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.
(She found the guy, e-mailed him and eventually recorded a radio interview with him for This American Life; he was remorseful and sad.)
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.