I’ve spent the past two days helping to coordinate a group vacation planned with my husband’s family. The most challenging portion of the whole ordeal has been trying to figure out airfare: Flying while fat, as I am, is a complicated matter tangled up in anxieties, seat preferences, and negative associations with certain airlines. It’s difficult to explain how fraught getting on a plane can be to people who take the process for granted.
It would have been easier to simply hand my husband’s whole family copies of Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, the sharp and clever new memoir from writer and feminist Lindy West. In one chapter, “The Day I Didn’t Fit,” West tackles a particularly negative air travel experience of her own and recalls some of the in-flight microaggressions that many fat people will readily recognize. But that’s not all. West goes on to discuss the reactions of the readers with whom she initially shared the story as a writer at Jezebel—many of whom instantly took the side of the rude passenger. She then had to negotiate this commenter-fueled gaslighting of her own personal experience.
This is an example of what makes Shrill great and what it shares with many other indelible memoirs. West does not stop at telling her story, which she brilliantly does—sometimes with sparkling humor, sometimes heart-shattering pathos. Rather, West is always going deeper, investigating and unpacking her own feelings and perspectives, and taking nothing for granted. It is a tremendous act of bravado to write a memoir at all, and so those who dare to do it well must necessarily be looking both inward and outward with a pretty hard gaze.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I first noticed Lindy West when her essay, “Hello, I Am Fat,” was published in Seattle’s The Stranger in 2011. Written as a result of an aborted private effort to confront her then-boss, Dan Savage, about his frequent negative comments about fat people, “Hello, I Am Fat” set fire to the internet in a way that much of the existing writing on the subject had yet to do. The essay initially stood out to me because I was surprised I hadn’t heard of her before, as I was, at the time, extremely involved in fat activist communities. It also demonstrated such an incisive and smart perspective on the subject, it was difficult to believe it hadn’t been written by someone with a lot of prior exposure to this particular social justice movement.
But she hadn’t. As explained in Shrill, while West had begun to explore the possibility that her body mass index might not be a reflection of her worth as a human being, she was still in the nascent stages of acceptance when this event occurred; she had rarely (if ever) written publicly on body politics. Indeed, it was Savage’s sustained one-man anti-obesity campaign itself that provided the catalyst for West to really raise her voice on this issue: “Something lurched awake inside of me. They talk to you that way until you ‘come out’ as fat. They talk to you that way until you make them stop.”
In Shrill, though, West talks about finding her voice as a writer and her place as an activist, and she includes chapters about her early introduction to comedy and the difficult prospect of creating actually funny, nondestructive rape jokes. This then leads into the monumental backlash to West’s attempts to create a conversation around the damage done by thoughtless “humor” that relies on mocking victims of sexual assault for its punch line.
Much of Shrill is aimed squarely at recounting and analyzing West’s battles with her detractors, both in real life and online. The details of many of these episodes are already public, as writing personal essays for the internet while also being an outspoken feminist has a way of making every conflict a popular spectacle before an audience of eager hecklers. Besides the “Hello, I Am Fat” essay and its deeper context as an effort to call out her own boss, Shrill also tackles the wealth of social media harassment West has endured, along with the dedication of internet trolls, and the anonymous—and often consequence-free—bloodbath of the Jezebel comment section. In every story of West’s efforts to do her job, her persistent (and often monomaniacal) adversaries loom around the edges like a horde of shadowy keyboard-hunching Nazgul who feed on emotional pain, impostor syndrome, and second guessing.
Still, remarkably, in a chapter documenting her experience with one troll who impersonated her dead father, West states that “Internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings who have lost their way.” Paired with the intense and focused harassment West recounts enduring, this statement is impossible to easily accept.
For me, however, Shrill‘s brightest moments come in its final third, most particularly in a trio of chapters chronicling the loss of West’s father in the midst of her disintegrating relationship (and subsequent reunion) with the man who would later become her husband. The writing in these chapters is not of the same hilariously funny, animated approach that West is probably best known for; it is instead almost uncomfortably intimate and visceral. But these are the chapters that have stuck with me most keenly, as West explains the failure of her partnership and the loss of her parent with a wisdom and a self-awareness that is just extraordinary. The raw candor in these chapters is a balm to those readers who may need to read such experiences to feel less alone, and an inspiration to those who want to be more honest with themselves and their feelings.
If Shrill has a downfall, it’s that the organization occasionally feels uneven. Some chapters move chronologically through experiences in a neat line while others stand completely on their own, and the thematic intention behind their order isn’t always clear. Still, this minor detail wasn’t enough to stop me from reading the whole book in two evenings and enjoying it immensely.
By the end of West’s retelling of the lead-up and aftermath of writing “Hello, I Am Fat,” she notes that her now-former boss has changed his tune when writing about body image. West recounts: “Whether I had anything to do with it or not, he writes about fat people differently now. When someone asks him for advice about body image, he reaches out to a fat person (sometimes me) for input. When fat people would make an easy punch line, he doesn’t take it.” Having read Shrill, I don’t think there’s any doubt that West was a powerful influence in this particular situation, because she is a powerful force in general. It is my sense that simply knowing and working with Lindy West would be enough to change a person, which is why her book is so important. For those of us without this privilege, we can at least have Shrill.
In a world in which memoirs by fat women are typically packaged and sold as being chiefly about fatness—a practice that can be positive in the sense of giving fat women a clearly marked place on bookstore shelves, but also negative when it occasionally has a ring of sideshow-sensationalism about it—Shrill is different. West’s life in a fat body is often mentioned and occasionally center stage, but her book is also about lots of other things: about her family, her work, her passions, her reproductive organs, her harassers, her relationships, and her marriage. Conventional wisdom holds that being fat eclipses every other part of a woman’s life, including her chances at happiness. Fat women are told that they cannot travel, wear nice clothes, fall in love, be loved back, get their dream job, or even simply stand up for themselves until they cease to be fat. Fat women learn early and often that they are worth less than thin women; as West puts it, fat women don’t “count.” And as a result, many fat women believe that their life must be put on hold until they achieve their ideal body.
West’s approach defies that. As Shrill demonstrates, growing up and living in a socially unacceptable body has a clear influence on one’s experience, but it doesn’t mean life stands still.