Lindy West Talks About Feminism and Fat-Shaming

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The publication of her new book, Shrill, has seen writer, feminist, and fat acceptance movement activist, Lindy West, embark on a tour of the UK as part of its promotion. Lindy has won legions of fans through her fierce and unapologetic writing and social media presence, as well as through her biting wit and wisdom. So, like many, I was only too pleased to nab a ticket to one of her talks – this one at the Southbank Centre in London.

Hosted by the comedian Bridget Christie, the event saw Lindy talk about not just her book, but her thoughts on modern feminism, the responsibilities of privilege, and even the politics and repercussions of causing period stains on her mother’s sparkling clean white carpet.

That gem came courtesy of an extract from her book where she talked about those clumps of tissue that come during periods, and how, on one occasion, one of these clumps fell on to her mother’s carpet as she was getting changed for bed. The moment and the writing is brilliant in its observation and its message, but that’s Lindy all over – political and wickedly funny at the same time.

The evening started off in familiar territory for Lindy with a discussion on the word ‘fat’ – how women fear it, and how, as a word, it’s become weaponsised by men as the most powerful and searing insult they can throw at a woman.

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Lindy embraces the word. In fact, she positively states that ‘overweight’ is a far more dangerous word as it implies that “there is an actual weight.” So she insists on being called ‘fat’ adding that “avoidance of the word ‘fat’ increases its power. People are trying to be kind by avoiding it, but it’s misguided.”

This is powerful stuff and Lindy’s activism on this subject should not be underestimated. Our relationship with our self-esteem is in shreds, with little sign that things are getting any better. I am not exempt from that, which is why Lindy’s fearlessness is so inspiring to me.

I’m terrified by the word ‘fat’ for all the exact reasons that Lindy embraces it. I feel the word ‘fat’ handing over me like a searing judgment.

Simply, I am ashamed to be fat. That’s one of the few holds society’s misogyny has over me. It’s a word I fear and it’s a description of me that I am ashamed of. So witnessing Lindy not giving a fuck is simply awesome. I would love to have known more about how she came to that – was she brought up by brilliant parents? Was this a Road to Damascus revelation that happened to her at some point?

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Sadly, Bridget didn’t follow that line of questioning. Instead, Bridget actually inadvertently touched upon one of the things all women do – she made an excuse about why she was fat as a kid. “My Dad sold ice cream” (“Oh, congrats” Lindy brilliantly responded). But it hit a nerve with me as I just thought, yeah, that’s what I do – we explain it away. We apologise for it, we acknowledge it as a ‘failing’.

Whenever my weight comes up (I consider myself ‘overweight’ – as does the BMI index, my GP, Weight Watchers, Slimming World, various personal trainers, and every other aspect of the diet industry I have hoisted myself on at some point in my life) I immediately get the excuses in – “oh, I have PCOS… It’s the stress… My family are diabetics… All my family are overweight… We’re just thickset…” ad infinitum.

Yep, Bridget made her excuse but Lindy just shrugged her shoulders “Whatever” and we moved on. (Queen, btw.)

Lindy is unapologetic in being outspoken (we all should be) but boy, does she get a shit load of abuse for it. And obviously, principally, from men. They police her tweets and leap on any opportunity to try to correct her. And Lindy shared some funny anecdotes on how she gets kicks from deliberately winding them up, such as some recent tweets where she described blue slurpies as a nutritious drink. “I like the colour as it shows me the nutrients.” So of course the men were all up in her TL telling her that this is why she’s fat.

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Listening to Lindy speak, it’s clear that humour is not just something that is natural to her, but also it’s an important outlet for her to deal with the frustration she faces for her feminism. “Opinions are seen as tedious in women”, she added, saying that women seem to be begrudgingly allowed or permitted to talk about discrimination and violence for a certain period of time, then that’s it. Move on to another subject, the men say. ‘Stop droning on, or ‘is this all you’ve got?’ As if talking about discrimination makes women a one-party trick.

Men will tolerate a certain amount of speaking out, then it’s just seen as women harping on about the same old thing, though no one tells male comedians to stop talking about politics.

And I share Lindy’s frustration that society persists on seeing it as a woman’s problem to fix all the gender issues out there, everything from gender-based violence to not enough female directors getting good work. As Lindy said, “Go ask men why they won’t hire women. Don’t expect women to find all the solutions to a system that victimises us.”

And, further than that, she was also rightly dismissive of men who seem to want gold stars and awards for even acknowledging feminism, let alone describing themselves as feminists. “You don’t get an award for think women shouldn’t be subservient.”

Ah, how low our standards are when we applaud a male feminist!

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And certainly that really hit home as Lindy explained how she’s been speaking out for years on why male comedians should think twice about using rape and violence against women as a source of comedy. And she’d taken a shit load of flak for that, for years and years and years. Then Patton Oswald (a famous American comedian) speaks up to say, ‘yeah, you know, I’ve been thinking… perhaps rape isn’t funny’ and all of a sudden he’s seen as a pioneer, a brave man breaking new ground with his thoughts.

Lindy rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Lindy has a tough gig – a woman doesn’t have to have an opinion to have shit thrown her way, but when she does shout back, well, you might as well mark the crosshairs on your own forehead. But Lindy keeps marking on her own crosshairs and walking out into the field of battle. Yet it was great to hear her acknowledge her own privilege and how other woman – WOC – have it far worse.

“It’s an unfortunate aspect of privilege that you can use it to make a difference,” but she emphasised how important it is to “strike that balance between speaking out and also amplifying those voices that aren’t being heard.”

It is clear that Lindy finds it frustrating that sometimes she, as a white person, is able to draw attention to non-white issues as POC are constantly overlooked. And it was good to hear Lindy say that she repeatedly turns down work if she feels that diversity is not being prioritised e.g. all-white panels.

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Probably the surprise of the night came in response to an audience question on finding support networks to mitigate the Twitter abuse she gets. In response, Lindy admitted that she is weighing up the benefits of leaving Twitter. That brought a few shouts of ‘No!’ from the audience, but It was interesting to hear Lindy talk about how this can be a good thing, especially if it was done as a collective action – all women leaving Twitter together. It would either force a change, or, simply, we could just leave the men to bicker amongst themselves and go off somewhere else.

“The trolls are a by-product of my job,” she said. “But it is important to realise that internet trolling is not a tech issue, but a cultural one.”

The work, therefore, goes on. And much of Lindy’s contribution can be found in Shrill itself. But, as Lindy said, “Women know this stuff; I want men to read it.”

Amen.

But there’s something I want to add. I’ve tried hard to mould those few quotes we got from Lindy that night into an engaging piece of writing (and I’m not sure I succeeded, so sorry) but the evening was incredibly frustrating because we barely got a word from Lindy as the evening was hosted pretty poorly, it has to be said, by Bridget Christie.

I’m going to try and say this as nicely as I can – Bridget dominated the entire evening, making it almost entirely about her. For every word Lindy said, Bridget said twenty. Bridget didn’t so much interview Lindy but hold forth with her own opinions on feminism, privilege, single-issue campaigns, women in comedy, Christopher Hitchens… Basically, you name it, Bridget wouldn’t stop talking about it.

Lindy handled this all with immense grace and she was patient with Bridget’s monologues. But perhaps someone should have mentioned to Bridget that the evening was not about her, but about Lindy. We were all there to hear Lindy and the growing discontent was palpable from the audience. It was frustrating and a shame.

Nevertheless, I, of course, have my copy of Shrill where I’ll be able to hear more from Lindy herself.

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