Let’s DEWEY this! – Shrill


This month has been horrific for America, but if one awesome thing happened in January, it was seeing the glorious uprising of protestors. If you marched, I give you all my applause. While today’s nonfiction post has nothing to do with those events, it carries an equally fiery spirit, so I deemed it a good choice to kick off the year’s nonfic reads.

Lindy West’s memoir, “Shrill,” is both searingly honest and laugh-too-loudly-in-the-break-room-and-annoy-all-your-coworkers hilarious. West boldly delves into topics that polite society doesn’t like to discuss, such as the stigma of menstruation, her abortion, what it’s like to be a woman hearing a rape joke, and most of all, body image and our culture of fat-shaming.

Here are my favorite passages from the book:

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time – that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity and secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience. – Page 19

The real scam is that being bones isn’t enough either. The game is rigged. There is no perfection. – 19

Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project was the turning point for West. His collection of photographs featured fat, naked woman in states of joy, pride, and unabashed openness:

It was the first time I’d ever seen fat women presented without scorn. … I was ragingly uncomfortable. Don’t they know those things are supposed to stay hidden? … At the same time, I felt something start to unclench deep inside me. What if my body didn’t have to be a secret? What if I was wrong all along – what if this was all a magic trick, and I could just decide I was valuable and it would be true? … Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet. What if you could opt out of the game altogether? – 76 & 77

West looked at pictures of fat women until she no longer felt ashamed for them, until they became as neutral and ordinary as her own body was, and then she kept looking, until…

…one day, they were beautiful. I wanted to look and be like them – I wanted to spill out of a crop top; plant a flag in a mountain of lingerie; alienate small, bitter men who dared to presume that women exist for their consumption; lay bare the cowardice in recoiling at something as literally fundamental as a woman’s real body. I wasn’t unnatural after 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 just by existing. What a gift. – 79

As a journalist for The Stranger, she was sent to a New Agey retreat called The Red Tent which celebrated sisterhood and the power of our menses. Her job was to report back and make fun of it. But she couldn’t bring herself to mock people who were so kind to her and so sincere about what they believed:

Sincerity is an easy target, but I don’t want to excise sincerity from my life – that’s a lonely way to live. I used to try to be cool. I said things I didn’t believe about other people, and celebrities, and myself; I wrote mean jokes for cheap, ‘edgy’ laughs; I neglected good friendships for shallow ones; I insisted I wasn’t a feminist; I nodded along with casual misogyny in hopes that shitty dudes would like me. … 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

Her response to Dan Savage’s anti-fat statements:

Being fat is its own punishment. Every day. Fat people know they’re fat and that the rest of the world thinks they’re disgusting. Have you experienced pop culture recently? You are crusading for a stereotype that is already the majority opinion. Why bother? Why is that interesting? There is no army of fat acceptance warriors poised to overthrow the earth and force-feed you gravy. Don’t worry – all the stereotypes about fat people are solidly intact. – 95

In a blog post when his anti-fat statements didn’t stop:

I get that you think you’re actually helping people and society by contributing to the fucking Alp of shame that crushes every fat person every day of their lives… But you’re not helping. Shame doesn’t work. Diets don’t work. Shame is a tool of oppression, not change. … If anti-fat crusaders really want what they claim to want – for fat people to be ‘healthy’ – they should be on the front lines of size acceptance and fat empowerment. There’s hard science to back this up: Shame contributes measurably to weight gain, not weight loss. Loving yourself is not antithetical to health, it is intrinsic to health. You can’t take good care of a thing you hate. – 99, 100, & 103

West’s response to Savage saying it’s a fact that fat people are unsightly:

No one deserves to be told that they’re unsightly. But this is what’s behind this entire thing – it’s not about ‘health,’ it’s about ‘eeeewwwww.’ … If you were concerned about my health, you would also be concerned about my mental health, which has spent the past twenty-eight years being slowly eroded by statements like the above. – 101 & 102

On body image in general:

I reject the notion that thinness is the goal, that thin = better – that I am an unfinished thing and that my life can really start when I lose weight. That then I will be a real person and have finally succeeded as a woman. I am not going to waste another second of my life thinking about this. I don’t want to have another fucking conversation with another fucking woman about what she’s eating or not eating or regrets eating or pretends to regret eating to mask the regret. OOPS I JUST YAWNED TO DEATH. – 103

I sometimes think of people’s personalities as the negative space around their insecurities. Afraid of intimacy? Cultivate aloofness. Feel invisible? Laugh loud and often. Drink too much? Play the gregarious basket case. Hate your body? Slash and burn others so you can climb up the pile. … The goal is to move through the world without anyone knowing quite where to dig a thumb. It’s a survival instinct. When people know how to hurt you, they know how to control you. But when you’re a fat person, you can’t hide your vulnerability, because you are it and it is you. – 113

On being tough enough to take all the internet trolling:

Challenging myself to absorb more and more hate is a masochistic form of vanity… No one wants to need defense that strong. It always hurts, somewhere. Besides, armor is heavy. My ability to weather online abuse is one of the great tragedies of my life. … I struggle to conceive of the ‘resilience’ I’ve developed in my job as a good thing – this hardening inside me, this distance I’ve put between myself and the world… It feels like much more of a loss than a triumph. – 121 & 122

On stand-up:

Comedy doesn’t just reflect the world, it shapes it. … The Cosby Show changed America’s perception of black families. … The Daily Show had a profound effect on American politics… Ellen opened Middle America’s hearts to dancing lesbians… So why would we pretend, out of sheer convenience, that stand-up exists in a vacuum? If we acknowledge that it doesn’t, then isn’t it our responsibility, as artists, to keep an eye on which ideas we choose to dump into the water supply? – 165

And being an ‘equal-opportunity’ offender … falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. ‘Oh, don’t worry – I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…’ Okay, well, that baby duck is dead now. – 170

Are you making the world better? Or worse? It’s not about censorship, it’s not about obligation, it’s not about forcibly limiting anyone’s speech – it’s about choice. Who are you? Choose. – 171

On rape jokes:

Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is ‘worse’ than other crimes – we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high… Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it. – 172

Women, it seemed, were obliged to be thick-skinned about their own rapes, while comics remained too thin-skinned to handle even mild criticism. – 176

West appeared on a show called Totally Biased to debate with comedian Jim Norton about rape jokes. She received a barrage of violent, aggressively hateful, blatantly sexist trolling. After a period of stunned horror, she realized what this meant for her cause:

They’d handed me a gift, I realized. A suffocating deluge of violent misogyny was how American comedy fans reacted to a woman suggesting that comedy might have a misogyny problem. They’d attempted to demonstrate that comedy, in general, doesn’t have issues with women by threatening to rape and kill me, telling me I’m just bitter because I’m too fat to get raped, and suggesting that the debate would have been better if it were just Jim raping me. Holy shit, I realized. I won. Their attempts to silence me made my point more effectively than any think piece or flawless debate performance ever could. – 203

Even three years later, the video still gets a lot of comments regularly. West isn’t too famous outside of feminist circles, and Norton isn’t that famous as a comedian:

So what’s the draw? The draw is that I’m a disobedient woman. The draw is that I’m fat and I’m speaking authoritatively to a man. – 210

In 2013 a troll tweeted at West from an account impersonating her recently-deceased father. The account used a real photo of her dad and the bio, ‘Embarrassed father of an idiot. Other two kids are fine though.’ A week later, West wrote openly about the pain this caused her, and within only a few hours an email came to her inbox. It was from the troll. It was an apology. In it he said:

I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self. … It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. – 245 & 246

The troll agreed to speak with her for a recording of the radio show, This American Life:

He told me that at the time he was about seventy-five pounds heavier than he wanted to be. He hated his body. He was miserable. And reading about fat people, particularly fat women, accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn’t articulate at the time. – 248

What made women easy targets? In retrospect, I wish I’d been even more plain: Why was it so satisfying to hurt us? Why didn’t he automatically see us as human beings? For all his self-reflection, that’s the one thing he never managed to articulate – how anger at one woman translated into hatred of women in general. Why, when men hate themselves, it’s women who take the beatings.– 250

And in closing, Lindy West’s absolutely brilliant response to trolls that call her a whale:

Oh, I have a giant brain and rule the sea with my majesty? What have you accomplished lately, Steve? – 254


14 thoughts on “Let’s DEWEY this! – Shrill

  1. Sounds like an extraordinary book from an extraordinary woman. I hadn’t heard of her until now so thank you for sharing the excerpts from the book. There is a terrifying level of misogyny apparent within South African culture – and rape has reached crisis point here so this post really resonates with me. I regularly despair of huge swathes of the population sadly 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean about despairing. It’s enough to make me want to fly off the planet in a rocket and never come back, sometimes. I’m so sorry you’re mired in such a misogynistic culture. For all my criticisms of America, I suppose I should be grateful it’s not worse. But that’s a trap too – it’s not enough to just be “not as bad.” We want GOOD. We have a right to good. All countries, all women, deserve good.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You have seriously intrigued me with your review of this book, and now I have to add it to my never-ending reading list :p Also, I’ve nominated you for a Blogger Recognition Award, because I love reading what you put up on here and wanted to send some more people this way! The post is here http://azpascoe.com/?p=756, but don’t feel like you have to do it. Thanks again for this review! Now if only I could finish all of my uni readings…

    Liked by 1 person

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