When I told Lindy West she’s a superhero — that she has literally saved lives — she laughed, modestly. As superheroes do.
The fierce, funny and feminist journalist and author — her book of essays, “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” came out last year — is a champion of causes often too taboo or complex to be spoken up for on large platforms. She helped popularize the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign on Twitter, encouraging women to share their abortion stories. She’s a prominent voice in the fat activism movement, which fights fat stigma and advocates body-acceptance and -inclusiveness of all sizes. One of her most famous pieces, written for Jezebel, took on rape jokes.
That piece made her the target of the grimy Internet’s worst trolls, who threatened to torture and murder her, and maybe rape her, they said, if she weren’t so fat. She fought back against them, and against the men running Twitter who enable intimidation and abuse against women, people of color and the most vulnerable on its platform. (She recently gave up Twitter entirely, accusing it in the Guardian, where she’s a columnist, of “greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the U.S. presidency.”)
West has also appeared twice on “This American Life.” Once to talk about the trolls and once to talk about accepting her fat body as it is. The latter was a primer for many people about what the fat acceptance movement is and why it’s important. West told me people often approach her about that episode and thank her for opening their eyes to something they’d never before considered: that it’s OK to be fat, that some people actually like their fat bodies. That fat people deserve kindness, respect and doctors who don’t shame or dismiss them.
It’s this aspect of West’s work that’s spoken to me, personally, as a fat woman. She’s helped me and a lot of women who look like me come to terms with that old serenity-prayer riddle: accepting what we can’t change (often, our bodies) and changing what we can (our attitudes about those bodies). As one of the loudest voices of this controversial movement, West has endured abuse that would crush most of the rest of us. Nevertheless, she persists. And people like me melt into puddles of gratitude.
West and I spoke on the phone in advance of her reading at Northshire Books in Saratoga Springs this week. Here’s part of that conversation.
So, are you enjoying the experience of being off of Twitter? Are Facebook and Instagram a happier place for you?
Yeah, it’s just so much more relaxed. I get weirdos on Facebook once in a while, but, like, maybe one per post, if that. And it’s a lot less work. I was just spending so much time; I screengrabbed every single abusive tweet because I was really worried I would miss something important and actually threatening. It just ate into my brain space. So to let all of that go and be like, “I’m just gonna go do my work and not think about this.” … And if someone’s really being threatening in a dangerous way, I don’t know. What is a screengrab going to do? The FBI once told a friend of mine that it’s not the loud ones you have to worry about. All right. Cool, then, fine. I’m just gonna go get a dog and have an alarm system on my house.
But I was really good at Twitter, you know? I really loved Twitter. I don’t feel as in love with Facebook so I don’t spend as much time there. I thought about having a secret Twitter account so I could still follow people that are important to me. I miss that a lot. I got my news from Twitter and not just my news, but it was a place where you can immediately get the news sort of filtered and analyzed through a lot of different perspectives that aren’t reflected in mainstream media, because we still have huge diversity problems in newsrooms, and so that was really important to me.
Do you feel like your work around fat activism has had influence over the way we’re talking about size acceptance and diversity now?
I mean, I hope so. That’s the idea. I’m certainly just part of a huge movement that people have been working on for a really, really long time, before I ever started. But I do think that there’s something useful about the fact that I came into fat activism already established. Like I already had a fan base from writing silly movie reviews. [West wrote about movies for The Stranger, the alt-weekly in Seattle.] And I had a big bro fanbase because for a long time I just wrote goofy fart-joke movie reviews. I pivoted from there to saying “Oh, by the way, you already like me. Guess what, I’m a fat person and if you like me you need to be nice to fat people.” Rather than coming at it from an activist’s background.
But it does definitely feel different than five years ago. Five years ago, the term “fat shaming” was not even widely known. But now it’s starting to penetrate mainstream discourse, that you’re not just gratuitously cruel to fat people. Which is something. You can still lecture them and tell them that they’re destroying our health care system, but whatever. Baby steps, I guess.
When you meet people who have shame about their bodies, do you try to convert them to size acceptance? I find myself thrusting your book at them. But what is your response when people share their pain about their bodies with you?
I just try to listen to people and be very, very compassionate. But really hold the line about not participating in diet culture. But I don’t think it’s aggressive to give someone a book. And I tried to make the book sort of palatable enough so it doesn’t look like a self-help book. It’s just a funny memoir that’s secretly full of pro-fat brainwashing. I don’t ever want to rush anyone and I think that sometimes there’s a temptation to like scold people for not being as far along as you are. And I just don’t think any of that is helpful. I think that there are enough restrictions and judgments on the way that women feel about their bodies and what they do with their bodies and I don’t want to add to that. I don’t want to add, like, “You weren’t good enough at being thin and you’re not good at being fat, either.” You know what I mean? So I think you have to kind of be patient and be loving and be available. Make sure people know that you’re there. I guess the main thing I try to do is model behavior. Model confidence and self-acceptance and I try to move around as publicly as I can, embodying ease. I feel like so much of your time as a fat person is spent in discomfort and feeling like you don’t fit. And so I just feel like the more publicly I can walk around, calm and at home in my environment and taking up space like I deserve it — which I do, which we all do, because this world belongs to all of us — I think that that gets through to people. At least subconsciously.
See Lindy West at Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, April 6, 7 p.m. $5.
This piece originally appeared in the paywalled Times Union. Apologies to that publication for bypassing it here.
If it’s your jam, you can listen to our full conversation here.