The age-old question: What if women… could do things?
Ever since I read it, I haven’t been able to stop talking about Shrill, a sharp, funny, warm memoir by Lindy West. Her book tackles misogyny, trolling, acts of hatred and intimidation (in her case, as a fat person and a woman), and the backlash against women in public spheres (in her case, comedy)—issues that are (unhappily) even more relevant and pressing after the US election. This is not to say that Shrill is dire or densely political. It’s a kind of holy grail of nonfiction writing—it reads breezy and hilarious, but it also kicks serious feminist ass.
In a certain light, feminism is just the long slow realisation that the stuff you love hates you.
The most powerful parts of the book are Ms. West’s treatises about being fat in America—although her observations translate anywhere, because fat shaming is a worldwide and timeless phenomenon. When I was in grad school in San Francisco, about fifteen years ago, I had a fat fellow student who became a dear friend, and her stories crushed my heart. She’d be walking on a sidewalk, and someone driving past, not turning or waiting for her to cross, just driving past, would slow down just so they could yell you fucking fat ass out their window. There is, of course, nothing and everything to explain this kind of behavior. As Ms. West states, it is still socially acceptable to be cruel to fat people. And it’s not even clear why. Why does it strike us so? Why do we care? What does it matter? Ms. West digs deeper:
The truth was more painful: There was something about me that was symbolically shameful. It’s not that men didn’t like me; it’s that they hated themselves for doing so.
Of course, this prejudice doesn’t come out of thin air. In the early aughts, there began a concerted war on obesity to fight the fat epidemic, which led to the demonization of fat people. Even Ms. West’s own boss at the time, Dan Savage, then editor of The Stranger, dealt in the fat shaming spread by the media. Of course there is a serious medical issue at play, but it’s not that simple. As Ms. West says:
It is easier to mock and deride individual fat people than to fix food deserts, school lunches, corn subsidies, inadequate or nonexistent public transportation, unsafe sidewalks and parks, healthcare, mental healthcare, the minimum wage, and your own insecurities.
Since grad school, I’ve become more aware of fat discrimination in movies and television shows, where the fat sidekick friend is the butt of the jokes, the funny one, the stupid one, the never-the-hero one. And what passes for fat in Hollywood isn’t even fat. It’s more like the average American. What I didn’t check was my own silent prejudice against fat people. Ms. West’s chapter on flying while fat was eye-opening. To be honest, it outed me as another bigot in the world. I have definitely been the passenger who was silently aggrieved when I realised my seat partner was fat. What I should have known was 1) it’s far worse to be the fat person in that situation. They have to squeeze themselves, sometimes painfully, into an ever-tinier space, right next to a hater; and 2) I’m not hiding anything from anyone, even if I don’t verbalise my fat shaming. Fat people are acutely aware of what you’re putting out there. A lifetime of discrimination has ensured that they get it. We hate them and their fat bodies. So much so, there are scores of blogs and websites entirely devoted to complaining about fat people on planes.
The above example belies the fact that I have long championed the diverse bodies of women. I have struggled with my weight and not liking my body (as have most women). And I constantly affirm my female friends in the face of unreasonable societal standards and impossible personal body image goals. So I was gutted by the thought that I both internalize and project these messages of self-loathing and fat shaming.
Now, what if you were faced with that loathing? Who would you be then? How would you feel? Lindy West might actually be superhuman. She doesn’t hate her own body. She never did. Not as a kid dreaming of fighting the baddies, not as a woman, living it out. But others send hate her way, and she has to deal with that every second of her life.
The process of embodying confidence was less about convincing myself of my own worth and more about rejecting and unlearning what society had hammered into me.
Studies have shown that looking at certain body types actually changes your opinion of them for the better, i.e. “looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more… representation matters.” We know this implicitly. Familiarity normalizes. We’re used to seeing black models now. It didn’t used to be this way, and marketing execs (and everyone else) long used the racist excuse that black people weren’t thought to be as attractive so it didn’t make sense to hire them for ad campaigns.
All of this is Discrimination 101. Maybe you’re fat and you’re feeling the same resigned feeling that POC feel when white people are shocked at racism. I don’t blame you and I deserve it. After all, I’ve lamented the white and/or male fragility of my friends and lovers. I should be more aware, and I need to be more of an ally. I am learning lessons here—maybe too slowly, but lessons all the same. And thinking through and writing this out is part of the learning.
Ms. West also tackles misogyny within her career in comedy and writing, in all its little and overwhelming ways, most famously with the rape joke incident involving comic Daniel Tosh. As she describes it, even her pushing back was a threat to some comedians and comedy fans:
A suffocating deluge of violent misogyny was how American comedy fans reacted to a woman suggesting that comedy might have a misogyny problem.
The chapter in Shrill on online trolling was terrifying. Frankly, I don’t ever want to attain a level of notoriety where I might be faced with even a fraction of this hatred, much of it from people who may not necessarily disagree with my views. It’s more that they disagree with one’s right to say anything at all, in public, as a woman. Ms. West gets thirty to forty pieces of hate mail a day. And when she publishes something controversial, this number ratchets up to the hundreds or thousands. One particular threat sent her way has burned into my mind forever: “You’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll saw you up with an electric knife.”
I am nauseated thinking of this, and I am also so supremely glad that Ms. West is out there, speaking her mind with such vitality and humor. Even with all the heavy topics she covers in her book, there is still so much wit and whimsy—and, yes, a love story to warm your heart. Shrill is without question a delight to read, you’ll learn a thing or two, and maybe even change your mind a little. In her chapter about being shy, she says, “You live, little soldier,” and she does, beautifully, bravely, boldly. Would that we all follow her light.
I do fight monsters, just like I always dreamed, even if they are creeps in basements who hate women instead of necromancers in skull-towers who hate lady knights.