In a recent episode of podcast This American Life, writer Lindy West spoke about ‘coming out’ as fat. ‘I always felt that maybe if I didn’t mention it, people wouldn’t notice,’ she says, half-joking. It’s a strange phenomenon to wrap your head around if you’ve never been fat – but all too real for those of us who have spent a lifetime with extra skin on our bones. Talking about it makes it true; something to be dealt with and – perhaps – accepted.
Lindy West and other third-wave feminist writers have slowly but surely helped to push ‘fat’ to the fore of online cultural conversation, creating space for fat women to speak, exist, and be heard. Her voice has, without doubt, spurred on movements elsewhere – including here in Australia. It was an op-ed by Rebecca Shaw that introduced me to the concept of coming out and hit me right in the guts, forcing the realisation that I’d never really acknowledged my own body. More recently, Australian feminist writers have sparked conversations on fatcalling and refusing to be shamed.
The realities of being fat are weaved throughout West’s debut book Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman (Quercus). When you are fat, she writes, you are taught from day one that your physical existence is wrong. Society tells you to make yourself as small as possible, and to stay quiet until you reach a more palatable size. If you are a fat woman, you will gather together a bundle of stories that weigh you down: insults and throwaway comments and sideways looks from well-meaning relatives and strangers on the street and men yelling from cars.
She writes on topics and anxieties that have knocked around my brain since adolescence, on experiences that are so unique to fat people that those who have always been average or slim or thin or just a bit chubby will never comprehend them. Experiences of being shut out by the fashion world, of struggling to fit your arse into aeroplane seats, of learning to count calories. Of knowing shame and sadness and embarrassment through no fault of your own. Of being told you are not worthy of love or sex or happiness.
[West] is frank and unashamed when discussing the reality of being a fat woman.
West explores the stark reality of being forced to choose between being at war with your own body, or being at war with the world around you. ‘As a woman, my body is scrutinised, policed, and treated as a public commodity,’ she writes. ‘As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure.’
The book doesn’t focus solely on fatness, but it does centre around the idea of taking up space, particularly as a woman: online and offline, physically, emotionally, unapologetically. Admirable feminist writers are dime a dozen in 2016, but those who have been following the movement will know that Lindy West was one of the first. Once a staff writer for Jezebel and now a columnist at the Guardian and elsewhere, West is well aware of the harassment and abuse that can be thrown at a woman in the public eye. Shrill catalogues some of her best published essays combined with new work, pieced together ad-hoc as a part-memoir, part instruction manual for those scrambling to discover their power.
From exploring the revulsion and taboo around menstruation, to taking on big name comedians over rape jokes, to devastating essays about relationships and the death of her dad, West’s writing is unflinching. ‘Why Fat Lady So Mean To Baby Men’ is a standout, on the messed up world of Internet trolls: “Here I am, sitting at my computer dealing with some fuckface’s insatiable boner for harassing women.”
West is an activist through and through, and her campaigns don’t start and end with the written word. She launched the #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign last year in response to the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood in the United States, and women across the world responded with their stories. In 2012, she fronted the media as a voice for women in a debate about rape jokes, after comedian Daniel Tosh’s distasteful display of misogyny.
There’s a sense of wistfulness to West’s writing about comedy; her relationship with the artform is layered with disappointment and unmet expectations. Her fledgling career as a stand-up comedian was short-lived, and the pervasive ‘boys club’ mentality doesn’t sit well with her. The lazy sexism of revered male comedians such as Tosh left West disenchanted and frustrated.
However, her comedy shines through in her writing. She is authoritative and hilarious, and her delivery is sharp and direct – there is no pandering or ducking in and out of material to appeal to a mass audience. She is loud and indelicate and smart. Her essays are a brilliant stream of consciousness, with big capital letters and funny asides in brackets – a style that doesn’t need rules.
The mission that West has taken on is clear: to fight inherent and barefaced sexism in all its forms.
But it’s West’s distinct ability to write about bodies that I keep returning to, perhaps due to an obvious bias – or perhaps because it is so extraordinary. She is frank and unashamed when discussing the reality of being a fat woman, and isn’t scared to explore ‘the disorienting limbo of being too visible and invisible.’ Her stance is clear, but she straddles the line between body positive warrior and realist: loving your body doesn’t happen overnight, and there are still bits of it that you’ll struggle with – but that doesn’t make you any less of a warrior.
The mission that West has taken on is clear: to fight inherent and barefaced sexism in all its forms, using all the weapons she’s gathered in past crusades. Compassion permeates this book. It’s beautiful, and surprising – surprising that a woman who has experienced so much hate can still draw on such an incredible tendency for kindness and warmth. Disgruntled strangers, ex-partners, misogynistic comedians, a troll who posed as her dead father – all are forgiven, or at least understood and explained. West is a writer who understands that humans are not always good – but she urges them to try to be anyway. For those with no insight into being a woman, or a fat person, or experiencing vitriol on the internet, Shrill will serve as a striking introduction. For the people who live those realities – those acts of defiance – every day, this book will be a battle cry, loud but loving.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman is available at Readings.