by Lindy West, 2016
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a fat-positive
Shrill has been on my Want-to-Read list for quite some time, so when I decided that I wasn’t going to force myself to read romance books anymore (I’ll read them if they sound interesting to me, but not just because they fulfill a task), I decided that this book would be a good way to complete this one particular part of the challenge. While West does talk about romantic love, the main focus is on her experiences as a woman, as a fat person, and the intersection of the two. The result is a collection of essays that is unapologetic, feminist, and, at turns, blisteringly hilarious and devastatingly exacting in its criticism of the way society demands all who do not fit into some made-up ideal simply shrink themselves into nothingness.
The collection starts with an essay examining the terrible yet oft-asked question of kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” West casts some much needed doubt on some of the typical responses and says that, thanks to cultural messaging, she most definitely knew what she was not: “small, thin, pretty, girlish, normal, weightless.” There was never anyone on TV, in books, or movies who resembled her, a “young, funny, capable, strong, good fat [girl].” Fat men could be powerful and funny, without their weight being a joke, but fat women were “sexless mothers, pathetic punch lines, or gruesome villains.” One hardly needs the list of examples she provides to know this is true, for a simple look at pop culture easily reveals that the majority of heroines follow a specific Anglo ideal. This theme continues throughout the book, as West says that her size has rarely been presented to her as anything but a failure: “Chasing perfection was your duty and your birthright, as a woman, and I would never know what it was like…I missed it. I failed. I wasn’t a woman.” She continues with this idea by explaining that all of this is rooted in misogyny. Although we’re used to seeing pools of blood in horror movies, a woman running the London marathon without a tampon was met with disgust. General body functions are not stigmatized, but having a period is. “The active ingredient in period stigma is misogyny,” she says. Anyone who doesn’t follow this ideal, who is too much of a woman in whatever way, is shunned.
West is unflinching in her reporting of discriminatory events that she’s endured. She writes as openly about the response from airplane seatmates when she boards a plane, and particularly about one who acted as though she harassed him with her size while he also splayed his legs as far as they could possibly reach, as she does about her boss at the Stranger, Dan Savage, who was unable to see his open attacks on fatness as a personal attack on her. This led her to write the blog post “Hello, I Am Fat,” in which she, for the first time, publicly identified as such. She includes the post, mostly in its entirety, attacking fat shaming with the notion that what’s really shameful is “a complete lack of empathy.” The response from Savage isn’t constructive, but what’s enlightening about this story is her reaction to reading that response several years later while writing this book. She doesn’t recognize that side in him anymore, and she notices that the way fat people in society are discussed is also different. Discrimination still exists, but the idea that we don’t talk about people this way has become more normalized. She ends the essay saying that she’s written it not to criticize Savage, but to praise him: “Change is hard, and slow, but he bothered to do it. Sometimes people on the defensive rebound into compassion. Sometimes smart, good people are just a little behind.”
There’s so much pointed, searing discussion of cultural norms here that it’s hard to pick out the brightest moments. It’s all excellent, and I think that’s what surprised me most about this collection. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect it to be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to be absolutely amazing. I say this, too, while also admitting that I continue to experience a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance when thinking about it, as it has made me consider my own body image issues and how I respond to the cultural ideal. I think that’s the mark of truly great writing. West may have been writing to understand herself and to show the world who she is and reject who she has been told to be, but the ability to make readers challenge their own self-conceptions and how they fit into the schema in question is outright brilliance. Read it for the examination of thinness as perfection, for the admonishments of rape jokes as comedy, for the ruminations on love and loss, and for the heartfelt undoing of an internet troll, who, it turns out, is just a person projecting their own self-hate on another person. But, most of all, read it because Lindy West is an awe-inspiring writer.