Minutes before my interview with Lindy West, a 15-year-old told her not to drink Powerade.
“That’s not healthy unless you’re engaging in some strenuous sporting activity,” the teen wrote in response to a photo West had posted on Twitter.
She shot back.
“Um, Powerade is actually healthier than water,” she tweeted, deadpan. “I only drink colored liquids because the colors mean you can see the nutrients.”
This is who Lindy West is: A constantly harangued feminist writer ready to transmute your BS into comedy. Her new book Shrill is out this Tuesday, and you need to read it. It’s hilarious, biting and wise.
And it is not a “woman book.”
“I wanted to make it feel not like a gendered book, but like a piece of literature,” West said of the memoir in an interview with The Huffington Post. “I didn’t want the cover to be pink. And I didn’t want it to scream ‘woman book,’ even though obviously it’s about a woman, because it’s a memoir and I’m a woman. Men can write about their lives and have it be treated as literature, and when women write about our lives, it’s treated as niche.”
Shrill, subtitled “Notes From A Loud Woman,” has a deep red jacket with a relatively no-frills design. The title is rendered in simple black font that cleverly mimics rising audio bars. No floral prints, no pink — not that there’s anything wrong with either.
We spoke with West to learn more about Shrill, her thoughts on modern feminism, the abuse she’s faced and why it’s pretty great that her memoir is full of period jokes.
I was very conscious going into this interview that I’m a man interviewing you about a book that’s largely about challenges you’ve faced as a woman. For someone who reads this book and wants to be an ally, do you have any thoughts about how they can actually help?
It’s a fine line. You don’t want to speak for women or speak over women when women are talking about their experiences. But also, I’m exhausted. I’m tired of trying to explain this stuff to people, particularly men, who don’t want to hear it and aren’t receptive and don’t have the background to even understand what I’m saying.
So, it’s really helpful when dudes will step in and take up that work of talking to other dudes about feminist issues. Run back-up. Use your privilege for good. It’s an unfortunate fact that a lot of men will listen to men and just treat men’s voices with an authority that they don’t grant to women. Use your veneer of male authority to teach men that that veneer of male authority is not real.
There’s one chapter that I found particularly interesting, “Why Fat Lady So Mean To Baby Men?” You discuss being harassed because you tweeted evidence of your previous harassment.
…and I felt like that was just insane enough to help people understand the particular craziness that is online abuse. Do you think online harassment will ever stop?
It’s something that I have to deal with on a daily basis, although it comes and goes. It’s not like I get death threats every day, but I certainly get contrarian shitheads every day. At least one or two, if not 20 or 100.
I think that eventually, someone will realize that there’s a need for online spaces that are not toxic sewers. At some point, I think there will be a change, where whatever that next generation of social media is, it will be built to not be friendly to this kind of trolling and harassment.
People are howling for a solution. And when people are howling for something, there’s money to be made there. I don’t mean to sound like a rabid capitalist, but in a realistic way, that’s one way that things move forward, especially in tech.
I don’t think people are going to get bored of trolling. Although maybe in 100, 200, 300 years, we’ll have fixed sexism. [Laughs]
Use your veneer of male authority to teach men that that veneer of male authority is not real.
In that same chapter, you talk about how the Internet has been an incredibly positive place for you — a way to access body-positivity Tumblr photo blogs and stuff like that. Is it still possible for young women to find these supportive online communities? Why are they so important?
It’s definitely still possible. If anything there are more of them. A lot of it is more polished now. And there’s a lot more plus-sized clothing options now than there were when I was 25, let alone 15, which is really great. It might seem frivolous, but being able to dress yourself and express yourself through the aesthetics that you present to the world is a huge part of identity.
I had never seen regular, young fat people being stylish and happy. And that’s all these blogs were. Just people taking everyday outfit photos, smiling and posting them on Tumblr. You could scroll through them endlessly, and it was so affirming.
I really, really genuinely didn’t believe that you could be happy and fat at the same time. The messaging to the contrary is so strong and so pervasive. That’s what the diet industry is. It’s telling everyone that your fat body is not really your body, that you’re just a thin person who has failed, and if you torment yourself enough and if you spend enough money, then you can become your “real self” — your real, thin self.
Anyone who harasses or shames or abuses someone based on their body size and says that it’s about health is a liar.
My darkest fear was, ‘Oh my God, what if I’m fat forever? I might be fat forever.’ I could barely bring myself to think that, to say those words to myself, because it was such a horrifying thought. Because then it would mean that I would be miserable and alone forever. Breaking out of that changed my life more than anything else, almost.
It’s like there’s a level of self-loathing, which is reinforced by everything we see, that we just have to get over. Is that coming sooner rather than later?
There’s a tremendous need for people to decouple health from aesthetics and size and weight. You can determine health independently of a number on a scale and your waistband measurement. You can change the way you treat your body in a positive way, and you can pursue good health independent of everything else. You can fuel your body with nutritious food, and move your body because it feels good to move your body and not punish yourself if you don’t suddenly transform into Cindy Crawford.
There’s nothing that’s been better for my health than unlearning body hate, because you can’t take good care of a thing that you hate. If people genuinely care about health, they should teach people to love their bodies and love themselves enough to care for themselves.
And also, health is not a moral imperative. It’s not anyone’s place to decide what other people can and should eat and do with their bodies.
Regardless, anyone who harasses or shames or abuses someone based on their body size and says that it’s about health is a liar. Part of health is mental health. Teaching someone that their body is garbage doesn’t help mental health or physical health.
You write a lot about your mental health and finding body-positivity in your twenties. It seems like for a lot of people, there’s this expectation that once you’re in your twenties, you’re a real adult now and you can take care of everything. But, you’re still figuring things out.
Oh definitely. My thirties are my favorite decade so far, for sure. Being 34 rules. I used to worry about everything. I was terrified of everything. I was terrified of being embarrassed. Terrified of falling down. Terrified of eating in public. Terrified of saying the wrong thing and having people remember. There’s something about just moving through life and becoming weather-beaten that makes it so much easier to feel OK. [Laughs]
There’s also an impulse when you’re young to feel like whatever you’re feeling now, you’re going to feel forever. And that’s just not true. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t fathom that some day I would not hate my body and be able to have a fun life and be married to my best friend and travel and wear cute clothes.
You’re obviously a very outspoken person, and I wanted to ask you about women who feel conflicted about that. My mom was a businesswoman all my life, and she became a single mother after my dad died when I was in high school. She’s probably one of the “most feminist” people I know. But she’s said to me that she doesn’t quite know why people need to be so “outspoken.” It’s not to criticize her, but I use it as an example to explain that, for certain people of a certain generation, there’s a feeling that people don’t need to be so loud, or demand acknowledgement in 2016. What do you think about that?
There’s a gap between the way we discuss these issues academically and real life. Everyone’s life is complicated and messy. Regardless of how people feel, I am going to spend my life working to change things for future generations of women.
I try to be very understanding of the fact that we all have different experiences and different priorities, except for when it comes to things like rape and abortion. Sometimes you see women promoting horrifying ideas that harm and even kill other women. I’m not super nice to those women. But even then, I can see how they ended up there and scrounge up some empathy. When I get hate mail or pushback from other women, I always just remind myself that I will fight for you whether you want me to or not, or whether you even think this is worthwhile.
Even when I get horrible fat-shaming emails from women, it’s like, you know what? This work that I do benefits you. It makes space for you to exist in your body, and for you to be safe and for you to not hate yourself. And I’m going to keep doing it whether you thank me or not. It’s the same with abortion. I’m going to continue advocating for your rights, because you never know what’s going to happen, and you may need them.
I will fight for you, whether you want me to or not.
I get a lot of sanctimonious emails from young, white middle-class Christian women who say that abortion is frivolous and selfish. And it’s like, you know what? That’s fine. Go ahead and believe that. You never know what’s going to happen to you. And when you need this service, or someone you love needs this medical procedure, I will have been there to make sure that it’s still accessible and available.
Is there a conversation about Shrill you wanted to have but haven’t yet?
I feel like all my interviews have been very serious. I want people to know that the book is hella funny.
The book is f**king hilarious. I was reading it next to my fiancée in bed and laughing every two minutes and she was like, ‘I’m going to get up and go to the other room if you don’t stop.’ I didn’t know how to ask you to be funny, though. That seems weird.
You can’t just be funny on command. And these issues are not that funny. But humor is so powerful. It’s always been my primary coping mechanism. When I’m writing about these things in my life, it’s just natural to make jokes about them.
It’s also such a great delivery tool for some of these tougher ideas. It’s not palatable to just try to sell a book about abortion or whatever. People aren’t like, ‘Ooh, fun! My next beach read!’
I used to think about it like grinding up a pill and putting it in apple sauce. It really helps people who might otherwise not be receptive to these darker issues. It’s like a Trojan horse: I just pack my jokes with bummer anecdotes about abortions.
And the period jokes. There are so many of them. I think every man should read this book. Everyone’s heard a million men make a billion penis jokes and I think this is the first time I’ve really understood like, even 10 percent of what it is to have a period. And I’m almost 28 years old.
Yeah, totally! And life is funny and gross and annoying. I don’t think I could have written a memoir that didn’t have jokes in it, because what else is there?
This interview has been edited and condensed.