Lindy West: As a fat woman, my body is lampooned and associated with moral failure

In an extract from her book Shrill, Lindy West describes how she went from feeling doomed to live in a culture that hated her to realising that her body is a gift

 

Probably the question I get most often is “Where do you get your confidence?”

“Where do you get your confidence?” is a complex, dangerous question. First of all, if you are a thin person, please do not go around asking fat people where they got their confidence in the same tone you’d ask a shark how it learned to breathe air and manage a Burger King.

As a woman, my body is scrutinised, policed and treated as a public commodity. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials, and – the one thing Hollywood movies and internet trolls most agree on – my ability to be loved. So the subtext, when a thin person asks a fat person, “Where do you get your confidence?” is, “You must be some sort of alien because if I looked like you, I would definitely throw myself into the sea.” I’m not saying there’s no graceful way to commiserate about self-image and body hate across size-privilege lines – solidarity with other women is one of my drugs of choice – but please tread lightly.

Second of all, to actually answer the question, my relationship with my own confidence has always been strange. I am profoundly grateful to say that I have never felt inherently worthless. Any self-esteem issues I’ve had were externally applied – people told me I was ugly, revolting, shameful, unacceptably large. The world around me simply insisted on it, no matter what my gut said. I used to describe it as “reverse body dysmorphia: When I looked in the mirror, I could never understand what was supposedly so disgusting. I knew I was smart, funny, talented, social, kind – why wasn’t that enough? By all the metrics I cared about, I was a home run.

So my reaction to my own fatness manifested outwardly instead of inwardly as resentment, anger, a feeling of deep injustice, of being cheated. I wasn’t intrinsically without value, I was just doomed to live in a culture that hated me. For me, the process of embodying confidence was less about convincing myself of my own worth and more about rejecting and unlearning what society had hammered into me.

Honestly, this “Where do you get your confidence?” chapter could be 16 words long. Because there was really only one step to my body acceptance: look at pictures of fat women on the internet until they don’t make you uncomfortable any more. That was the entire process.

(Optional step two: Wear a crop top until you forget you’re wearing a crop top. Suddenly, a crop top is just a top. Repeat.)

It took me a while to put my foot on that step, though. So let me back up.

The first time

The first time I ever called myself fat, in conversation with another person, was in my second year of college. My roommate, Beth – with whom I had that kind of platonically infatuated, resplendent, despairing, borderline codependent friendship unique to young women – had finally convinced me to tell her who I had a crush on, and didn’t understand why the admission came with a Nile of tears. I couldn’t bear to answer her out loud, so we IMed in silence from opposite corners of our dorm room.

“You don’t understand,” I wrote, gulping. “You count.”

Beth is one of those bright, brilliant lodestones who pulls people into her orbit with a seemingly supernatural inevitability. She wore high heels to class, she was a salsa dancer and a soprano, she could change the oil in a truck and field dress a deer, she got distinction on our English exams even though she and I only started studying two days before (I merely passed), and she could take your hands and stare into your face and make you feel like you were the only person in the world.

It seems like I spent half my college life wrangling the queue of desperate, weeping suitors who’d “never felt like this before”, who were convinced (with zero input from her) that Beth was the one.

She regularly received anonymous flower deliveries: tumbling bouquets of yellow roses and trailing greens, with rhapsodic love letters attached. She once mentioned, offhand on the quad, that she wanted one of those Leatherman multi-tools, and a few days later one appeared, sans note, in her campus mailbox.

In retrospect, these years were a non-stop, f***ed-up carnival of male entitlement (the anonymous Leatherman was particularly creepy, the subtext being “I’m watching you”), one young man after another endowing Beth with whatever cocktail of magic dream-girl qualities he was sure would “complete” him, and labouring under the old lie that wearing a girl down is “seduction”.

At the time, though, we laughed it off. Meanwhile, alone in my bed at night, the certainty that I was failing as a woman pressed down on me like a quilt.

I was the girl kids would point to on the playground and say, “She’s your girlfriend”, to gross out the boys. No one had ever sent me flowers, or asked me on a date, or written me a love letter (Beth literally had “a box” where she “kept them”), or professed their shallow, impetuous love for me, or flirted with me, or held my hand, or bought me a drink, or kissed me (except for that dude at that party in freshman year who was basically an indiscriminate roving tongue), or invited me to participate in any of the myriad romantic rites of passage that I’d always been told were part of normal teenage development. No one had ever picked me . Literally no one. The cumulative result was worse than loneliness: I felt unnatural. Broken. It wasn’t fair.

“You will always be worth more than me, no matter what I do,” I told Beth, furious tears splashing on my Formica desk. “I will always be alone. I’m fat. I’m not stupid. I know how the world works.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.”

I resented her certainty; I thought she didn’t understand. But she was just ahead of me.

A fat-positive sentence

The first time I ever wrote a fat-positive sentence in the newspaper (or said a fat- positive sentence out loud, really) was four years later, in December of 2006 in my review of the movie Dreamgirls for the Stranger:

“I realise that Jennifer Hudson is kind of a superchunk, but you kind of don’t mind looking at her, and that kind of makes you feel good about yourself. But . . . fat people don’t need your pity.”

It was early enough in my career (and before the internet was just a 24-7 intrusion machine) that my readers hadn’t yet sniffed out what I looked like, and coming this close to self-identifying as fat left me chattering with anxiety all day. My editor knew what I looked like. Would she notice I was fat now? Would we have to have a talk where she gave me sad eyes and squeezed my arm and smiled sympathetically about my “problem”? Because I just said fat people don’t need your pity.

Of course she never mentioned it. I don’t know if she even picked up on it – if she turned my body over in her head as she read that sentence. She probably didn’t. I didn’t know it at the time, but the idea of ‘coming out’ as fat comes up a lot in fat- acceptance circles. I always thought that if I just never, ever acknowledged it – never wore a bathing suit, never objected to a fat joke on TV, stuck to ‘flattering’ clothes, never said the word ‘fat’ out loud – then maybe people wouldn’t notice. Maybe I could pass as thin, or at least obedient.

But, I was slowly learning, you can’t advocate for yourself if you won’t admit what you are. At the same time, I was blazingly proud that I’d stuck that sentiment in my Dreamgirls review – right there in the opening paragraph, where it couldn’t be missed. It was exhilarating to finally express something (even in the most oblique way possible) that I’d been desperately hiding for so long.

From a rhetorical standpoint, it tidily expressed a few complex concepts at once: Fat people are not here as a foil to boost your own self-esteem. Fat people are not your inspiration porn. Fat people can be competent, beautiful, talented and proud without your approval.

Drunken Irishman

Not a ton had changed in my self-conception since that conversation with Beth. I had finally found someone to flirt and have sex with, but he wouldn’t be seen on the street with me or call me his girlfriend. He also believed in the Sasquatch, wore a T-shirt that said, “I’m the drunken Irishman your mother warned you about”, and eventually dumped me for someone irritatingly named Mindy.

We then had a screaming fight, which culminated in him attempting to “slam” the door in my face with a flourish, except he lived in a dank basement accessed via a garage and could only emphatically push the garage door button and stand there glaring as it ‘whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ’ed to the ground in slow motion. My cab- driver hit on me while I sobbed, and a small voice inside reminded me I should be flattered.

Lots of men wanted to have sex with me – I dated casually, I got texts in the night – they just didn’t want to go to a restaurant with me, or bring me to their office party, or open Christmas presents with me. It would have been relatively simple to swallow the idea that I was objectively sexually undesirable, but the truth was more painful: there was something about me that was symbolically shameful. It’s not that men didn’t like me; it’s that they hated themselves for doing so. But why?

The question, “Why am I like this?” gnawed at me.

The media tells me that I’m fat because a weird sandwich exists somewhere with Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead of bread. But I’m sure that’s not it. I would definitely remember eating that sandwich. Internet trolls tell me I’m fat because I eat lard out of a bucket for dinner, which would be a weird thing to do, and use a Toblerone for a dildo, which really isn’t an efficient way to ingest calories at all. The fact is that I’m fat because life is a snarl of physical, emotional, and cultural forces both in and out of my control. I’m fat because life is life.

Like most fat people who’ve been lectured about diet and exercise since childhood, I actually know an inordinate amount about nutrition and fitness. The number of nutrition classes and hospital- sponsored weight-loss programmes and individual dietician consultations and tear-filled therapy sessions I’ve poured money into over the years makes me grind my teeth. (Do you know how many Jet Skis I could have bought with that money? one Jet Skis !!!)

I can rattle off how many calories are in a banana or an egg or six almonds or a Lean Cuisine Santa Fe Style Rice and Beans ready-meal. I know the difference between spelt bread and Ezekiel bread, and I know that lemon juice makes a great ‘sauce’! I could teach you the proper form for squats and lunges and kettle-bell swings, if you want. I can diagnose your shin splints. I can correct your jump shot.

I never did manage to lose weight, though – not significantly and my minor “successes” weren’t through any eating patterns that could be considered “normal”. The level of restriction that I was told, by professionals, was necessary for me to “x” my body essentially precluded any semblance of joyous, fulfilling human life.

It was about learning to live with hunger – with feeling “light”, I remember my nutritionist calling it – or filling your body with chia seeds and this miracle supplement that expanded into a bulky viscous gel in your stomach.

If you absolutely had to have food in between breakfast at 7am and lunch at 1pm, try six almonds, and if you’ve already had your daily almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling. Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.

Apple nausea

One day, during the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree, the only other fat person in the class (literally everyone else was an affluent suburban mom trying to lose her last 4lb of baby weight) raised his hand and mentioned, sheepishly, that he sometimes felt nauseated after eating an apple, a weird phenomenon I was struggling with as well. What was that all about?

Was there any way to fix it? The nutritionist told us she’d recently read a study about how some enzyme in apples caused nausea in people with some other elevated enzyme that became elevated when a person was fat for a long time. So, basically, if we fatties wanted to be able to eat apples again, nausea-free, then we’d really need to double down on the only-eating-apples diet. The only real cure for fatness was to go back in time and not get fat in the first place. I started to cry and then I started to laugh.

What the f*** kind of a life was this? Around that time, just when I needed it, Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project came to me like a gift. The photographs are in black and white, and they feature a group of fat, naked women laughing, smiling, embracing, gazing fearlessly into the camera. In one, they sway indolently like the Three Graces; in another they re-create photographer Herb Ritts’s iconic pile of supermodels.

It was the first time I’d ever seen fat women presented without scorn. I clicked, I skimmed, I shrugged, I clicked away. I clicked back.

I was ragingly uncomfortable. Don’t they know those things are supposed to stay hidden? I haven’t been having basement sex with the lights off all these years so you could go show what our belly buttons look like!

At the same time, I felt something start to unclench deep inside me. What if my body didn’t have to be a secret? What if I was wrong all along – what if this was all a magic trick, and I could just decide I was valuable and it would be true? Why, instead, had I left that decision in the hands of strangers who hated me?

Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalised groups small and quiet. What if you could opt out of the game altogether? I paused and considered. When the nutrition teacher emailed, I didn’t sign up for the next session of Almond Gulag.

I couldn’t stop looking. It was literally the first time in my life that I’d seen bodies like mine honoured instead of lampooned, presented with dignity instead of scorn, displayed as objects of beauty instead of as punchlines.

It was such a simple manoeuvre, but so profound. Nimoy said of his models, “I asked them to be proud”. For the first time it struck me that it was possible to be proud of my body, not just in spite of it. Not only that, but my bigness is powerful.

Hate/love

I hate being fat. I hate the way people look at me, or don’t. I hate being a joke; I hate the disorienting limbo between too visible and invisible; I hate the way that complete strangers waste my life out of supposed concern for my death. I hate knowing that if I did die of a condition that correlates with weight, a certain subset of people would feel their prejudices validated, and some would outright celebrate.

I also love being fat. The breadth of my shoulders makes me feel safe. I am unassailable. I intimidate. I am a polar icebreaker. I walk and climb and lift things, I can open your jar, I can absorb blows – literal and metaphorical – meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me. My bones feel like iron – heavy, but strong. I used to say that being fat in our culture was like drowning (in hate, in blame, in your own tissue), but lately I think it’s more like burning.

After three decades in there, my iron bones are steel. Maybe you are thin. You hiked that trail and you are fit and beautiful and wanted and I am so proud of you, I am so in awe of your wiry brightness; and I’m miles behind you, my breathing ragged.

But you didn’t carry this up the mountain. You only carried yourself. How hard would you breathe if you had to carry me? You couldn’t. But I can.

I was hooked. Late at night, I started furtively clicking through fat-positive tags on Tumblr like a Mormon teen looking at internet porn. Studies have shown that visual exposure to certain body types actually changes people’s perception of those bodies – in other words, looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more.

(Eternal reminder: representation matters.)

I discovered a photo blog called Hey, Fat Chick! (now, crushingly, defunct) run by an effervescent Australian angel named Frances Lockie, and pored over it nightly like a jeweller or a surgeon or a codebreaker. It was pure, unburdened joy, and so simple: just fat women – some bigger than me, some smaller – wearing outfits and doing things and smiling. Having lives. That’s it. They were like medicine. One by one they loosened my knots.

First, I stopped reacting with knee-jerk embarrassment at the brazenness of their bodies, the way I’d been trained. I stopped feeling obscene, exposed, like someone had ripped the veil off my worst secrets.

Next, they became ordinary. Mundane. Neutral. Their thick thighs and sagging bellies were just bodies, like any other. Their lives were just lives, like any other. Like mine. Then, one day, they were beautiful. I wanted to look and be like them – I wanted to spill out of a crop top; plant a flag in a mountain of lingerie; alienate small, bitter men who dared to presume that women exist for their consumption; lay bare the cowardice in recoiling at something as literally fundamental as a woman’s real body.

I wasn’t unnatural after all; the cultural attitude that taught me so was the real abomination. My body, I realised, was an opportunity. It was political. It moved the world just by existing. What a gift.

  • This is an extract from Shrill by Lindy West, published by Quercus
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