Bold, outspoken and uncompromising, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman is part-memoir, part-treatise. Written by Lindy West, Shrill discusses and dissects the lives of fat women, with West illustrating the book with stories from her own life.
West works as a contributor for The New York Times, and her articles also appear in The Guardian, Cosmopolitan and GQ. Her writing centres on popular culture, but as a fat woman in a thin world, West is frequently asked to comment on the politicisation of obesity. In a 2016 article for The Guardian, Lindy wrote that the ‘perfect body’ is a lie. The article was shared on social media over 26,000 times.
West’s message of sanity and self-acceptance fired across the barricades, taking aim at the current climate of fake-concern and disapproval. A New York Times best-seller, Shrill is a book I have been waiting all my life to read. It breaks down, bit by bit, the rationale behind the degradation and cheapening of fat women’s lives.
In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.
It is a book that only a fat woman could write – the day-to-day experience of being both invisible and all-too-visible is one that only be understood from the inside. West writes emotively, but she can also step outside herself and her own experience to look at the bigger picture. Lindy examines the misogyny applied to fat women – we are undesirable, unemployable and laughable – and points out how the pressure to be pliant and pretty is magnified when a woman is a size 16 or over.
In combating these entrenched attitudes, West chooses humour as her weapon of choice. Her street-smart, satirical verve is the lifeblood that courses throughout this book. The quirky touches that West brings to the narrative make Shrill eminently readable. It’s not often you can say “don’t ignore the footnotes – they’re hilarious!” but here you absolutely can. West saves some her best lines for below the line – miss them at your peril.
But it’s not to say that Shrill is just a vehicle for Lindy’s best material: the humour is accompanied by sharp asides and commentary that has been a lifetime in its summation.
Maybe if we didn’t perpetuate the idea that vaginas are disgusting garbage dumps, government officials wouldn’t think of vagina care as literally throwing money away.
Shrill blazes with a justifiable anger on the position fat women hold in society. It is not just the feeble jokes or muttered comments: most pernicious, says West, are the assumptions. About what a women should be; how she should look and how she should behave. These assumptions are ingrained in us, and yet they appear so fresh – like salt in the wound. A fat woman can’t be loved, or attractive. A fat woman must always be trying to get smaller – a vanishing point on an ever-distant horizon.
A fat women should, most of all, never be vocal. Meek, silent, retreating physically, emotionally and intellectually into the background. This is the template against which all women, to an extent, are measured. West not only calls out this entitled nonsense for what it is, but her decision to vocalise her opposition to these assumptions, borders on heroic. She takes on male comedians in their own arena; a woman not only well-versed in comedy history, but a skilled comedic writer too. West questions the validity of rape jokes – a delicately-nuanced exchange of views does not follow. West gamely tries to make her peers understand the perspective from which rape jokes are funny: namely male, (mostly) white and privileged. From a point of safety, says West, almost anything can be funny. It ends with neither a victory nor a defeat – but West’s ability to start a conversation is what’s important. West doesn’t give herself nearly enough credit for this.
Art isn’t indiscriminate shit-flinging. It’s pure communication, crafted with intention and care. Every comedian on every stage is saying what he’s saying on purpose. So shouldn’t we be welcome to examine that purpose, contextualize it within our culture at large, and critique what we find?
The author’s ability to speak out, of course, brings her into conflict with the bete noire of our digital age; the online troll. While the abuse heaped on Lindy ranges from the colourful to the frankly unimaginative, West refuses to minimise the effect words typed on a stranger’s computer can have. She instead removes the ‘troll’ badge – a means of self-identification and even pride – and exposes their comments for what they are. Ugly, vicious abuse heaped on one human being by another. Her encounter with a Twitter troll, who recants and repents, is an astonishing moment. His decision to direct anger at a failed relationship outwards, and the impact it has on West, is treated with insight and compassion. West doesn’t let him off the hook – personal responsibility is never taken off the table – but they reach an understanding that is achieved through listening to each other. West, however, makes clear, that this former troll is very much the exception. It is a frustrating conclusion, but West maintains our response should not be a shrug of the shoulders, but a conscious effort to de-normalise hate. Remove the troll badge, and you start to remove the power.
While Shrill is at its most vivid in these moments of anger, where West excels is in the quieter moments of the book. The death of her father is told with an elegiac simplicity. Grief is hard to pin down, but West’s depiction of the struggle to articulate loss is beautifully done. As with her dismantling of assumptions about a women’s life, Lindy presents a death in the family as it really is. In a book that deals with callous, inhumane behaviour, the humanity of West’s band of family and friends really shines through. It’s a contrast wonderfully drawn; that final note of optimism suggesting that change can be possible.
I talked back because Internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings who’ve lost their way, and they just want other people to flounder too – and I don’t believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them.
Shrill is a book that not only argues for change, it demands it. It is a powerful diatribe against the givens in our society: the attitudes that go unchallenged; the insults that go unchecked. The status quo should never be the final word. There is an alternative – and it does not have to stay on the page, either. By living outside the rules – be smaller, be less than – West offers up her own life as an example of what happens when you refuse to compromise. The poison of perfection is not neutralised in one fell swoop, says West, but done incrementally, with acts of defiance. Making your life bigger, more than, is the way forward. Lindy has begun her crusade – it’s now up to us to do the same.
Lindy West can be found here: http://www.lindywest.net/
I am a writer based in Plymouth. I currently work as a contributor for local and national arts websites, including The Reviews Hub and Review 31.