Body politics are per­sonal

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lou Hein­rich

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

Lindy West

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.