip’s grandmother.” Not so, champ! She’s his mum. Look it up. She gave birth to him four years ago. Also, where the hell is Chip’s dad? Could you imagine being a 103-year-old single mum?
As soon as you become a mother, apparently, you are instantly interchangeable with the oldest woman in the world, and/or a pot of boiling brown water with a hat on it.
Extracted from Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West, published on 19 May by Quercus,
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West – ‘I never wanted internet trolls to be my beat’
West’s memoir is full of a wild, joyous vulgarity and ranges from body images and rape threats to puberty and her love for her husband
13 May 2016
In 2013, Lindy West got a message on Twitter from her dead father. “Embarrassed father of an idiot,” his bio said. But no: “My dad was never mean. It couldn’t really be from him. Also, he was dead – just 18 months earlier, I’d watched him turn grey and drown in his own magnificent lungs.” Someone wanted to hurt her.
At that moment in her career, West was fielding daily online harassment for her opposition to rape jokes in standup comedy. “I was eating 30 rape threats for breakfast at that point (or, more accurately, ‘You’re fatter than the girls I usually rape’ threats),” she writes in this memoir. “No one could touch me any more.”
But that Twitter message was something different: it was about her dad. “What could I do? It’s not illegal to reach elbow-deep into someone’s safest, sweetest memories and touch them and twist them and weaponise them to impress the ghost of Lenny Bruce or what-the-fuck-ever.”
So she wrote about it. And – as they say – you won’t believe what happened next. The tweeter apologised. “It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article” – West was a columnist for the online magazine – “it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit.”
In a subsequent conversation on the radio programme This American Life, he said (his name isn’t given) he had been overweight, and, as West writes in Shrill, “reading about fat people, particularly fat women, accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him in ways he couldn’t articulate at the time”.
Being a woman means certain men think they have dominion over your body; being a fat woman means they don’t bother to hide it. Fatness thus confers a grim power of discernment, an antenna for character that survives even if you become skinny. Fatness gives you an insight into a world of cruelty many people can’t imagine.
I always like to come across the word “fat” in a snug, happy, adjectival nook somewhere. Fat toffees. Fat salary. Fat grin. Fat as something luxurious, friendly, and plentiful rather than gross and wrong. Because fat is normally one of the bad words, toxic in its blunt monosyllabic force. Fat can’t be argued with: it is not just an aesthetic condemnation (You’re ugly), it’s a moral condemnation (You’re lazy).
Online, it is spat at women like machine-gun fire. In the real world, “fat” is often replaced with simpering euphemisms such as zaftig, Rubenesque, big, heavy – with the implication that “fat” is so bad it is literally unspeakable. But West is a witty, joyfully vulgar, and, yes, fat writer unwilling to accept the story that her body is shameful. “Every cell in my body would rather be ‘fat’ than ‘big’,” she writes.
If being a fat woman gives you a front-row seat on human cruelty, being a woman who writes on the internet pushes you into the arena with the lions. People reveal themselves to you when there is no accountability: behind a screen, you can say almost anything.
“Kill yourself, dumb bitch”: if you have experienced bias or harassment, talking openly about it will almost certainly bring you more. This is how it goes: let’s say somebody makes a rape joke. You object. So people make more rape jokes, except this time they’re about you. You object more loudly. Rape jokes are now rape threats, and they’re pouring in, a flood of them, every day, except some of them say, “You’re too fat to rape”, or “Kill yourself, pig lady”, because the internet is a place where your most private self is up for mauling, where the rules for how to treat other people don’t apply. You push on, even with the grim certainty that describing your pain will invite more. And more pour in, multiplying and multiplying. It is now your job to be mad about it.
That is what happened to West. “I never wanted internet trolls to be my beat,” she writes. “I wanted to write feminist polemics, jokes about wizards and love letters to John Goodman’s meaty, sexual forearms.” Her pain, her body, her fear – these are now her beats.
West’s range is wide. Shrill’s early chapters flash with wild, exuberant profanity. She opens with a riff on fat fictional characters, such as the Queen of Hearts from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland – “fat, loud, irrational, violent, overbearing, constantly hitting a hedgehog with a flamingo. Oh, shit. She taught me everything I know.” She tackles not just trolls but puberty (“a fancy word for your genitals stabbing you in the back”) and early years spent trying to hide her body (“I didn’t go swimming for a fucking decade”). Later, she becomes more sober and personal, writing about her father’s death and her love for her husband. Shrillmixes humour with pathos so effectively that those qualities magnify each other rather than cancelling each other out. West has somehow stayed open and vulnerable in the face of constant attack, abuse that would turn a lot of people into a brittle shell, instead of a warm, capacious and funny writer.
West has made a bargain: paying a price in terms of time and mental health for a chance at fighting both the shadowy beast that is sexist culture and the specific beasts filling her inbox with injunctions to suicide. She knows that in order to do it, she is offering herself up as a sacrifice to them, the beasts who eat your softest and most vulnerable parts and leave you bleeding. She does it because she thinks she can make it better. I hope she’s right. I think she is.
MAY 17 2016
Louder Than Trolls
Lindy West’s Shrill skewers sexism, fat-shaming, period stigma, and more.
By Nora Caplan-Bricker
There are many reasons a successful ladyblogger might want to scoop her voice from the river of the internet and distill it in the pages of a book. There’s the possibility that she will find a new and expanded audience, as Roxane Gay did with Bad Feminist. There’s the argument, which Sarah Mesle of theLos Angeles Review of Books made about Mallory Ortberg’s Texts From Jane Eyre, that the informality of bloggy writing suits the hierarchy-toppling project of feminism—and therefore that it deserves the careful consideration we give books. There’s the possibility that the ladyblogger simply has a self-contained and book-sized story to tell, as Jen Doll did in Save the Date, her saga of singlehood during wedding season.
The latest addition to this literary category is Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, by Guardian columnist and former Jezebel blogger Lindy West. Like many an internet sensation’s debut, this memoir-cum–call-to-arms pulls from previously published work and spins it into something new. The book is savvily positioned for both West neophytes and West diehards: It’s a primer on the development of her fat-accepting, feminist consciousness, told with adrenalized wit. (West describes how she sometimes deals with the hordes of misogynist trolls who menace her on Twitter by “toss[ing] the troll around for a while like a pod of orcas with a baby seal.”) Her book is both sharp-toothed and fluid as it rips into period stigma and abortion stigma, sexism and fat-shaming. Though the book’s many shrewd insights sometimes feel strung together in a way that’s less than artful, they are always a pleasure to read.
Parts of Shrill are new, such as West’s ingenious “complete list of fat female role models available in my youth.” (She includes a defense of Ursula from The Little Mermaid: “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.”) Parts are familiar, such as a chapter adapted from a powerful Guardian column about her wedding. To see so much of West’s writing in one place is to appreciate her range. She can eviscerate the status quo with raunchy humor—in her opening chapter, she upends the message girls receive that “periods are the best! and we must never speak of them” by declaring that getting hers felt like watching her vagina “transform into a chocolate fountain (SORRY) and turn my pants into a crime scene once a month.” She can attack entrenched sexism with skilled polemic, as when she argues for why “fat is a feminist issue.” And she can leave both of those modes behind to write poignantly about growing up, losing her father, and falling in love.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and Shrilltoggles between thematic and chronological modes of organization. In a book that falls somewhere between a single narrative and a collection of essays, this can be disorienting. An anecdote in which West is assigned by Seattle’s the Stranger to cover a “Red Tent Temple”—a place, inspired by Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, where women congregate to celebrate their menstrual cycles—is wedged between stories from her childhood, apparently to consolidate the topic of menstrual embarrassment. Two of the book’s strongest chapters are somewhat awkwardly juxtaposed. In one, West wonders if her resilience in the face of trolling and misogyny is “a masochistic form of vanity—the vestigial allure of a rugged individualism that I don’t even believe in.” In the following chapter, a lyrical portrait of her parents’ marriage of opposites, she wonders if the grit she inherited from her mother and the idealism she got from her father made her “preternaturally suited” for withstanding trolls.
West is propulsively entertaining—more than enough to carry the reader through the book’s meanderings. Shrill is least engaging when West seems most concerned with driving home an overarching theme. Sometimes, she calls attention to the process by which she claimed her voice as a “loud woman” by breaking the fourth wall: “If I’m going to make a living telling women to stick up for themselves, I need to do it too,” she writes in a chapter about confronting a man who shamed her for her size on an airplane. In other sections, she relitigates battles she has fought online. She walks the reader through dueling pieces that she and Dan Savage wrote about fat- shaming and fat acceptance when they were both at the Stranger, and then, at greater length, through a series of pieces and media appearances—and corresponding Twitter backlashes—in which she considered, essentially, what constitutes “punching up” when it comes to rape jokes in comedy. Compelling as these questions are, it grows tedious to read about the twists and turns of battles in the blogosphere, summarized in a repetitive he-said-she-said format.
As a collection of anecdotes and bite-size manifestoes, Shrill is incisive and funny, even if its various messages about women’s empowerment do not entirely add up to more than the sum of their parts. West argues that she has helped change the culture around issues such as fat acceptance, rape jokes, and Twitter misogyny even in the relatively short span of time she’s been writing about them. Those debates will continue to unfold online, advanced and recorded by West’s own work. Her book is an in medias res snapshot of both contemporary feminism and of one of its loudest voices, a woman reaping the rewards and weathering the consequences of speaking her mind.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is a contributing writer for DoubleX. Follow her on Twitter.
Lindy West gets loud about fat, feminism and Internet trolls
BY STAV ZIV
Lindy West isn’t going to whisper about size, periods or abortion. She’s not going to shut up about sexism, online harassment or why comedians should stop with the rape jokes either. She describes herself as “fat” and called her new memoir Shrill to point out the “really blatant and egregious double standard” of the gendered word—no one calls men “shrill”—and explain why that label is usually just an excuse to discredit women’s ideas. “Once I’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of the word shrill,” she tells Newsweek, “then if you use it, you’re being a dickhead.”
In print and in person, West is witty and relatable. The girl who wrote that she once peed her pants in grade school because she was too afraid to ask the teacher if she could go to the bathroom has become a self-professed loud woman who makes keen, vulgar and hilarious observations about society and her life. As I read the first chapters of Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, I started keeping a mental list of all the offbeat terms she used for the female anatomy. There was “shame canyon,” “magic triangle” and “vagin-UUUUUUUGGGHHHHHHHH.” She called tampons “vagina plugs” and described them as “like a severed toe made out of cotton.”
The memoir, published in May, “is largely about my journey from quiet to loud and figuring out how to be loud and big in all of these different areas,” West says, speaking on a recent trip to New York City a few days after the book came out. Having completed the previous day’s marathon of media interviews, a reading, and recordings for This American Life and the 2 Dope Queens podcast, she was getting ready to fly to St. Louis to kick off a book tour that will stop in cities all over the U.S. and U.K. The process, she says, was “obviously [about] learning how to feel OK about being big physically, but also about being big in my presence and trying to make a big impact on the world.”
West started writing in 2005 at famed Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, where she worked her way up from intern to staff film critic and writer of the comedy column “Chuckletown, USA, Population: Jokes.” She got a national platform as a staff writer at Jezebel—a Gawker Media–owned site with the tagline “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing”—and since leaving that site in 2014 has written for GQ, Cosmopolitan and The New York Times. Most recently, West has been acolumnist for The Guardian, where she writes about current affairs, politics and culture, including her response this past September to the “Dear Fat People” video that went viral on YouTube.
“Indeed, it is ‘hella brave’ and ‘new’ to tell fat people to eat less and exercise more— much like the bravery of Braveheart, or the brave girl from Brave, or the weird old guy who used to come into my work when I was 17 and try to sell me pyramid scheme weight-loss pills that I’m 99% sure were tapeworm eggs mixed with Adderall,” she wrote. “The bravery of thin people who exploit and abuse fat people for profit is truly unmatched.”
For years, West has been a crusader against the issues that most affect women and other vulnerable groups—bullying, body shaming, slut shaming, racism and transphobia, to name a few. The fact that she does so all over the internet has helped her gather a large and supportive fan base (including nearly 70,000 Twitter followers). Shrill gives the details behind several of the most high-profile moments of her career, but it also touches on deeply personal experiences. It is “more vulnerable than what I usually write, even though I already get super personal.”
In one chapter, she describes the first time she ever called herself fat to another person—via instant message with her boy-magnet roommate, during her sophomore year of college. “I will always be alone. I’m fat. I’m not stupid. I know how the world works,” she recalls typing. “No one had ever sent me flowers, or asked me on a date, or written me a love letter,” she writes years later. “No one had ever picked me. Literally no one. The cumulative result was worse than loneliness: I felt unnatural. Broken.” Later, she tells readers about the man who became her husband, from the moment they stood as two friends backstage at a comedy show—where she became increasingly furious at a performer’s lazily offensive herpes jokes and whispered to him about it, and he later told her that’s when he began to realize she wasn’t just funny, but “might be a really, really radically good person”—to the night he proposed.
She starts one chapter musing about the “decoy purch” strategy—adding random items like baby carrots or toilet paper to a shopping basket containing, say, a pregnancy test—and continues by describing frankly her relationship with her ex, who “made me feel lonely, and being alone with another person is much worse than being alone all by yourself.” She talks, and writes, about her decision to get an abortion, despite people who would prefer women stay silent on the matter—people she describes as “zealous high school youth-groupers and repulsive, birth-obsessed pastors” who tell “vulnerable young women that all abortions are traumatic and all abortions are dangerous and all abortions are regretted and fetuses are babies and just pump these lies out into the water supply that serve no purpose except to strip women of their autonomy.”
In the wake of efforts to defund Planned Parenthood last year, West helped launch the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, which was not meant to assign any positive connotations, she says, but to show “we’re not obligated to be quiet.… Those of us who are privileged enough to live safe, stable lives where we’re not going to be disowned by our families, and we’re probably not going to be murdered for being open about abortion, have an obligation to do that for all of the women who can’t.”
West is especially proud of the time she got an apology from an internet troll (virtually unheard of on the wild web) who had set up a Twitter account in her father’s name soon after he died of cancer. The troll wrote “embarrassed father of an idiot” on the account’s bio and harassed West. She blocked him and then wrote about the experience in a biting story for Jezebel that caught her harasser's attention. As she recounts in the chapter “Slaying the Troll,” the post pushed him to email an apology, delete the account and later agree to speak to West for a segment on This American Life. The show drew the attention of then–Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who admitted that his company had failed to deal effectively with the kind of abuse West and others faced and vowed to fix it.
“Part of my work that’s gotten bigger and bigger and more explicitly important to me is helping other people feel less alone,” she says. “I get emails that say, ‘Thank you, no one’s ever told me that I had value before.’ I mean, people don’t tell fat people that they have value. Women are devalued. There are so many different systems telling people they’re garbage in a million different ways.” What she does is not on-the-ground activism—“I’m not sailing around the world performing abortions”—but she wants her writing to help make even just a few people with complex lives feel less like garbage.
And it’s not just women she wants to relate to. “If a man wrote a memoir like this, it would just be a memoir. It would be a piece of literature—a book that anyone could pick up,” West says. “Because it’s about women’s lived experiences, suddenly it’s this froufrou, whiny, niche, shrill thing.” The book tries to combat that reaction from every possible direction. The cover design, for example, is consciously un-girly, with a red, yellow, black and white color scheme rather than shades of pink or purple.
“My plan was to try to trick men into reading it,” West says. “Women already know a lot of this stuff.”
The New York Times
By Jessica Valenti
204 pp. Dey Street/William Morrow Publishers. $25.99.
Notes From a Loud Woman
By Lindy West
260 pp. Hachette Books. $26.
‘Sex Object: A Memoir’ and ‘Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman’
By DAYNA TORTORICI
JUNE 13, 2016
This past April, editors at The Guardian published the results of a study that analyzed more than 70 million reader comments posted on the news site since 1999. Special attention was paid to the 1.4 million that had been blocked or deleted by moderators for violating community standards. Of the 10 authors who saw the most harassment — whose articles were most routinely met with hostile comments ranging from condescending to life-threatening — eight were women; the two men were black. The No. 1 recipient of such passionate expressions of free speech as “I hope you perish in a gasoline-explosion-induced car crash” was Jessica Valenti.
This is not Valenti’s first rodeo. A longtime blogger and a co-founder of the site Feministing, she is, at 37, now among the old guard of professional feminists who made their careers online. Since starting the blog in 2004, she has written four low-threshold-to-entry books on women’s issues aimed at a general readership: “Why Have Kids?,” about parenting; “The Purity Myth,” about society’s fixation on chastity; “He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut,” about the sexual double standard; and “Full Frontal Feminism,” a gateway text for young women who might fear the F-word but still align with its message. Not exactly cutting-edge stuff, but feminism is equal parts philosophy and praxis, and reactionaries are born every day. Should the thought occur to you that Valenti’s beat is old news, that we’ve moved past it and should have more interesting questions to tackle, I suggest you read the comments.
Valenti’s commitment to holding the line for a certain common-denominator feminism in hostile territory is admirable. This is thankless work, and after more than a decade of it she is clearly tired. “I know I’m meant to be the bigger person,” she writes in “Sex Object,” her latest, addressing the anonymous men who flood her inbox with threats and insults. “I know you’re not supposed to hate people because hate is bad for your soul.” But so is knowing that “whatever you work on, whoever you are, the nameless horde of random people who go home at night and kiss their wives and children would like for you to disappear.” Likewise, of the men who approach her after speaking engagements: “I have become too exhausted with men online to interact with well-meaning information seekers in real life.” Of putting on a brave face and laughing off offenses: “This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore.”
“Sex Object” is Valenti’s first memoir, and it sets out to tell the story of how women manage the expectation that they exist as vehicles for male desire first and as human beings second, and only once the primary aim is achieved. An ambitious person, young Valenti took the perfectionist’s course: “If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be.” But the real story of “Sex Object” is one of burnout. Colorful material — coke binges, hospitalizations, the discovery that a stranger on the subway has ejaculated on her pants — is told straight, with minimal energy. The men who appear, two-dimensional figures with monosyllabic names, run together in a laundry list of half-sketched disappointments and transgressions. The writing that feels truest to life describes Valenti feeling sapped of it.
Nowhere is it written that losing steam, or hope, is a betrayal of the feminist project. But Valenti is nevertheless on the defensive: “The feminism that’s popular right now is largely grounded in using optimism and humor to undo the damage that sexism has wrought,” she writes. “No one wants to listen to our sad stories unless they are smoothed over with a joke or nice melody. . . . No one wants to hear a woman talking or writing about pain in a way that suggests that it doesn’t end. Without a pat solution, silver lining or happy ending, we’re just complainers — downers who don’t realize how good we actually have it.” Maybe, she offers, “it’s O.K. if we don’t want to be inspirational just this once.”
It is O.K., of course, and perhaps there’s no better illustration of the way everyday sexism grinds one down than the fatigue that drags on this book. But Valenti short-sells her peers when she suggests humor is a pandering concession or a rictus grin women must wear to mask their pain. Humor needn’t be a diluting agent; it can be a Trojan horse. As the saying goes, if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or they’ll try to kill you.
Lindy West, another American columnist at The Guardian who built her career writing online, has changed more minds this way than you could count. One of the most distinctive voices advancing feminist politics through humor, West is behind a handful of popular pieces — “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel, “Hello, I Am Fat” on The Stranger’s blog, “Ask Not for Whom the Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee” on “This American Life” — that have helped shift mainstream attitudes about body image, comedy and online harassment over the past several years. Culture molds who we are, West argues, but it’s ours to remold in turn. Aesthetic excellence and being a good person are mutually exclusive only to the lazy and insincere. We could keep laughing through “edgy” jokes about race, rape, S.T.I.s and fat people, for instance, but why should we if the jokes aren’t funny, and the laughs only prove to someone, somewhere, that they are unlovable? “Isn’t it our responsibility, as artists, to keep an eye on which ideas we choose to dump into the water supply?”
“Shrill,” West’s first book, is a director’s commentary of sorts on her most memorable stories, several of which are reprinted here. The later essays, about her father’s death, are the most ambitious as writing, but the hits hold. My favorite is her work on being fat, the word she prefers. (“I dislike ‘big’ as a euphemism,” she writes, because “I don’t want the people who love me to avoid the reality of my body.”) With patience, humor and a wildly generous attitude toward her audience — meeting readers at their point of prejudice so that she may, with little visible effort, shepherd them toward a more humane point of view (it’s worth noting that West is the only writer to have an internet troll publicly apologize to her on national radio) — she reminds us that “fat people are not having fun on planes. There is no need to make it worse.”
Before you ask, West knows from diet and exercise: “I know the difference between spelt bread and Ezekiel bread. . . . I could teach you the proper form for squats and lunges and kettle bell swings, if you want” — but “the level of restriction that I was told, by professionals, was necessary for me to ‘fix’ my body essentially precluded any semblance of joyous, fulfilling human life.” She decided instead to stop treating her body as a work in progress. Her blood work, if you care to know, is perfect.
As a teenager, West thought that “chasing perfection was your duty and your birthright, as a woman, and I would never know what it was like — this thing, this most important thing for girls.” Such is the double bind of sex-objecthood: You resent the standards but still want to meet them, because that’s the ticket to love. Ultimately, she did come to know this most important thing, and like Valenti, saw the double bind thrown back at her in the form of a contradictory threat, issued from deep inside the great male unconscious of the internet: You are too fat and ugly to rape, but I would rape you anyway.
West’s humor, I admit, is not always my style. At times it feels juvenile, irritating — “a bit much,” as she says. I dislike all caps in print, of which she is fond, because I am NO FUN. Over all, “Shrill” feels hasty and unfinished, less like a book than the assembled material required to consummate a book deal. But no matter, there is good work here that represents a decade of public service for which she deserves years of back pay. If this is the culture industry’s way of thanking West, so be it. She deserves the moment in the sun.
Writer Lindy West on being big, loud and feminist
Published Thursday, May 12, 2016
Lindy West is a feminist, fat-acceptance activist, cyber combatant, heavily trolled columnist and culture writer (now with the Guardian and GQ) – who may be best known for fighting back against anonymous, online haters, in particular the (first) guy who impersonated her dead father on Twitter.
Sarah Hampson: We are in a moment – a period, dare I say? – of menstrual activism
In her new book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, West, 34, chronicles her evolution from a third grader who was so scared to speak in class that she peed her pants rather than ask the teacher if she could go to the bathroom, to a fearless, no-BS warrior challenging misogyny, rape culture (in the comedy club and beyond), and the way women like her – “fat” is the term she prefers – are perceived and treated by society. The Globe and Mail’s Western Arts Correspondent Marsha Lederman picked out some choice lines and ideas from the book, and asked the Seattle-based author to elaborate.
[L]ives don’t actually have coherent, linear story arcs, but if I had to retroactively tease one essential narrative out of mine, it’d be my transformation from a terror-stricken mouse-person to an unflappable human vuvuzela.
I was really painfully shy, just tortured by shyness as a child and then gradually I wasn’t. I started to have these little realizations here and there like ‘oh if I raise my hand and say something in class because I know the answer, I won’t actually die.’
“The active ingredient in period stigma is misogyny.”
I was thinking about just how revolted people are by the idea of period blood, despite it being an extremely commonplace substance in most women’s lives. You can see the common thread, which is vaginas and women; and also women’s natural functions kind of spoiling the idea of what a woman is supposed to be for a man, which is soft and clean and nice and pretty and sexually available at all times. So I feel like it gets stigmatized pretty clearly because it comes out of women and spoils the fantasy.
“The fact that abortion is still a taboo subject means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best.”
Abortion is normal; it’s incredibly common. We have this idea of abortion as this horrible trauma in every circumstance; everyone’s abortion was regrettable and horrible. Everyone who gets an abortion is a monster, a murderer who should be in prison. Those are just messaging campaigns that are put forth by the religious right and people who want to control women’s bodies. The reality is that abortion is a normal common medical procedure that is not traumatic for many, many people. My abortion was mundane. It was stressful because of the other circumstances in my life but the abortion itself made my life better and it helped me steer my life in the direction that I wanted to go, which has worked out pretty well for me. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who have had traumatic experiences with abortions; it’s just to say that what we need is the full spectrum of people’s experiences rather than letting opponents of abortions dominate the conversation.
I get to choose what kind of person to be … A lazy writer (it’s easy to hate things) or a versatile one[.]
I was a theatre critic and then a film critic for many years. I kind of fell into this career and had to make it up as I went along for a while. It was easier and more fun to write mean, scathing, negative reviews. Then gradually I got older and better at writing, I started to realize that that’s a really lazy way to do my job. Obviously a lot of things deserve that level of scorn; there’s plenty of terrible art out there. What I really reserve my vitriol for now is art that I think is damaging. that I think perpetuates harmful ideas about marginalized groups, mostly. But you know I used to just rip to shreds people’s plays or films that were just kind of hokey or I didn’t personally connect with and it took me a long time to realize that that doesn’t reflect well on me as a critic. It’s easy to be funny when you’re being mean. It’s a lot harder and it takes a lot more cleverness and thought to really look at something and analyze what’s there instead of just being cruel in a shallow way.
[F]at is a feminist issue.
We tend to work really hard to alienate people from their bodies and say your body is a work in progress; you’re just a thin person who’s doing a bad job – when really your body is you all the time. Body shaming is disproportionately levelled at women and used to leverage our insecurities for cash. How many billions of dollars do people dump into the diet industry every year? It’s a really cynical cycle that in my opinion saps women’s power. It distracts us and it redirects our energy toward the wrong things and the wrong enemies.
“[M]y wedding photo with the caption ‘FAT AS HELL’ was on the … cover of a print newspaper in England … and my only reaction was a self-high five.”
I wrote about my wedding for the Guardian and they put it on the cover. I wrote about the weirdness of being a fat bride in a culture where as soon as you get engaged, the creepy computer spies find out and start bombarding you with ads for bridal weight loss boot camp and diet pills and Weight Watchers. It’s like somehow losing weight has become up there with renting chairs and picking out flowers. It’s that alienation from your body where you’re told this isn’t your real body. God forbid we have what we actually look like captured on film on this day when this person has chosen to spend the rest of their life with me, the person. My husband didn’t propose to me in 10 years after I’ve had a gastric bypass; he proposed to me now. And I wanted to spend the year before my wedding celebrating with my husband and being engaged and travelling and partying and having a great time. I didn’t want to spend it starving and punishing myself for not starving well enough.
Each time something like this happens [West’s chair collapsed while watching a comedy show from the stage], take a breath and ask yourself, honestly: Am I dead? Did I die? Is the world different? Has my soul splintered into a thousand shards and scattered to the winds? I think you’ll find, in nearly every case, that you are fine. Life rolls on. No one cares.
We put so much weight on these little disasters. Obviously being embarrassed is a real thing; I’ve been embarrassed many times. But other people are not as fixated on you as you are; other people are not following you around watching you fall down so they can laugh at you for the rest of their lives, so that’s a helpful thing to remember. I feel like we build up embarrassment into this massive dreaded thing. But in reality you can withstand a lot. Once you realize that it’s not the end of the world if people laugh at you and if people insult you or even if people don’t like you, it makes life a lot less scary. When I broke the chair, I survived and it was fine. Even though for most of my life, that was the worst thing I could imagine; publicly breaking a chair. I think my life on the Internet has made that easier too. You just get used to strangers doing their worst and ripping you apart and eventually it just becomes noise.
[I]f you are a thin person, please do not go around asking fat people where they got their confidence in the same tone you’d ask a shark how it learned to breathe air and manage an Orange Julius.
The implied emphasis is on the word “you;” like where did you get your confidence, because obviously fat people are supposed to hide and hate ourselves. Even if that’s not what you mean, that’s what we hear because that’s how that question has been asked of us so many times.
For years I assumed it was a given that, at any comedy show I attended, I had to grin through a number of brutal jokes about gender: about beating us, about raping us, about why we deserve it, about ranking us ... about reducing our already dehumanized existence to a handful of insulting stereotypes.
Misogyny is almost a tradition in comedy. ‘My wife’s a nagging bitch’ has been a comedy staple for as long as I can remember and it didn’t occur to me until I was an adult after being a lifelong comedy fan that I didn’t have to participate in that and that in fact the art form belongs to me as much as it does to male comedians and comedy fans and that I could complain about it and if people want to rip me to shreds for complaining, they’re in the wrong. There’s a really effective messaging campaign to tell especially women that we’re not allowed to complain. A lot of people just believe that women aren’t funny, so by extension it’s really easy to believe that when we complain or critique comedy that we don’t know what we’re talking about. So trying to dismantle that and chip away at that has been really rewarding and also really exhausting and traumatizing. My experience of fighting with comedy fans and being harassed by comedy fans and comedians was exhausting to the point where I’m on hiatus from caring about comedy. But I hope I made some small difference.
“I never wanted Internet trolls to be my beat – I want to write feminist polemics, jokes about wizards and love letters to John Goodman’s meaty, sexual forearms.”
Trolls are this side effect of my career where I’m just trying to do my job and these people, no matter what you say, come out of the woodwork to scream at you. It’s this tremendous time and energy suck that is an issue unto itself and one that deserves attention, but at this point I’ve been writing about it for five years and, God, what else could I have been writing about? You have to spend half your time blocking people, processing the emotional pain of being told you’re a fat bitch 100 times a day, being told that your ideas are garbage, that your body invalidates your ideas. I am tired of spending time on it and I just wonder (a) how many amazing female writers have been driven out of this job, have been driven off the Internet and writing altogether because of this; and (b) how much more we could have accomplished if we had just been allowed to write about what we’re passionate about instead of dealing with this byproduct.
Internet trolls are not, in fact monsters. They are human beings who’ve lost their way, and they just want other people to flounder too.
It’s pretty clear that happy people don’t do this. It has never occurred to me to reach out to complete strangers, unsolicited on the Internet to tell them that they’re disgusting and I hope they kill themselves. Nothing could be further from my instincts for how to conduct myself as a human being. It’s not the impulse of a happy, well-adjusted person. It’s the impulse of an angry, sad, broken person. And at a certain point, especially once the sting of trolling started to wear off and I got used to it and I got kind of inured to it, my reaction started to just be like, man you need to get some help. I hope that your life gets better because it would be better for you, for sure and way better for the people who have to be around you or share an Internet with you. Of course it’s fruitless to try to say that to every Internet jerk it doesn’t get you anywhere. So mostly I still just make fun of them and/or block them.
Being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act. You’re told nobody will ever love you; for a long time I had been this sort of horror show that people are terrified their lives are going to turn into; you see this in sitcoms and cartoons and whatever – that the guy’s wife turns into a fat, frigid bitch. And I remember looking at my body as a twentysomething and saying ‘oh well my body already looks like that so I guess I’m screwed’. And on a broader level you’re just not supposed to be happy if you’re fat. It’s your duty to punish yourself because fatness is associated with so many horrible negative traits – laziness, no impulse control, you’re greedy, you have no regard for other people, you’re dirty. So just the act of being happy and not living in this constant state of apology makes a huge impact on people. That’s part of why I get so much hate from readers; because I’m pretty clearly a happy, well-adjusted person who’s in love with someone who is not fat and who is conventionally attractive and that doesn’t make sense to people. It makes people really angry.
[W]hen you’re a fat person, you can’t hide your vulnerability, because you are it and it is you. Being fat is like walking around with a sandwich board that says, “HERE’S WHERE TO HURT ME!” That’s why reclaiming fatness – living visibly, declaring, “I’m fat and I am not ashamed” – is a social tool so revolutionary, so liberating, it saves lives.
I’ve gotten e-mails from fat women who say ‘I was suicidal until I read your article’; and that’s not an exaggeration; so even just in my limited, small sliver of experience, that’s true. Because especially with fat people, all you hear 24/7 from every direction is just a litany of strategies to make yourself disappear; to eradicate you. We have a war on obesity in America. That’s rhetoric that you hear all the time. So I just think that it saves lives in a literal way; also in a figurative way just in terms of people actually going out and living their lives. I spent so many years feeling like my life was on hold and I couldn’t move forward with anything until I lost weight because that’s what they teach you. You’re a before picture. I think that giving fat people permission – not that we should need your permission – but letting fat people, who have been told that they have no value, know that they’re worthwhile makes living possible.
West’s responses have been condensed and edited.
Shrill is out May 17.
Marsha Lederman will interview Lindy West at the Fox Cabaret in Vancouver June 8.
Follow Marsha Lederman on Twitter: @marshalederman
Lindy West’s Shrill is a work of intelligence, humour and empathy
STACEY MAY FOWLES
May 20, 2016
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman Lindy West *
It’s very difficult to write about , Lindy West’s debut essay collection, without being effusive. When you finish the final page, your immediate impulse is to gush at anyone who will listen about how accomplished it is, about how West further demonstrates her unparalleled intelligence, humour and empathy throughout. Of course, none of this is entirely surprising, given that West has long been a cultural treasure. In the years she has been writing about feminism, fat, choice and how we can all be better, kinder human beings, she’s developed a loyal following of readers who look to her to make some sense of this cruel, toxic mess we’re in.
West came to prominence through her writing for The Stranger and Jezebel, and has since gained further notoriety through work at GQ and The Guardian. She founded the destigmatizing social-media campaign “Shout Your Abortion,” and, for , she bravely interviewed her biggest troll, revealing unimaginable compassion toward a man who adopted her beloved, deceased father’s image to harass her on the Internet. With grace and wit, she’s taken on the ubiquity of rape jokes and fat shaming, and lifted the veil on the abusive tenor of our online conversations. In short, West has become a much-needed beacon of solace and reason in an increasingly vitriolic world.
With , West compiles both her experiences of living in the public eye, and her relatable private struggles, further solidifying her reputation as one of the more important voices working in feminist commentary today. Part memoir and part cultural analysis, each essay takes us through an aspect of her life, from lacking fat female role models, to peeing her pants in third grade, to period shame, to her abortion, to once failing to fit in a seat on an airplane. Some of the book is certainly laugh-out-loud funny, as West writes with her signature irreverence and light conversational tone, while other parts are painful reminders of her (and, subsequently, our) vulnerability. She delves deep into the personal to reveal the universal, and the final result is entirely affecting.
Beyond being hilarious and smart, one of the more compelling aspects of is West’s ability to write reflectively on pieces she’s already put out into the world. Many essays are actually an analysis of the writer’s own impact, and how her bravery in publicly addressing “controversial” issues has had an effect, for better or worse, on her private life. (You know, controversial issues such as “people deserve dignity and respect.”) In “Hello, I Am Fat,” she discusses her 2011 decision to stand up to colleague Dan Savage’s writing on the “obesity epidemic,” and in doing so gifts the editor an incredible amount of understanding. “Like all of us, he is sometimes slow to find the right side of the issue.”
This openhearted approach is signature Lindy West – an offering of profound benevolence that her detractors refuse to return in kind. No place is this more evident than in her piece “Slaying the Troll,” where she discusses interactions with the online harasser who adopted the persona of her deceased father. The essay looks plainly at how there is no “winning” when it comes to trolls, no block or mute function that will salve the torment, no silence that will make it stop. A few years ago, after publicly sharing the very real effect the grotesque gesture had on her, she got a surprising e-mail apology, and later interviewed the offender to get at why he would do such a terrible thing.
“He hated his body. He was miserable,” she writes in of the conversation. “And reading about fat people, particularly fat women, accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn’t articulate at the time.”
In having this difficult interaction in full view, West confirms what we already know about the connection between unkindness and insecurity. On the subject of abusive trolls, she says, “I don’t wish them any pain. Their pain is what got us here in the first place.” Impossibly – and admirably – she offers forgiveness.
There is a passage in in which West notes that a fellow comedian – now her husband – once called her “a really, really radically good person.” It’s a description that she follows up with a joke, but it’s apt for someone who consistently goes out there, at great risk to herself, to make the world better for all of us. While West is certainly bold, unapologetic, comedic and even brash in her delivery, there’s an undeniable root kindness to everything she gives us, a writer so transparently invested in bringing her readers comfort in a world that offers so little.
Yes, it’s hard to discuss without being effusive. It’s hard to write about it without offering gratitude, and pullquotes such as “this is the best and most important book I’ve read all year.” But it’s certainly no exaggeration to say we’re all very lucky to live in a world where Lindy West exists.
When she writes, “I hope I helped,” you want to enthusiastically respond, “more than you can ever know.”
Authors Lindy West and Jessica Valenti combine confession and polemic in writing about modern feminism. How genuinely empowering is the end result?
In 2012, Jezebel blogger Lindy West wrote a viral take-down of comedian Daniel Tosh’s incendiary, now-infamous rape joke, and later went on TV to debate the issue with Jim Norton, one of the veteran stand-up comics who vigorously defended Tosh (Amy Schumer was another).
Keyboard warriors aimed a deluge of vitriol at West, the nastiest of which she read aloud—rapid-fire and emotionless—in a video on Jezebel: four minutes of comments like, “That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her do some laps lardy holly [sic] shit her stomachs were touching the floor.”
West was already known for defending victims of sexual violence, bullying, and bigotry, but the rape joke kerfuffle cemented her reputation as one of the loudest feminist proponents of identity politics on the internet. But it came with sacrifice.
“I can’t watch stand-up now—the thought of it floods me with a heavy, panicked dread,” West writes in her new memoir, Shrill:Notes From a Loud Woman. “My point about rape jokes may have gotten through, but my identity as a funny person—the most important thing in my life—didn’t survive.”
West’s memoir is built on a collection of essays—many of them pieced together from previously published columns in Jezebel and The Guardian—detailing her transition from shy, self-hating chubby girl to loud-and-proud, self-described “fat” feminist. (“I dislike ‘big’ as a euphemism,” she writes. “Every cell in my body would rather be ‘fat’ than ‘big.’”)
The message West hammers home, one deeply felt by most fourth-wave feminists, is that because society’s vision of gender is forced upon us, identity politics is the appropriate prism through which we should view the world.
Sure, women shouldn’t be defined by their bodies, but the patriarchy prevents us from escaping that prison. We internalize the images society bombards us with, and women will suffer so long as those images exist.
Indeed, West can’t recall a time when she wasn’t aware of them.
“That period—when I was still wholly myself, effortlessly certain, my identity still undistorted by the magnetic fields of culture—was so long ago that it’s beyond readily accessible memory,” she writes in the opening essay of Shrill about how heavier women are portrayed in media and pop culture.
West may have sacrificed her “identity as a funny person” for a Certified Activist badge, but her descriptions of role models available to her as a young girl are highly amusing: the fact that Miss Piggy is “a literal pig affords fat fans the opportunity to reclaim that barb with defiant irony—she invented glorifying obesity.”
But West doesn’t mask her suffering with humor or attempt to laugh off years of fat-shaming and online harassment. The more she endured, the more intolerant she became of comedy making light of marginalized identities.
She listened to the Howard Stern Show every day in college, but part of Stern’s shtick was scrutinizing women’s bodies—a constant reminder that hers would never measure up to cultural standards. The show became less funny to West, and she couldn’t pretend to laugh along with the rest of the world.
“I sometimes envy (and, on my bad days, resent) the funny female writers of my generation who never get explicitly political in their work,” she writes inShrill. “They’re allowed to keep their funny cards; by engaging with comedy, by trying to make it better, I lost mine.”
To say that the personal is political for progressive feminists like West doesn’t begin to reflect how much they feel defined and oppressed because of their identity. Those with multiple marginalized identities are even more oppressed (a white, cisgender woman is higher up on the food chain than a Hispanic trans woman).
“As a woman, my body is scrutinized, policed, and treated as a public commodity,” West writes. “As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials, and—the one thing Hollywood movies and Internet trolls most agree on—my ability to be loved.”
Indeed, studies in the U.S. and the UK have found that weight discrimination is more pervasive than gender discrimination, and weight bias is worse for women than men.
West doesn’t cite these studies in Shrill, perhaps because personal experiences are more compelling for readers and fans.
But not all women in America believe that they are in thrall to men, and the ideology that West subscribes to isn’t particularly tolerant of their opinion. Certainly, Shrill is not written for these women.
That said, you don’t have to agree with West’s ideology and views about rape jokes to be moved by her personal heartbreaks and triumphs.
West argues that she’s affected change as a culture warrior—that her public debates and writing about body image, rape jokes, and online misogyny have tipped the scales slightly in women’s favor.
On a personal level, she isn’t simply accepting her body; she’s reveling in it in a truly radical way, unlike the kind of superficial body positivity we associate with Lane Bryant ads. Her weight buoys her, and that newfound strength manifests gracefully on the page.
“The breadth of my shoulders makes me feel safe…I can open your jar, I can absorb blows—literal and metaphorical—meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me,” West writes.
She recalls how the images of fat women that used to make her recoil were one day “beautiful.”
“I wanted to look and be like them—I wanted to spill out of a crop top; plant a flag in a mountain of lingerie; alienate small, bitter men who dared to presume that women exist for their consumption,” she enthuses. “I wasn’t unnatural after all; the cultural attitude that taught me so was the real abomination. My body, I realized, was an opportunity. It was political. It moved the world just by existing. What a gift.”
West’s writing here is as strong and substantive as she feels, knowing that her body is not just an object to be consumed and exploited but a manifestation of her feminist ambitions.
That women’s bodies are consumable objects is the takeaway from a forthcoming memoir by one of West’s feminist peers, Jessica Valenti, an early feminist blogger (she founded in 2004).
Valenti’s memoir-in-essays, Sex Object, traffics in many of the same first-person experiences as Shrill: both authors write candidly and confessionally about issues like abortion, online harassment, and sex.
Valenti, 37, narrates her life as a sex object—she vividly describes being sexualized and sexually exploited during every phase of her life, from childhood to being pregnant with her own child—and suggests that all women are sex objects, whether they feel that way or not. Her use of the term is “more resignation than reclamation,” she admits.
Valenti recalls watching a boy in her junior high school class toy with a lollipop in her friend’s mouth, then clenching her jaw when he tried the same move on her (“This is how I learned what blow jobs are”).
Boys used to tease her about having a big nose, but when she developed breasts at eleven she “focused on the things my body could do and inspire.”
Whenever she was alone in a subway car as a teenager, she’d move to avoid some man exposing himself to her. On crowded train cars men rubbed up against her and, in one case, ejaculated on the back of her jeans.
These experiences will resonate with many women, but for Valenti they shape and define her. When a married friend aggressively hits on her, she reflexively flirts back and hates herself for it.
“I’m crying because I am thirty-three years old and I can’t escape the feeling that men see that I am the kind of person for whom doing the right thing does not come easily,” she writes. “After decades of life and feminism, I still somehow believe that my job is to protect men at all costs—and that not doing so is a crime greater than keeping secrets from my family.”
Valenti’s identity as a “sex object” isn’t entirely passive. She feels compelled to play that role as a child, and is later complicit in being an object of desire despite her feminism. But there’s a sense that she has very little personal agency. How could she in our patriarchal culture?
“Given all that women are expected to live with—the leers that start when we’ve barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for—I can’t help but wonder what it all has done to us,” she muses. “I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
Valenti’s feminist fans likely recognize this world and ask themselves the same question. Indeed, her memoir suggests that that all women are intimately familiar with this world, or they will be when they finish it.
If you marinate in the misogynistic world Valenti describes, isolated in an echo chamber of confirmation bias, ideology doesn’t just inform your personal experiences, it dictates them.
One of the many sexual experiences Valenti writes about happened when she was too drunk to remember much of it. She recalls the guy she was dating at the time taking her clothes off; asking him “what he was doing when I realized he was on top of me”; then darkness until she woke up the next day, upset and still drunk. She remembers making a joke about date rape, at which point he smiled and told her he went down on her first.
She never referred to what happened as rape or assault, despite knowing that penetrating an unconscious person constitutes rape.
“The truth is that this thing that happened to me, no matter what you want to call it, did not have a lasting impact on me,” she writes. “It did not destroy me or change who I am in the way I thought something like that is supposed to do.”
Only in retrospect does she argue that her “shameful uncertainty” about the experience is likely linked to the fact that she “did not feel like a person who was capable of being violated because at the time I barely considered myself a person.”
Her uncertainty is shameful because “my politics call for it.” Not being certain opens her up to “criticism on all sides,” and if a young woman told her the same story today she’d be certain of what happen.
“I don’t know why I won’t allow myself the same courtesy,” she writes. “Maybe I’m just exhausted of feeling like an arbiter of sexual violence, even for myself.”
At this point, readers may feel exhausted too. Earlier in Sex Object, Valenti refuted the “well-worn myth” that feminists often assume the mantel of victimhood, rejoicing that feminism today “feels like an unstoppable force of female agency and independence.” But the through-line of Valenti’s essays is that women are victims of a culture that objectifies and hates them.
Her “shameful uncertainty” about why she’s never acknowledged that she was technically raped doesn’t make her less of a victim. That she’s only ashamed because it didn’t damage her makes her a victim of her own ideology, too.
Valenti’s dedication to helping other women by writing candidly about her own vulnerability is noble, but Sex Object leaves you wondering whether feminism has infantilized the author more than it has empowered her.
She writes: “I am tired of faking confidence or being told that my lack thereof is a fault when it seems to me the most natural reaction I could possibly have to the lifelong feedback women are given.”
So much for female agency and independence.
There is strength and empowerment in collective experience—a central tenet of feminism. But to Valenti and West, feminism is also a cross to bear and a never-ending battle, because being a woman means being subjected to things that men will never be subjected to.
They firmly believe that if a woman feels the world is on top of her, then it is. Both writers are determined to change the culture—even if that means policing it.
If they are as oppressed as they insist, they are also remarkably adept at building successful careers—and selling books—off the back of that oppression.