When a friend of mine sent me a photo of Shrill and told me it was amazing, something about the cover gave me a sense of deja-vu. Then it clicked: Lindy West, the author, regularly blogs on Jezebel about feminism, reproductive rights, body positivity, and media’s compliance in the Internet troll culture. These issues are at the heart of Shrill. West effortlessly exposes the reader to how these topics have shaped her life from childhood and the effect speaking out about her experiences has on her life. As one of the main promoters of the #ShoutYourAbortion conversation, West doesn’t shy away from taboo subjects (she discusses her abortion in a chapter) and opinions that nice young ladies shouldn’t talk about. There’s also copious, graphic period talk, which I live for. Accompanied by her skillful sense of humor, West breaks down the walls of politeness and puts forth addictive, emotional, hilariously heartbreaking reading material.
Shrill hooked me from the first page to the last. It wasn’t just West’s sense of humor that kept me wanting more, it was the feeling that for the first time I was reading something that felt like I could have written it. I don’t mean that in the same sense that people who don’t understand art quickly insult modern art with the unoriginal “My kid could have made that!” quip. I mean that many of her feelings, ideas, and experiences resonated with me because they could have easily been included in my own autobiographical work.
West is very outspoken about her experience as a fat woman in a world where obesity is seen as not just an epidemic, but a moral inadequacy worthy of derision with no insightful thought about what’s really behind the epidemic. West deals with constant policing and critiquing of her body not only by Internet trolls, but also previous employers. I’ve seen Facebook friends post sentiments about fat people being lazy tubs of lard with no self-control, one person callously declaring that “diabetes isn’t sexy,” ignoring the fact that diabetes isn’t just a fat person problem. “Do you know what is actually not a good way to help a group of people, it turns out? Advocating their eradication,” West says. Maybe a few masochists respond well to being told they’re a worthless piece of crap, but most people aren’t motivated by that type of “encouragement.” West illustrates how fat people are one of the last easy targets of vitriol, hate, and dehumanization because fat shaming isn’t seen as a legitimate act of hate like racism and sexism.
West is now more comfortable being an “out” fat person, refusing to apologize for other people’s misguided and unsolicited opinions on her personal worth based on her weight. She didn’t always feel this way. Well aware that her size made her more visible than the average person, West overcompensated by being painfully shy as a child and not going after things she wanted because she felt unworthy.
West describes the importance of being positively represented in the media by outlining the media portrayals of fat women that she had at her disposal growing up. The list is short and includes Miss Piggy, Lady Kluck from Robin Hood, Ursula, and The Lady with Arm Flab from Pete and Pete. The message was clear: “…fat women were sexless mothers, pathetic punch lines, or gruesome villains.” If there was an exception to the rule (Roseanne, for instance), she had to be paired off with an equally overweight love interest. The same doesn’t hold true for men, and anyone can see by watching anything with Kevin James. Fat guys can score a thin girl, but pair a fat girl with a skinny guy and the feminazis have gone too far.
As West grew up she felt the shame even more as her friends left puberty as svelte, gorgeous goddesses. “…I felt cheated. We each get just a few years to be perfect. To be young and smooth and decorative and collectible. I was missing my window[.]” After years of feeling like she deserved to be treated as a dirty secret by men just so she could have some semblance of a love life, West finally decided to tackle her own fatphobia head-on. She looked at gorgeous photographs of overweight women and confronted the unhealthy thoughts she had about them exposing themselves. Eventually, she broke through her own adopted bias and learned to accept herself without apology or explanation. “I am my body…[t]here is not a small woman inside me…I am one piece.”
West’s unapologetic attitude is both a source of inspiration and derision, and she has fought against the largely unchecked harassment from Internet trolls allowed on most forums. For years she begged employers for support against trolls relentlessly hacking her e-mail and incessantly bombarding her with misogynistic, violent comments. She was told over and over again that it was part of the job, and free speech couldn’t be limited without harming the company. West was also accused of being against free speech when she decided to speak out against misogyny in comedy, specifically rape jokes. Again, she was brushed aside as exaggerating the problem and not understanding comedy. In reality, she is a lifelong comedy fanatic who often hosted open mic comedy shows.
During a televised debate, comedian Jim Norton assured West that people know a rape joke is just a joke and that comedy doesn’t convince people that rape is okay. Norton later apologized when West publicized the litany of rape threats she received after the show aired. “They handed me a gift…[a] suffocating deluge of violent misogyny was how American comedy fans reacted to a woman suggesting that comedy might have a misogyny problem.” The CEO of Twitter finally admitted there was an issue with violent threats on Twitter and began to take action against it. West still receives constant vitriol, but is proud that she was able to get a few people to listen.
My whole life, I’ve been painfully shy and nerdy. I started gaining weight in 5th grade and after my mom commented on it, I felt doomed. Both of my parents have had weight issues and it felt like inevitability that I would be one of the lesser humans. I’ve struggled for years to try and lose weight, making strides only to be told over and over again how my body, even while I was trying to make it better, was gross. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t worthy of respect and love. Like West, I internalized this to the point where I had no self-respect. I still struggle with feeling like a gross waste of space, like the butt of a joke. You could cure cancer but if you’re fat, all the focus will be on your weight. Fat people aren’t seen as people worthy of basic human decency because it’s just been accepted that fat people are inherently shitty people. And that’s ridiculous.
While reading Shrill I was happy to see that I have someone in my corner, someone fighting for me. I saw myself in young Lindy looking for a positive example of chubby girls and only finding moms and sea witches and controlling, rapey pigs. I was present in adolescent Lindy, jealous of her friends’ slim physiques, painfully aware that she couldn’t wear the same things as them or express herself in ways they were able to. I currently channel adult Lindy, trying desperately to explain her experience of sexism to people who don’t even want to entertain the idea that sexism exists. I flew through this book, laughing and crying and feeling such intense anger, and I never wanted it to end. Maybe, with Lindy West’s help, I’ll be a little closer to loving myself.
Rating: 5 out of 5 period clots