Lindy West never set out to be a fat-acceptance activist, or a spokesperson for Internet feminism, or an arguer with Twitter trolls. She just wanted to be funny.
In her new memoir, Shrill, Lindy shares how stories from her own life shaped her political beliefs and turned her into the unapologetically assertive woman she is today. Less of a tirade, more of a hilarious and earnest examination of what it means to be heard, Shrill is essential reading for anyone who has ever felt silenced in a loud world.
I spoke to Lindy earlier this month about how she decides whether to engage with trolls, why she hopes her personal stories will resonate, and what she hopes comedian Daniel Tosh might take away if ever he were to read her book. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Maris Kreizman
Maris Kreizman: A few weeks ago I tweeted a passage from your book that I loved, and you retweeted it. Then you got a response from a man who took you to task for your writing, and you had a long back-and-forth with him.
Lindy West: I can’t even remember which one that is, it’s so common!
MK: In your book you talk about your three-pronged approach to dealing with trolls. How do you decide when to engage? When is it worth the time?
LW: At this point, if they give me a good opening, it’s just cathartic and fun because I know I can win. Because I’m a professional writer and they’re just some dildo. Which is kind of unfair actually; I feel sad saying it that way. I’ve weathered so many shitty little snipes that at this point if it’s gonna make me laugh and make me feel better to destroy them, I’ll do it. I don’t waste time worrying about trolls except in certain situations. I don’t sass back to death threats. I block and report them.
Or there are people on Twitter who are nothing but high-level trolls, who do nothing but try to get a response and also funnel their horrible followers to you. So you can get a sense of when it’s one of them, and those people I block because it’s not worth it. Otherwise, I don’t think much about “Don’t feed the trolls.” At a certain point I stopped thinking about it because it felt like putting the troll front and center. So instead I do whatever I want to do, which puts me front and center. That feels right.
MK: Shrill is a memoir that juxtaposes your own experiences with more universal truths about being a woman. How do the personal and the political balance each other?
LW: I’m a firm believer in the importance of representation, and the effect it has on how we treat each other. I know that as a woman I feel dehumanized a lot of the time, and as a fat woman I feel dehumanized a lot of the time, and as a feminist you’re not thought of as a whole, fully rational person. So I wanted to create a compelling and sympathetic, humanized portrait of a fat feminist woman. I was hoping that it would be fun enough to read to pull people in, and then it could be sort of a switcheroo. “Oh, do you like my book? Guess what? You like a fat lady.”
I find that if you can make something really funny, you can hide all sorts of tough ideas in it. So I tried to do that in this book, only the vehicle is my life instead of a news peg that I’d usually write about. I am the Trojan horse.
MK: And you’ve talked about how some of the regular rites of passage that “regular” women experience are special for you. That things like marriage become political acts when you do them.
LW: Yeah, I feel determined to have that rite of passage because I felt like I’d
missed out on so many of the others. I didn’t have a cute first kiss story or a cute first boyfriend story. It was all just loneliness and rejection. “Feminist” is a huge part of my identity, but my wedding was weirdly traditional. I always felt like such an outsider and so broken and so abnormal, and so my wedding was an opportunity to assert, in public, “You deserve this as much as anyone else.” You can make your own life and you can decide what you deserve.
I grew up with this feeling of having less value than thin, conventionally attractive women. No matter what I did, no matter how good a person I was or how funny I was, it was like, “You still deserve less care, you deserve less attention, it’s okay for you to be treated poorly, you should wait and let other women go ahead.” But when you’re an adult and you are in charge of your life and you build this family around you, you get to reclaim some of that.
MK: You mention that you’ve been asked numerous times some version of the question “How did you become confident?” Or “How did you learn to speak up for yourself?” Why do you think people ask you those kinds of questions so often?
LW: We’re just not used to seeing fat people who aren’t in a constant state of apology and penance. Our culture is inundated with the idea that it’s your duty as a woman to be on a diet and to make yourself as small as possible. And if you fail, that means you’re a bad person and you did a bad job.
I know people don’t mean for those questions to be insulting, but the subtext of those kinds of questions are, How do you possibly do this — because it seems unfathomable to circumvent this system? The implication is: “But you’re disgusting. What do you mean you don’t hate yourself? If I looked like you I would die.”
But I also understand, and I remember when I was starting this journey toward accepting my body, looking at other women who were on the vanguard of this movement and thinking, “How do they do that?” And you rationalize it like, “Okay, but they’re prettier than me or they’re a little smaller in the waist.” You figure out reasons why it doesn’t apply to you. But eventually I realized that this was an intellectual exercise: I could choose to reject this framework. There’s nothing that objectively makes one person’s body better than another’s. It’s subjective, and it’s kind of meaningless. And once you get there, it’s like, “Oh! So I’m just this body.”
MK: But have you heard from people who’ve said that you’ve given them confidence?
LW: For sure. It’s a hard job to choose, but that makes it really worthwhile. Especially hearing from people who are struggling with the things I was struggling with six, seven years ago, or even twenty years ago when I was just a floundering teenager. If I could just help someone accelerate that process and get here faster, that’s so worth it. I wasted so much time. I spent so many years feeling like this wasn’t even my real body, and my real body was coming later. And then I thought, “What if this is my body forever? Can I let myself feel like this forever, like I’m not real?” If you don’t believe that you’re real, how do you advocate for yourself?
I feel like I’m not being very funny.
MK: Well then, let’s talk about comedy.
LW: The least funny subject! [Laughs]
MK: You write in your book that comedy broke your heart, and that made me sad. Do you still feel that way? Has the stand-up scene changed at all since your blog post “How Not to Make a Rape Joke” (a response to a joke made by comedian Daniel Tosh) went viral in 2012?
LW: The scene has changed a lot. I’m so excited about all the comics coming up who are smart and progressive and cool. It’s so heartening to see people building all these spaces where certain kinds of jokes are not tolerated. When we’d say, “Stop making jokes about beating your girlfriend,” dudes would say, “Well, why don’t you start your own comedy night if you don’t like my jokes?” And they did. People are building their own spaces all over the place and it’s rad.
I’m still on hiatus because I got so exhausted from beating my head against comedy for years. But I’m sure I’ll come back to it. It used to mean everything to me, and being was funny was the most important part of my identity. Because that’s what you have, especially when you’re fat. And then it felt like such an unrelenting rejection from so much of the comedy of the world for so long. When I go to a comedy show, I still don’t know when I look around the room which dude comics here have harassed me on the Internet. Who’s looking at me? And maybe that’s narcissistic, but there were so many people who hated me so much, so I don’t feel comfortable in comedy spaces anymore. I’m sure it’ll come back.
One thing I especially love is the proliferation of private Facebook groups where women can say something like, “This dude touched my butt. Don’t ever work with him.” And everyone else in the group is like, “Fuck that guy.” All of this sharing of information is so important and so powerful. Because when I started writing about comedy there wasn’t a mechanism for solidarity. So there were so many women who were scared to rock any boats because then you don’t get booked and your career suffers. I got so many private messages from women who said, “I feel like I can’t say anything within my scene,” and now, for all of its faults, the Internet is an amazing tool for connecting people and keeping people safe.
MK: And it’s happening in other industries, too.
LW: Yeah, you see it everywhere — in music and literature, and other industries I’m less involved in. You can feel it moving a bit. There’s less resistance to the idea of believing women when they say, “This guy raped me,” whereas ten or fifteen years ago it would get brushed under the rug. Now people are actually communicating and finding that they’ve had similar experiences with the same people, and that starts to stick. Bill Cosby made a big difference in that arena, which is horrible, but also a step in the right direction.
MK: And as you point out in the book, it took Hannibal Buress to be the one to open the discussion.
LW: Yeah, we had to have a dude tell us. But change is incremental. I can’t have too many sour grapes about that. I’m asking for men to listen and care and speak up about these things too, so I’m grateful for men’s voices in these conversations. It’s even helpful to highlight that gender disparity, because now we have those things to point to. Like, “Hey, did you notice how you only listened when a guy said it?”
It’s a slow culture change, but I do feel like comedy is different now, don’t you think?
MK: Yes, I’ve been immersed in the comedy world for a couple of years now because my partner is a stand-up comic. And at first I was concerned about all of the clichés about bro comics saying hateful things, but I soon realized that Josh’s scene is full of people who have so many other things to say.
LW: Even if you don’t care about feminism or rape culture, it’s just boring to hear the same thing all the time. Don’t you want to hear other stories? Don’t you want to be current and innovative? Those bro comics are still around and that’s fine, but one thing has changed: it used to be an abomination if anyone dared say anything critical of comedy because it just meant that you don’t understand jokes and you have no sense of humor. It’s now at least commonplace for people to have critical conversations about comedy. That’s a huge step.
MK: Anyone who ever listened to your episode of This American Life about confronting one of your biggest trolls — or read the chapter in your book about it — probably has fantasized about taking on her own troll. Do you hear that a lot?
LW: Yes. I get a lot of people who tend to read that chapter as proscriptive. Like, “Here’s what you do!” That does not work because that one particular troll was really singular. It took a staggering amount of luck to have had it work out so well. I doubt that I will ever get through to another troll anywhere as close as I did to him. I don’t want to give anyone hope that they’re gonna find any sort of satisfaction from these people. But it does happen every once in awhile.
My sister-in-law Ijeoma will have a day where she responds to every troll with compassion. A couple of times it’s turned out to be a kid who’s lonely and is having a hard time and who ends up apologizing. If you take the time to do it, you can sometimes have a positive experience. But again, it would be so much more productive for us to be doing our work and not be derailed for an entire day trying to make a connection with a racist twelve- year-old.
MK: Do you think the troll you spoke to for the This American Life episode will read the book?
LW: I don’t know. He emails me every once in awhile. I haven’t written him back yet. I don’t want to have a relationship with him — I think that’s a little weird. But he sends me adorable emails updating me on his life. I think he thinks of me as a turning point for him. It was important in my life, too. So actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did read it. He could do a media circuit if he wanted to. After my piece came out so many journalists got in touch with me wanting to talk to him. He’s fascinating. You don’t often get insight to someone who’s so remorseful and self-aware to articulate why he did it and who he is and how he fits into a larger cultural narrative. But he wants to be anonymous.
MK: There’s this crazy fascination with the idea of finding out what this guy with the fake screen name and the anonymous photo actually looks like.
LW: That still fascinates me. Most of the time, it’s always just a guy, just an average guy. It kind of feels like the way we’re fascinated with trolls is like the way we’re fascinated with serial killers. Who does this? What is wrong with you? Can I dissect your brain? (After you die, I’m not gonna murder you. I’m not a serial killer.)
MK: Trolls aside, I and my legion of Internet feminist friends are so excited about your book. But what about the Daniel Toshes of the world? If it were put in front of him and he were compelled to read, what would you want Daniel Tosh to take away?
LW: I hope that my book is undeniably funny. I would want him to laugh and to recognize that I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to jokes. Even if there’s a knee-jerk defensiveness going on initially, I would hope that some of my ideas get through. And maybe next time, he thinks, “Maybe I won’t go on a tirade about rape this time, because people didn’t like that last time.” There’s room for very small steps here. Even if it doesn’t change minds, maybe the book can change behavior a little bit. But also, that wouldn’t be because of my book. That would be because of years of people on the Internet yelling at him.
There’s this idea that feminists are reactionary and shallow thinkers. That’s just not true. Being a feminist involves constant reevaluation and constant adjustments to your own assumptions. I hope people get that from this book. You can’t read the first third of the book and think that I’m not funny.