Lindy West On The Limitations Of Body Positivity & Her New Book, Shrill

Photo: Jenny Jimenez.
"I need to go on vacation," Lindy West confesses over the phone in early May from her hometown of Seattle. She sounded ebullient and not in the least need of a nap, despite being in the thick of promoting her upcoming book, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, which debuts May 17.

West has certainly earned one. The longtime essayist and newly minted author is impressively prolific, dating back to her Jezebel days and beyond (she didn't even pause to go on a honeymoon after getting married last summer) and continues to publish at quite a clip. But from her early stories to the hot-off-the-press pages of Shrill, there is one ever-present, never exhausted hallmark of West's writing, and that is its unwavering heart.

Whether she's writing about being fat-shamed by a stranger or confronting the troll who posed online as her recently deceased father, West has a way of wringing empathy and catharsis out of even the most deplorable circumstances. Reading her book is like taking a master class in inclusivity and cultural criticism, as taught by one of the funniest feminists alive today. We spoke to her about about a wide array of lady issues, including the faux progressivism of body positivity — and why mundane abortions stories are often the most important ones to share.

Tell me about how your book came to be called Shrill.
"It was actually my husband’s idea, which maybe is weird. I think I had been called “shrill” by some internet troll or something, and we were just talking about it and he said, 'That'd be a good title for your book.' And then it just stuck around.

"As the book came together it just felt right because [that word] encompasses a lot of what it's about: the superficial double standards that we use to control and confine women. Men aren’t called shrill. Men’s ideas aren’t dismissed because of their tone, the way that women's are. It also conveys the ideas of reclaiming terms that are used to hurt you — marginalized groups reclaim terms all the time and it’s a really healing and powerful move."

You write a lot about the way fatness is marginalized in our culture. But what do you think about the strides that have been made with body positivity movements?
"The term body positivity is complicated for a number of reasons: One, because I don’t want to mandate that anyone feel any particular way about their body. I just want to give people the freedom to feel how they really feel. Right now, there’s this overwhelming pressure for you to hate your body, to punish yourself for having a body, and punish your body and apologize for your body: I want to remove that. But also it’s a lot of pressure to put on people: 'You have to love your body at all times.' Bodies are complicated. Some people’s bodies hurt and make their lives difficult.

"What I think is valuable about the term body positivity is removing that first part — the stigma, meaning the negative judgment from other people that you then internalize and use to torture yourself, while not insisting that there’s one right way to have a body or to feel about your body. [Body positivity] is a fraught term because it's much more palatable than the term 'fat positivity,' or talking about fat bodies directly. And that kind of leaves fat women behind in a lot of ways."

I understand why fat-shaming is appealing, because our culture is so aggressive about forcing the feeling of obligation of losing weight on people.

Lindy West
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How does it leave fat women behind?
"It’s really fashionable to declare that you find an hourglass-shaped young, white, plus-size model who is a size 12 attractive. That’s very fashionable, and it allows people to congratulate themselves on being progressive while really stepping a microscopic amount away from the body standards we have now. There’s no risk there. There’s no risk for that model. There’s no risk for the person declaring that an obviously conventionally attractive person is conventionally attractive.

"What actually moves the conversation in substantial ways is when bodies that fall so far outside of what is conventionally acceptable that they’re oppressed for it, to proclaim those bodies to be good, that those bodies deserve autonomy and respect — that’s a statement that really changes the world. The people who are actually taking risks are basically offering their bodies up for sacrifice. To take a photograph of [your] publicly reviled body and put it on the internet and let people pick it apart and use it for what they need, positive or negative — that’s such a huge sacrifice. It shakes the world in such a massive way. And so to gloss over that and just put everything under the umbrella of 'body positivity' doesn’t help. Fat people, especially people over a size 28, where you can’t even buy clothes at plus-size retailers, those are the people who — when they live unapologetically and demand space and respect — they make space for all women."

You wrote in your book that your abortion story was boring — and that's why you wanted to share it. Can you explain that motivation?
"There’s a huge anti-abortion movement that benefits hugely from the fact that talking about abortion is taboo, and therefore we don’t hear these stories like mine, these mundane stories. Not only was my abortion mundane, it made my life better. It relived my stressed. I was very stressed and upset about being pregnant. It was not the direction I wanted my life to go. It would have profoundly changed my life. And not necessarily in a negative way, obviously, I’m sure I could have still made a good life. But it wasn’t the life that I wanted, or what I had been working toward.

"There are a million reasons why people have abortions. So, by keeping that stigma in place, and keeping us quiet about our own experiences, anti-abortion advocates get to control the narrative. They get to tell people what abortions are like because they’re the only people willing to talk about abortion. So they can promote the idea that every abortion is traumatic and dangerous and regretted, when that’s simply not true. The most reported feeling after an abortion is relief.

"That’s not to say that some women don’t regret their abortions or have traumatic experiences. But to only tell those stories and promote that as the universal experience — to scare other people away from pursuing abortion as an option, and to stigmatize people who have had abortions to keep them silent, that just serves the interests of people who want to control women’s bodies and women’s lives."

You also make clear that you're aware that you're fortunate to be able to talk so openly about your own abortion.
"My abortion was taking a couple of pills and a kind of average period. It was very mundane. It was just a huge relief. I don’t know why we don’t demand that these stories be told. But also, it’s really important for me to acknowledge: I live in Seattle. I live in a place where it’s safe to talk about my abortion, relatively. I have a supportive family that’s not going to ostracize me. There are tons of people who don’t have those privileges. Which is why I try to use my platform as much as possible to get these messages out, because I know that so many people can’t. Reproductive rights are under attack as much as they ever have been. People fixate on Roe v. Wade as though that’s the be-all and end-all of abortion rights — it’s not. Meanwhile, right wing conservatives are putting these laws in place that make it de facto impossible for millions of women to get abortions.

There’s no risk for the person declaring that an obviously conventionally attractive person is conventionally attractive.

Lindy West
"All of that garbage is bolstered by the fact that we don’t talk frankly about abortion. It has this fog around it; people are just mystified. That makes it easy for people who want to shut it down to do that, if they get to just say what abortion is whatever they want, 'Oh yeah, abortion is hairy feminazis chopping up babies.’ That’s why the next wave of abortion advocacy is destigmatization, talking frankly, and dismantling some of these lies that have gotten into the water supply."

Speaking of frankness: You wrote very candidly about the battle you had with your then editor-in-chief Dan Savage while you were both at The Stranger.
"When it comes to fat people, there are a lot of thin people who have some skin in the game when it comes to keeping fatness stigmatized, because it’s really flattering. If you’re a thin person — if you live in a world where fatness is coded as a moral failing, where we believe that fat people are lazy and stupid and dirty, and immoral — then that’s a pretty great ego boost. People don’t consciously articulate it like that. But it’s a hard fiction to let go of I think, for a lot of people, though not everyone, of course. I understand why [fat-shaming] is appealing, because our culture is so aggressive about forcing the feeling of obligation of losing weight on people.

"There's this constant barrage of weight loss programs and diet programs and diet foods, all kinds of different ways to spend your money and make your body smaller. We live in a century where everyone around is dumping money and time and agony into making their body smaller or keeping their bodies small. And so to say: Hey, actually that is meaningless, and you don’t have to do that, and you are worth the same amount no matter what size your body and you have the right to be happy, no matter what size your body — that is alarming to a lot of people. I imagine it feels like, 'Oh my god, what did I just waste my life doing if this currency isn’t valid anymore?'

"And so, I think people have a lot tied up in figuring out ways to dig their heels in and not listen — to not believe and internalize these experiences."

Trying to interrupt an ideology — no matter what it is, is a torturous task.
"Yes, it is."

And yet you were able to do it at least once, with a particularly cruel troll. After you confronted him on This American Life, did you notice any change in trolling behavior toward you?
"On the other side, I had a lot of good people who are not trolls contact me and say, 'I had no idea it was this bad' — mostly men, obviously. I think, to some extent, a lot of trolls were at least scared? But I don't think I heard from anyone [else] who changed their ways after that. After that piece aired, they immediately went into high gear. I had truthers, which I forgot to put in the book: a whole Lindy West troll truther movement."

That sounds exhausting.
"I am tired of writing about this. I don’t want this to be my beat. I used to be a film critic. My job used to be fun. And now my beat is internet trolls, and it has really taken away from me getting to actually work on the things that I care about, which is part of its function — part of the function of internet trolling. I don’t get death threats every day, I don’t get scary explicit rape threats every day. But I do get a constant stream of people just needling me and insulting me and calling me fat. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them all the time, it just absorbs my attention, my brain space.

"And it works. It takes me away from the things I actually want to do with my life and my career — my potential to affect the world around me. I think women have so much potential and so much power, and we end up spending so much time dealing with essentially busy work. And that’s not to downplay the emotional labor and trauma of being constantly degraded, which is really exhausting."

So after the battle of the Lindy West truther trolls, what comes next?
"What’s been on my mind lately is that this should not be women’s problem to solve. The vast majority of trolls who harass people online are men, and I would like men to pick up some slack and solve this problem. I am tired. I am tired of working on it, I am tired of pouring my energy into it. And not just like: 'Oh, talk to your friends and find out if your friends are trolls and scold them' — I don't know if that would help. What we need to do is start working on changing the culture that teaches people that women are not toys to be fucked with."

Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West comes out on May 17, 2016.
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