The Thrill of Shrill

I didn’t grow up fat.  I was a hefty baby—a 9-pounder, to be precise—and at different points in my childhood, a chubbier, sometimes stockier kid, but never fat, per se, and for the first half of my 20’s, I was 5’3” and 125 lbs, give or take – a frame that we offhandedly consider average in our society, but that is actually well below the average female frame.  And while I’ve heard that it’s fairly “normal” to be a size 16-18, four years after gaining most of my weight, my emergence into a larger body is still a sometimes strange, uncomfortable, jarring experience, and I’ve only recently started to identify as “fat.”  Once I realized that I officially qualified (it’s kind of like realizing you’re an alcoholic, which I discovered so many years ago—suddenly, you just know), I wasn’t too hesitant to call myself what I felt I was, on twitter, and now on my blog.  It can be intimidating to try to appropriate, to try to re-claim a term that’s been used for years to oppress larger women and shame overweight people, but it’s also liberating to say “this is me—not the whole of who I am, but part of how I identify, nevertheless.”

                Still, for a long time I would have shuddered at the word, had someone directed it toward me.  Gaining weight was an excruciating process—the scale just seemed to keep going up, in a way that felt cruel and unfair, although all my blood work came back fine—and for that reason, it took me a long time to really admit, to myself, that I was, well, outwardly, much different than I used to be.  Little hints started cropping up in spurious places.  My mom’s concern was constant, and once, a waiter that Michael and I knew from our favorite restaurant compared one of the girls he worked with to me.  His words, to be precise, were, “she’s about your size—a big girl.”  I wasn’t, at the time, as heavy as I am now—and I certainly wasn’t yet acclimated to being considered heavy at all.  I got really quiet, really fast, and pondered the word to myself the rest of the night.  In public, people I knew but hadn’t seen in awhile sometimes didn’t recognize me, and I started to avoid people I hadn’t seen in a couple of years because I didn’t want to make things awkward.  My now-best-friend knew me as a Master’s student, and didn’t recognize me as a PhD student at first because I’d gained so much weight.  It was an uncomfortable situation, to be sure, and not one I responded to with eloquence, but we laugh about it now.   

                I guess I give all that information because it’s part of my story—my movement from a socially acceptable body to one that—as Lindy West states about her body—makes a political statement just by being.  At the end of a chapter in her book Shrill West states her realization: “I wasn’t unnatural at all.  The cultural attitude that taught me so was the real abomination.  My body, I realized, was an opportunity.  It was political.  It moved the world by existing.  What a gift” (79).  And as the above two paragraphs may insinuate on their own, I wasn’t ready for my body to be a political statement, at first.  We all like to think of ourselves as subversive, but when it came to cultural expectations of beauty for women, I was quite satisfied to be as close to the socially constructed ideal as possible, thank-you-very-much (though of course, the real ideal, that skinniness that comes so naturally to some women, that others work so hard for, was never attainable for me, even before I got fat).  I would have benefitted from West’s book much earlier, in fact, but I’m glad I found it when I did, because even as someone who’s a lot more comfortable with herself than she used to be, it occurs to me that I still needed to read it very much.

                Ultimately, from West’s book, I took one mantra that I expected and one that was a complete surprise to me:  1.)  Being fat does not mean you have to cower, apologize, and self-condemn (a message I was waiting to hear, but that was eloquently and humorously expressed in more convincing prose that I’m providing you now), and, 2.)  At the end of the day,  you are in large part what you do (a convenient cultural maxim when expressed in different variations, and one we disregard often, but a proverbial piece of knowledge that West’s book illustrates with far more punch and creativity, as she detailed her struggles, her decisions in pivotal situations, and what she goes through on a daily basis to make the world a more hospitable place not just for fat women, but for marginalized groups in general).  Really, at the risk of being a groveling fan-girl whose opinion is so-three-years-ago (which it is, but whatever, I’ve been busy working on a PhD), Lindy West is incredibly inspirational.  I was so moved while reading parts of her text.  Sometimes I love to add a really banal cliché in my writing, just because I feel like it, so here it goes: I’m really convinced that not only is she brilliant at talking the talk (her writing is complex and insightful and hilarious and accessible at once), but she’s also more than willing to walk the walk—and she does, on a daily basis.

                One of my favorite lines comes at the end of a chapter in which Lindy writes about writing about a “menses” tent—a group of menstruating women who get together and support one another during menstruation.  After describing her decision to be open-minded and not openly-mocking in her piece, her decision to understand and participate without judging and belittling later in her writing, she writes… “but if not for the menses tent, how long would it have taken me to understand that I get to choose what kind of person I get to be?  Open or closed?  Generous or cruel?  Spirit jaguar or clinging ghost?  A lazy writer (it’s easy to hate things) or a versatile one?  I don’t believe in an afterlife.  We live and then we stop living.  We exist and then we stop existing.  That means I only get one chance to do a good job.  I want to do a good job” (85).  I was, as you may imagine, deeply moved by this line.

                And I think it’s an important line to mention, because in Shrill, West simultaneously helps people through a re-telling of her experience, and steps out of her experience, out of herself, to talk about the wider world and what it means to be a human being.  Nobody would have faulted Lindy for writing a book solely on what it’s like to grow up fat—the type of book I was expecting to read.  Indeed, one of her opening chapters details the fat t.v. characters she had growing up—the offbeat and sometimes insulting one-dimensional media role models that fat girls have to lean on—with unabashed hilarity.  But her ultimate product is one that exudes an incredible amount of love, compassion, and empathy—for everyone—a book that acknowledges (quite overtly) how difficult it is, at times, to be a human being in this world at all, let alone a kind, balanced, thriving human being, and a book that suggests that we’re all in this together.  I’m not religious, but I thought of the Prayer of St. Francis as I read part of her book, that part where the speaker asks to “understand” rather than “to be understood.”  In a work that, on the surface, seems like it would be a book written by an author who wants to be understood, West pushes herself, and the reader, to seek to understand, to bring compassion and perspective to every life situation.

                Some of the most memorable parts of Lindy’s story, for better or worse, are her accounts of daily interactions with internet trolls.  More shocking than the downright cruelty that she faces and fights on a daily basis just to write—and, often, to stand up for what she believes in—was her reaction to one of the most vicious trolling encounters she faced.  When one man made a fake twitter account with her deceased dad’s name on it and insulted her through that account, she wrote a response about her own humanity on Jezebel, which elicited—to her incredible surprise—an apology from the “troll.”  I won’t actually recreate the things that this particular “troll”—or other detractors, in general—say to her online, but they’re inhuman, insulting (an understatement) and atrocious.  After some interaction with her troll on a radio show, her ultimate take away from the situation was this: “It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity.  It’s hard to be cold or cruel when you remember it’s hard to be a person” (254).  Lindy’s realization, during what would be an indescribably distressing ordeal, wasn’t that this man was a monster or that people don’t deserve forgiveness.  While carefully explaining that her forgiveness is not “prescriptive” –that she’s not telling the abused to forgive their abusers—she simultaneously underscores how hard life is, how hurting a person has to be to do what a troll does.  And she doesn’t do it in a condescending, judgmental, “oh, that person is just a miserable person” sort of way; she described this particular person as hurting, and believes in trying to reach hurting people.  It’s an incredibly humanizing account of a person who was really cruel to her, and it sort of reminded me (on a much smaller scale) of a story the Dali Lama tells about a friend who was captured and tortured for years, and was only ever scared that he would lose compassion for his captors.  I don’t contend that monstrous behavior deserves compassion—only that it’s impressive, and moving, when people on the receiving end of that behavior are willing to give it, anyway.

                Which is all to say that at the end of the day, the book made me think more about what kind of person I want to be, and less about what it means to be fat in a society that is sometimes cruel to fat people.  For a long time after I gained weight, I missed people calling me pretty.  I was pretty when I was 125, 135, even 145 pounds, and people used to say so.  It was fun being pretty, and I liked the compliments that came with at least coming close to our society’s expectations for female beauty.  And for a long time after I got fat, I wanted to lose weight a little bit because I thought it would be healthy, but mostly because I wanted to be pretty again.  I’ve been happily dating Michael for four years, so I’m not looking for romance, but I missed compliments by acquaintances and the sort of (perhaps falsely grounded, but still perceptible) confidence that comes with knowing that, even if you don’t look like a model (I never did) at least some people kind of find you attractive.                

The longer I’m fat, though, the less that all matters to me.  One takeaway from West’s book was that I can like my size – I don’t have to like myself but hate my body—and another one was, as I stated, that who I am, what battles I fight and why I fight them ultimately matter the most.  I’ve thought for a long time that life comes down to how you treat people, and I still ardently believe that—but maybe more so, now that I’ve read Shrill.  And Lindy West’s book is a great sort of outline for how to treat people.  Unlike some fat women, I would like to lose a little weight; I used to love running, and I think it would be good for my health (despite the fact that I know other peoples’ health is none of my damn business).  But it’s a desire I have with less urgency now.  As Mindy Kaling says (who isn’t fat, but whose size ten body doesn’t always “fit” Hollywood standards) being thin is something you can want, as long as you don’t want it with all your heart.  The longer I live, the more my heart tells me that other things are more important than having people call me pretty.  And West’s book, in a wholly different, moving way, illustrates this, and other truths, with refreshing incisiveness, confidence, and clarity. 

Bloggers Note: Yes, I realize, this post has nothing to do with horror. I loved this book so much that I included this post anyway. Just Dread-Full will be back to its regularly scheduled programming soon though.                  

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The Thrill of Shrill

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