Feministing Reads: Lindy West’s Shrill

How do you reclaim an identity that is hostile at every turn?

Recently I went through a bad couple weeks. Shitty treatment by men, a sexual assault that made me feel about half an inch tall. As I cried to a friend, almost putting our joint out with my tears as though I needed that shit of a week to become even more tragic, I couldn’t get one thought out of my mind.

“He made me feel like such a woman,” I cried to her. “He made me feel like a girl.

 There was no way forward from the assault, there was no redress, because anything I did or said or thought would be done or said by a woman, would be read through the lens of stupid shit women do when they’re being total fucking women — whiny, needy, slutty, shrewish — and it was a being female, with all the shamelessness of my overeager heart and vagina, that had gotten me into this mess in the first place.

The message behind his violence was that it didn’t matter what I wanted or who I was; I was good for a couple seconds on a Thursday night just because I was a woman. Because I was just a woman.

It’s an experience that speaks to the tension at the heart of Lindy West’s Shrill: That between identity and transcendence. I know, a big claim for 250 pages of pure hilariousness, but hear me out. West writes about both the trap of living in a body and identity that is marginalized, but also the power we have to reclaim these identities by being wholly, indefatigably, and — wait for it — shrilly ourselves. For me, this is, paradoxically, a path to envisioning worlds free of all kinds of hierarchy and injustice, worlds without identity or without the violence that intimately ties identity to power — a liberated world.

Lindy West is one of the Great Ladies of the Feminist Internet, her writing style alone setting a regal standard for many of us coming of age in these wild online times. She is also a model of unapologetic, fat female loudness. In Shrill, her first book, West authors a series of first-person essays/memoir that are visionary and also the funniest. The book is an indictment of the hatred marginalized bodies bear. But it is also, fundamentally, a paean (look, I used the word “paean”! Just like the New York Times Book Review!) to the goodness of the flesh, and to the radical political potential of loving one’s own marginalized body.

Body acceptance is not only about our individual ability to love ourselves, but about human dignity and our ability as a society to love, respect, and accommodate the marginalized.

After all, how much of oppression, bigotry, and prejudice works through the body? Making the body an object of disgust, making certain bodies subhuman: Gay bodies as vessels of AIDS; trans bodies a taint to public bathrooms; Michael Brown’s black body so colored by Darren Wilson’s racist vision that Wilson could only describe the teenager as a “demon.”

West writes of the (often santimonious) bigotry she has experienced as a fat woman, and places this in the context of a wider cultural hierarchy of value: “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence,” she writes. “One that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized people small and quiet.”

And when we unlearn the social scripts put on our bodies, we can begin to not only live in and love our bodies, but deploy them. Our bodies become strategy.

West writes, “My body, I realized, was an opportunity. It was political. It moved the world just by existing. What a gift.”

This is radical in a world where many of us occupy identities and bodies that are constantly turned, by our culture and those around us, against us. Bodies that are constantly used to keep us in our place. This is itself a form of violence, and a tool in perpetuating it. By laying claim to their identities, marginalized people challenge this system.

Contemporary American social justice politics often hinges on the mobilization of identity, or — as the black feminist Combahee River Collective pioneered in the 80s, and as Fox News has been maligning ever since — identity politics. In its truest form, this isn’t the Balkanization of politics into smaller and smaller interest groups for the sole purpose of raining on your parade (though your parade probably deserves to be rained on); it’s the urgent need for any revolutionary politics to center the lived experience of marginality, according to the marginalized.

Identity politics is, in part, a project of changing what things mean. The construction “you are just a woman” only works because we so conflate “woman” with bad things, “woman” itself becomes bad. Identity politics use identity to reclaim the terms of the debate — to wrest, for example, the meaning of “woman” out of the hands of misogyny or “black” out of white supremacy. West does the resignifying thing a lot, but my favorite is when she reclaims the insult “whale” in a gem of a joke that made me lol on the airplane so loud my seatmate could hear me through her complimentary earplugs:

“‘Whale’ is the weakest insult ever, by the way. Oh, I have a giant brain and rule the sea with my majesty? What have you accomplished lately, Steve?”


West celebrates her bigness, she makes herself as big as possible, so that other women don’t have to shrink, but can grow along with her. So that we can all chuck rubbish notions of what it means to be fat, and to be a woman, in the trash can where they belong.

I get this project. I am on this project, too. I know how microaggression and abuse can steal your energy and shrink you so that you shut up and stay small. I know that living a life out of the closet, in many different ways, is a tool to inspire and transform those around you. I know that the world is better when women take up space.

I also wish that our society did not have hierarchies of bigness and littleness at all.

We live in a culture where, as much as fatness is stigmatized, bigness — taking up emotional and intellectual room— is valued. Individualism. Being oneself, making a splash. Yet we also live in a context where the positive value of big existence is reserved — as West points out, over and over again, in her work — for the privileged: For the white, for the thin, for the male. Taking up emotional and social space is good, our culture says, if you are one of the designated space-takers. It is obscene, unholy — yes, shrill, hahahaha, I did it again — if you are not.

So we spread our wings and our legs, we write screeds, we demand things. Because if we don’t, if we stay quiet, we rely on the good grace of people who actively profit from our marginality, and that’s gonna change jack shit. Human suffering is general and common, but it is also individual and specific — specific to certain people and classes of people in certain spaces and times — and if we do not work around that specificity, we fail.

Yet what got me most about Shrill was West’s incredible optimism, her belief in kindness and the possibility of change. The book does a thing that a lot of the social justice internet simply does not do, which is speak unironically the language of compassion, and believe unshakingly in the actual power of lived empathy to create a better world.

I like to think that this better world is one in which we are neither big or little, a world where no structural barriers to being perfectly ourselves means we don’t have to be any particular thing at all. I want a Paul McCartney-style collectivity, pure imagination.

And herein lies the contradiction: Identity as a tool to transcend itself, bigness and presence as tools to bring us to the sharp empty drop beyond the cliff-edge of our individual selves. Not that we will go from being fat women to being skinny men. Not that the marginalized of the world will usher in a perennial opposite day where we get to interrupt and drop bombs on and rape all our former oppressors. Not, please, actual Paul McCartney.

I want to dream something beyond human hierarchy. I think West and people like her help get us there. I imagine that majestic whale lost blissfully in the deep sea.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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