"Shrill" by Lindy West

Lindy West is a Seattle-based comedian, author of the book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, and a feminist activist. As a young college student pursuing my creative writing degree at a university in the center of Capitol Hill, she is living my dream life. I connected with her instantly: she writes with humor and compassion and an unusual amount of sincerity in her work. But beyond the quality of her work, West represents something more than a career aspiration to me.

 

Along with being an accomplished writer, Lindy West is a fat woman in a field that is often unkind (sometimes bordering on inhumane) to fat women. In one chapter of her book titled “Hello, I’m Fat”, West details her experiences working for The Stranger––a well-respected Seattle based newspaper. Though the paper carries great power (West even noted it was “the best thing to ever happen to [her]”), the chapter reveals a slightly more troubling side to her time spent working for the publication.

 

West’s story centers around her relationship with her boss at the time (Dan Savage). Though West and Savage had a friendly enough relationship, much of Savage’s work at the time revolved around the obesity crisis. Of course, there are many dimensions to the obesity crisis in America and it is possibly unavoidable for a journalist as the issue worsens in the US. However, Dan Savage’s work often focused on demeaning fat people themselves rather than the issue as a whole.

 

Though it could be argued that it is absolutely Savage’s right to publish this kind of work, West wondered why she should have to suffer this indirect abuse from her boss. West describes a particularly striking time in her life when people would make comments asking “how it felt to know [her] boss hated [her] because of [her] body?”. It almost seemed like Savage’s right to say anything he felt superseded West’s right to feel safe in her workplace.

 

Women––especially fat women––are often forced to face this kind of abuse in order to find even a quiet place to work and simply exist. It would be so simple to sit back and laugh with everyone else, ignoring the wounds those words would inevitably cause. West could easily (and understandably) prioritize her position at work, sacrificing comfort and safety for a greater chance at career-based stability. Especially in the public sphere of writing or comedy, women and otherwise marginalized people walk this tightrope. Speaking up means putting themselves directly in the line of fire, but staying quiet means years of inevitable comments, essays, and publications that demean their very existence.

 

West chose to voice her anger. In an essay that would shake The Stranger to its very core, West published "Hello, I am Fat" in direct response to Dan Savage’s pieces on obesity. It features a full body picture of herself and a challenge to Dan Savage––including calling one of his remarks “an incredibly cruel subjective opinion”. Reading this, I felt a sense of fear on West’s behalf. The notoriously cruel internet is not exactly known for their calm and measured responses to self-assured fat women. As much as I was fearful of the response, I admired the insane amount of courage it took for West to write this. Not only was she standing up to her superior, but she was also taking her power back from an industry that wants to make her invisible.

 

Though Dan Savage’s response asserted that he was not, in fact, West’s direct boss (and therefore would not get her fired), West was up against not only Savage’s reputation but also all of the mainstream media. Even in 2019, the rhetoric we use to talk about fat people isn’t wholly empathetic. West fought against a culture that told her she should hate her body and should be doing everything in her power to change it.

 

I will carry the lessons Lindy West taught me into my professional life. More than a talented and funny writer, Lindy West is an empathetic one. In the writing world, there’s a certain pressure to say “I don’t care who I offend”, and while I think there’s value in discourse, I admire West’s dedication to upholding the dignity of all people. Rather than writing from a self-indulgent place, I can use my words to uplift and understand those around me at a deeper level.

 

This year, Lindy West’s Book Shrill was adapted into a TV series starring Aidy Bryant which you can watch on Hulu.