Everything about Lindy West is big. Her opinions are big: After cutting her teeth at an alt weekly in Seattle and the online blog Jezebel, she now writes for GQ and the Guardian, deftly tackling everything from the Republicans’ shambolic race for the White House (she likens Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to “two air horns in an off-balance washing machine”) to Batman v Superman (or, as she describes it, “153 minutes of a grown man whacking two dolls together”). Her heart is big: She’s a tireless advocate for safe spaces for women and made headlines when she confronted and eventually made peace with an internet troll who had been impersonating her dead father. And when West takes on an issue like sexual violence, it’s in a big way. (Her viral post “How to Make a Rape Joke” took aim at the rampant and deep-seated misogyny in comedy and sparked a war in the stand-up world.) Her body, however, isn’t big; it’s fat. It’s an important distinction for her — one that played a major role in her transformation from shy, compliant child to bold, self-confident feminist writer. We spoke with West from her home city of Seattle about her new memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, a clear-eyed, honest and hilarious examination of the forces that shaped her world view.
I was surprised to read that, growing up, you insisted you weren’t a feminist.
The messaging campaign that stigmatized the term feminist definitely worked on me when I was a teenager. I always believed in equality, but there’s such intense pressure to be cool and not alienate boys, to not be a pain in the ass — to not be “that kind of woman.”
When did that change?
In my freshman year of college, when a male professor asked the class, “Who here identifies as a feminist?” Only one girl raised her hand, and the rest of us just sat there. He basically just shamed us for the rest of the class — in a constructive way. He went around the room and said to each girl, “Why didn’t you raise your hand? Feminism means men and women deserve the same rights, and that the balance in the world is currently tilted in men’s favour. If you believe those two things, you are a feminist, whether you like it or not.” Which of course is more complicated in reality — there are women who reject the label feminist for other reasons, like some women of colour who have been done a disservice by white feminism. But I had this moment where I was like, “Oh, I’ve been f–king this up.”
In Shrill, you point out a number of seeds that were planted when you were young — like notions of “ideal beauty” — that contributed to you feeling alienated from your body. When were you able to connect those dots?
There were moments from my childhood when I remembered realizing that I was too big. I carried them around as weapons to use against myself, to remind myself there was something wrong with me. Gradually, as I started to break down some of those thinking patterns, I realized those [experiences] had tricked me into thinking I was broken. They were evidence of how we indoctrinate girls into believing this fiction, that there is something wrong with them. I didn’t put a lot of it together until I was working on the book. This book is the thing I didn’t have growing up — a model for how to be a vibrant, multi-faceted, good, happy fat woman.
Do you feel like young girls today have better role models?
Definitely better! I sobbed all the way through the new Star Wars movie. Nobody ever told me I could be a Jedi.
Sports Illustrated just featured “plus-size” model Ashley Graham on the cover. Glamour just published its first “plus-size” issue. What’s your take on the trend for magazines to be more inclusive of different sizes?
It’s certainly better than nothing. It would have felt revolutionary to me as a teenage girl, for sure. But really, all they’ve done is include a very conventionally attractive woman who is two to three sizes bigger than the model they would usually use. It’s a minuscule, incremental shift. It’s sort of fashionable right now to be in favour of “body positivity,” which is very easy. There’s little risk there. So you can be Kim Kardashian taking a naked selfie, which I have no problem with, but it doesn’t shift the world in a significant way, the way that a disabled, fat, queer woman of colour can shift the conversation.
It’s oversimplifying the issue.
Right. And then you can pat yourself on the back, declare victory and say we’re done. We’re not done. We’re not remotely done. I don’t want any woman to think that I don’t have empathy and deep care for all women’s body issues. I just want to make sure that we don’t only focus on the most palatable ones.
You describe yourself as fat throughout the book, and I admit it made me uncomfortable. I had this automatic reaction of “Oh, she’s not being kind to herself.”
When I started tentatively dipping a toe into fat-positive internet spaces, I learned that reclaiming the term was the quickest and most powerful way to make it stop hurting. If you can say, “Yes, I am fat, and it’s okay to be fat,” then all of a sudden it doesn’t hurt when someone says it to you. And it’s also just a descriptor. It’s like tall. It’s just a fact. It feels important to me to speak the truth about that, and to not use a euphemism. Euphemisms are things we use when we want to dance around something or don’t want to say it. I don’t want to be something that is avoided. And I am my body.
I came around when you described how being called “big” when you were young made you want to be small, in all areas of your life.
When I started to internalize fat positivity and believe it, my response was the same one I had when I started to understand the scope of gender inequality: deep indignation. It was like, “I can’t believe I’ve been putting up with this shit for my whole life, and I never even noticed.” I knew something felt wrong, but I just blamed myself for it. Indignation and determination are much more constructive emotions than shame and embarrassment. And feminism was this engine that turned one into the other.
The power of language is a theme you return to quite a bit. I’m curious about choosing to identify yourself as “loud”—a loaded word foisted on women more than men—in the title of the book.
It’s definitely both true and a reclaiming of that word. I am sometimes loud in an annoying way, as a human being; and [because I was] shy when I was young, learning to use my voice, especially in public, and how to be loud and boisterous and not self-conscious, was a really important transformation in my life. The title also uses it in a figurative way — in that, if you’re an opinionated woman, people perceive that differently than if a man were expressing the same opinions. If you say things in a very direct, uncompromising way, they’re read as shrill, or bitchy, or overbearing, whereas from a man, it would be forthright and direct. So it’s true on both sides.
You found the world of stand-up comedy deeply hostile toward women. In the past few years, the world has finally decided that women comics are funny. Do you think the scales have truly tipped?
Comedy is definitely opening up to women! It’s vastly different than it was when I was a kid, and it’s even different than it was when I started writing about comedy a few years ago. Fighting these big, messy, public battles over misogyny and rape jokes makes it incrementally easier for female comics to set those boundaries in their own lives. When we speak in unison, we’re hard to ignore.
When you wrote a post on Jezebel calling out an online troll who had been impersonating your deceased father to taunt you, the troll responded with an apology. The discussion you had with him on This American Life was so eye-opening. Can you speak to the effect trolls had on you early on, and how dealing with them has changed you?
At the beginning, I was completely unequipped to deal with it. I was in a lot of pain all the time. I cried every day at work. Because it’s just relentless. The feeling that you’re pouring your heart into this job, and then there are just thousands of people who hate you for no reason, and want to hurt you, was disorienting and scary and painful. And if you’re making yourself vulnerable in your writing, then they know where to hurt you, which is extra fun. I had to develop coping mechanisms on the fly, and slowly it got better, to the point where now I barely notice. I’m like an old, gnarly turtle now. The interaction with the troll [who impersonated my dad] made me start to understand who these people are, and I figured out, in a really profound way, that happy people don’t do this. It’s hard to feel afraid of someone when you pity them.
The hashtag #shoutyourabortion, which you started in the fall as a way to bring abortion stories out of the shadows, exploded in popularity. You share your own abortion story in the book. What is it like to be living through this Republican campaign, with Donald Trump saying that women who seek out abortions should be “punished”?
It’s horrifying and frightening. There are women who live in states with maybe one abortion clinic. The right wing is trying to make it impossible for women to get abortions, even if they are technically legal. This is done in a literal way — you can’t get to a clinic, you can’t afford it, you have to tell your parents — and by making it something that young people feel they can’t talk about, can’t ask for help with, can’t do anything about but try to either induce abortions on their own, alone and unsafely, or have children they don’t want and can’t care for. It’s just an assault on all sides. One of the most irritating things about America is this bravado we have — like, “You guys, we’re amazing! We’re the most amazing country in the world!” And I’m like, “Are you sure? Because we’re garbage and backward in a million areas that other developed countries left behind years ago!”
You also created the blog I Believe You / It’s Not Your Fault [currently on hiatus] in 2014 to allow women to share stories of assault. What prompted you to start it, and what have you learned?
The catalyst was becoming a stepmom and hearing what my teenage stepdaughters go through at school. My older daughter is only 14, and it’s routine for boys at her school to try to blackmail girls into sending nude photos. There was an incident where one of my daughter’s friends was harassed and groped by a group of boys at a party, and a parent who was there to supervise told her it was her fault. It struck me that the messages “I believe you” and “It’s not your fault” are things victims of sexual assault don’t hear often enough. So much of the discourse around rape and assault props up the idea that women are liars, or that when we aren’t lying, we brought the assault on ourselves. The most surprising thing I learned running the site is just the sheer amount of pain, doubt and misinformation out there. The number of people who write to us, describe their experiences and ask, “Was I raped?” is heartbreaking.
When you were a kid, your mom took you to an embarrassing lecture about puberty and bodies called “Growing Up Female.” If that class existed today, and you taught it, what would it look like?
When I was growing up, your choices to receive this information were: receive no information; receive super-clinical information that is not relatable at all; go the Red Tent, woo-woo route. I’d make it fun and seem normal and not scary, and just make it a bunch of funny gals relating to each other. I would want people to know that they don’t have to hate their body and don’t have to be afraid of it, but that it’s also okay to feel uncomfortable with it at times. The body positivity conversation often gets sort of oversimplified and flattened into, “Yay! Everyone has to love everything about their body all the time!” And that’s not realistic, that’s not how bodies work, that’s not how emotions work. It’s fine to have these kinds of confusing and conflicting feelings.
You end the book by saying the most important thing you do now is say no. How did you come to this realization?
It’s definitely something that clicked in me, thanks to fat acceptance. I didn’t stop hating my body because my body changed; I stopped hating my body because my mind changed. I realized that the beauty standards I’d grown up striving and failing to meet were artificial and arbitrary, and I could choose to simply say “no” and define my own value. Learning to set those boundaries — refusing to live by rules written and enforced by self-serving strangers — carried over into other areas of my life. Abortion. Feminism. Online harassment. Social justice. Women’s “no”s are constantly doubted and eroded in our culture. Saying “no” and sticking to it — and, especially, doing that where other women can see it — is a political statement.