Body politics are personal
The personal is political. This second-wave feminism catchcry is intended to connect individual experience with wider structures of power. Whatever we want to call the current feminist epoch (digital wave?), this phrase continues to ring true: many writers use personal experience as a lens to examine negative cultural norms. And what better place to reveal these stories than the internet, the realm of blogs and oversharing?
Many websites with a feminist bent have built a reputation on publishing personal, confessional stories. This style often attracts readers in high numbers because of its sensationalism, and it can be easy to dismiss this trend as narcissistic group therapy. But the best pieces can be shattering and unapologetic, and shake the foundations of our cultural assumptions.
With a passionate fan base (as well as dedicated haters), writers of this style are often offered book deals. We have seen a glut of feminist memoirs in the past few years: 2011 gave us How to Be a Woman by British writer Caitlin Moran, whose online columns for The Times evolved into a rollicking feminist manifesto. Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright was nominated for Australia’s Stella Prize this year, with its haunting personal exploration of body politics and hunger. And Sex Object by US writer Jessica Valenti is a frustrated retrospect on the lifelong trauma of sexualisation and abuse (see our review below).
Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman stands out in this crowd. The Los Angeles-based writer, formerly a columnist for Jezebel, is known for her fat-positive ideology and raucous storytelling. She is equally enamoured and furious with the cultural landscape of television shows, op-eds, and stand-up comedy that preach that a person her size should be miserable and alone. Her experiences — of growing up chubby, of navigating relationships with men for whom her body is “symbolically shameful” — double as opportunities to call out misogyny with astute wit.
“As a woman,” she writes, “my body is scru- tinised, 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.”
Detailing her formative years, West analyses fat female characters in Disney films, restricting child Lindy’s cartoon representation to ugly monsters, such as Ursula from The Little Mermaid. We are then treated to real-life tales of humiliation and hostility (buoyed, necessarily, by her wisecracks): of awkward encounters on airlines, of sidewalk judgment from strangers, of the “disorienting limbo between too visible and invisible”.
West loves to dive deep into taboos. She ridicules the tendency to refer to menstruation in mysterious metaphors, describing the process as “once a month hot brown blood just glops and glops out of your private area like a broken Slurpee machine”. By questioning the nature of the taboo, she excavates the foundational misogyny. “The disgust is at women’s natural bodies,” she writes, “not at blood itself.”
We are also privy to a “mundane” abortion West had in her late 20s. The inclusion of this story was motivated not “because an abortion is some mysterious, empowering feminist bloodemagick rite of passage”, but because societal shame and secrecy contributes to women’s lack of access to the service. West’s passion for this topic also manifested in her online work: last year she established the #shoutyourabortion hashtag on Twitter, where users described their experiences in 140 characters. Giving permission for women to break their silence was intended to “destroy the stigma” of abortion.
At the beginning and end of the book, West employs traditional memoir tactics, exploring milestones such as self-acceptance, early relationships, and the death of a loved one. The vast middle section is concerned with her writing career, republishing sections of her most famous personal essays, such as Hello, I’m Fat, an attack on newspapers’ depictions of America’s “obesity epidemic” that went viral. Giving space to explain the motivation behind online writing is a luxury not many bloggers receive, and it does seem indulgent.
West came of age as a writer online, and her tone reflects this: she employs capitals and italics for emphasis, a blogpost trope. (“Turns out, THE DOCTOR IS NOT WHERE YOU GET AN ABORTION.”) This cheeky conversation style adds comedy, creating the sense of a group of friends saying outrageous yet heartfelt things around a bottle of wine. While this is effective in short online pieces, it can make reading on the page feel schizophrenic and untidy. Happily, these tactics are employed sparingly.
“Being fat and happy and in love is a radical act,” West writes. The personal stories in Shrill cannot be removed from the politics of her size. Her bigness isn’t a problem to be solved; her existence doesn’t require an apology. This is fatpositivity at its most joyful. and critic. is an Adelaide-based feminist writer