Reading Lindy West’s new book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, feels a lot like hanging out with her--hilarious, intimate, and likely to make you laugh out loud in public places. Recently, we were lucky enough to do both, meeting West at a reading in the basement of a Brooklyn bookstore, an event so packed that even the stairwell was lined with fans. One of the sharpest, funniest voices online, West worked as a theater and film critic before making a name for herself as one of the most fearless cultural critics working today, a writer and activist known for her unflinching and painfully funny examinations of the most contentious issues imaginable: online harassment, racism, fat acceptance and of course, how sexism intersects with it all. With Shrill finally on shelves nationwide, Anita Sarkeesian sat down with West to learn more.
Interview by Anita Sarkeesian
FREQ: Most of your work has been online, at places like The Stranger, Jezebel, GQ and The Guardian. Did writing a book feel different?
LW: I went a little bit deeper on stuff than I normally do. When you’re alone in your house [writing] for a year, it’s a lot easier to be vulnerable than when you’re writing something you know is going to go online in two hours get ripped to shreds. I don’t write about my personal life in any depth, and that’s partially because of the kind of writing I do. When you’re a columnist or a daily blogger, everything has to have a news peg. I don’t really do confessional xoJane essays. Not having that restriction allowed me to be a little more vulnerable than usual.
FREQ: One of the things you’ve talked about a lot over the years is how being fat politicizes the smallest acts in your life—eating, sitting, flying on a plane, even being in love.
LW: It’s just another vector of oppression. People really freak out when you use the word “oppression” in combination with the word fat, because people think about it as a changeable state. And it is, to a degree, but so is class. Regardless, that conversation is kind of meaningless. The fact is that fat people exist and are mistreated now, so we have to deal with that now, whether you think fat people are just failed thin people or not.
FREQ: Jesus, that’s so depressing.
LW: It’s something that I didn’t even articulate to myself till writing this book, that I always thought of myself in the future. This was just my temporary body, and my real self would have a thin body, because that’s what real people have. But when you don’t think of yourself as a real thing, when you live in the future, you can’t advocate for yourself in the present. You can’t demand respect and rights and humanity, because you don’t really exist. Fat people are mistreated, and it’s acceptable to treat them like they have less value. It’s ok to not just be cruel to them but to underserve them in every area of society, like medical care and employment. There was a study that found fat women are more likely to be found guilty by juries, because we conflate body size with all of these different aspects of morality. Fat people are lazy and stupid and dirty and selfish, so it’s ok to hate us. It’s also really flattering to your ego if you’re a thin person, because it implies that you’re good person, moral person and a disciplined person. That’s why it’s really hard to shake the hold this idea has on people, because it makes them feel good.
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The way we talk about it is just so screwed up, because broadly speaking, fat people are not the cause of fat people. The broken system is. Fatness correlates with poverty and race and geography, because people live in places where they don’t have access to fresh food, or they don’t have time—they’re working multiple minimum wage jobs, so they don’t have time to go home and cook a beautiful cabbage. Even if you can get cheap produce, if you’re working 20 hours a day to keep the lights on for your kids, what are you supposed to do? Then you see people get pilloried in the media for feeding their kids McDonalds. People say things like, “oh, it’s child abuse and fat people’s children should be taken away.” The whole thing is backwards, where we blame people for being victimized by a system without ever acknowledging the system at all.
FREQ: It’s still common to see punchlines in television shows where the whole joke is that someone is fat, or that a man might have slept with a woman who’s fat—as though it’s the worst thing in the world.
Even on my Facebook feed, which is mostly people I know and who have been vetted over time, any time Chris Christie or Paula Deen do something horrible I see people say things like, oh, look at this fat fuck. People who are ostensibly liberal and progressive and allies just snap into this really violent anti-fat rhetoric almost instantly. It happens all the time. Every once in awhile one of those posts will go up, and I can look at the comments of thin people talking to each other. And it’s little window into what they actually think, and how conditional their support is. Because Chris Christie’s body doesn’t have anything to do with his shitty ideas. To conflate the two is the whole problem.
FREQ: And that’s getting at the core of why it’s so infuriating when people tell us that we can’t take criticism. But if you end your criticism with “you stupid bitch,” that’s not criticizing my ideas. That’s criticizing my gender. It’s attacking you for your identity markers.
My body shapes my perspective, but it has nothing to do with my critical thinking skills and the clarity of my ideas.
FREQ: You wrote an article for The Guardian called “My Wedding Was Perfect, and I Was Fat as Hell the Whole Time,” where you talk about how being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act.
My wedding was really traditional and it’s this patriarchal ritual that shouldn’t really mean anything to me, and the impulse to do it was almost exclusively driven by my need to prove something. Which sounds bad, which sounds really immature and selfish. But I’m sorry: I grew up thinking that I’d never get to participate in any of these rites of passage that young women are told are their destiny and birthright. I was excluded from one after another my whole life. And there was something beautiful about getting to do this thing that I thought I didn’t have enough value to have access to.
FREQ: In the article, you say that the idea that could be fat and worthy of love was a message you really needed to hear when you were younger, but no one was saying it. What sort of responses did you get when you decided to say it to other women?
The responses that were nice were really nice. I heard from a lot of fat women who were getting married and wanted to say thank you, because their wedding was coming up and they hadn’t lost all this weight they wanted to lose. Because as soon as you get engaged Facebook finds out, and all your targeted ads are like: Weight loss boot camp! Bridal boot camp! Eat these tapeworm eggs! [laughs] There’s so much pressure to include weight loss on the to-do list with flowers and cake and renting chairs. Personally, I wanted to spend the year before my wedding having fun, and I wanted to look like myself in my wedding photos. A lot of what I do in my work feels like giving women permission to let some of these things go, because it’s scary to feel like you’re the first one. I’ve gotten to the point where I have the coping mechanisms. I’ve figured out how to be ok in the middle of an internet shitstorm and that pushes me to keep doing it because I’ve already built this emotional infrastructure for myself, so I might as well use it. I feel an obligation to do that, to use that, because I’ve already done the work. And it’s hard work.
FREQ: To a degree, I think my feminist activism and beliefs have helped insulate me from internalizing some of the harassment, because I know it isn’t really about me. I’m anybody. I am any woman. They want to do this to any female person, and I’m literally interchangeable with any other woman, so I’m not too down on myself for it. But when it’s so constant, it’s hard to be completely unaffected by it… It can get really insidious.
There are a lot of really insidious forces that discourage women from having a solid sense of self, because you’re always supposed to be this compliant, malleable thing thing that is changing to please the men around you. It can make you porous, and primed to accept what other people tell you about yourself. And I think it makes women ideal targets for harassment.
FREQ: How do you feel about the fact that online harassment has become a big part of your work?
I do find it interesting, so it’s not like I resent this part of my life. But I do kind of wonder what I could have accomplished if this giant derailment hadn’t happened. And you too—you were doing other work before all of this. Zoe Quinn just wanted to make video games, and now she runs a harassment support network
. By design, [online harassment] has taken over our lives. It wanted to stop us from doing our work, and to some degree it succeeded, because this is part of our work now. And for me that’s fine, because I think it’s really important and I find it fascinating. I’m just starting to get a little leery because I don’t have any more solutions or further insights to offer. I don’t really feel qualified to be an expert on online harassment, or speculate on tech-based solutions. My job is to write, not fix Twitter.
FREQ: You did a segment on This American Life where you actually had an in-depth conversation someone who had harassed you viciously and then regretted it. When I heard about it I remember thinking, why would she do this? Because I would never want to talk to someone who was harassing me. But it ended being incredibly powerful.
This particular guy was really anomalous—this bizarrely self-reflective, self-aware person—which almost makes it not very useful in an academic sense. People try to treat it like it’s prescriptive: “So I should just talk to my trolls on the phone and it’ll be fine?” Uh, no.
FREQ: Ever since that piece, I constantly get questions in interviews where people ask, “have any of your harassers apologized to you?” [laughs] No! That doesn’t happen!
That’s what makes it a remarkable story, because it’s remarkable.
FREQ: And I’m sure you got harassment just for doing that interview.
I got truthers! [laughs] Gamergate decided it was all a hoax, and that I had hired an actor to pretend to be the guy. They were were calling This American Life and demanding the screengrabs to prove that the troll exists. [laughs harder]
FREQ: I love how they accuse us of making up harassers while they’re harassing us. We don’t need to make it up, because you’re literally doing it right now!