Writer and feminist Lindy West says there’s power in reclaiming words that are intended to hurt, which is why she prefers being called fat to being called big.
West says growing up a shy, nerdy, self-described fat teenager, she wanted to be invisible. The only role models for fat, girls were monsters, or mothers.
Body image and fat shaming are among the topics discussed in her story of transformation in her book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.
West told RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan she used to be terrified of anyone noticing she was fat, or of calling her fat, so she used to dance around the word.
But now she prefers it to being called big or overweight.
“I think that reclaiming terms that have been used to hurt us is really, really powerful.
“The only reason that word fat has any power is because we give it power. It’s really just a neutral describing word like tall or blonde.”
When West was married her photo appeared on the front page of The Guardian, with a caption along the lines of ‘fat as hell’.
West says she wrote the caption and it prompted a ‘self-high-five’.
“When I was growing up I don’t remember seeing anyone who looked like me in a happy relationship.
“I’m sure there were many, many fat people… but in the media I was consuming that wasn’t present, that wasn’t normal.”
She says there’s evidence to show exposure to different types of bodies, changes the way we think about those bodies.
“If you just look at pictures of fat people, presented in a neutral or even a positive way, for long enough, you’re more positively disposed toward fat people.”
She says she started reading fat fashion blogs and it changed her perspective.
“I guess I’d never seen fat people presented as anything but a ‘before’ picture.
“I had to get used to it the same way that anyone else would, because we’re all raised in the same culture.
“Gradually you start to really, not just get used to it, but I started to see these people as objectively beautiful.”
She says shaming people about being obese does not make them thinner, or healthier.
“If you really want fat people to be healthier, if that’s your priority, you should be kind to fat people and you should encourage them to love themselves and to take care of themselves.
When doctors only see people as fat or thin and assume that means they’re healthy or unhealthy, it causes problems, West says.
She says it’s incredibly intrusive for people who aren’t doctors to assume that fat people are unhealthy and if people really care about health, they should help ensure everyone has access to fresh ingredients and safe green space in which to exercise.
The title of West’s book highlights one of the many aspects of the aesthetic constraints that are put on women’s lives, she says.
“Shrill is a word only used to describe women, it’s a gender pejorative.
“We tell women what size you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to present yourself.
“You’re supposed to be nice and compliant and pretty and you’re also supposed to make your voice sound pleasing, which is really code for: not speaking at all.
West says comedy has always been an important part of her life and as she got older she began to question the often misogynist and borderline abusive comments made by some comedians.
But she says her criticism was not well-received.
“It was still conventional wisdom five years ago, and I’m sure in certain circles it is now, that women just aren’t funny. That men are funnier than women, that’s why women don’t get booked on shows.”
West says she’s stopped letting others define her, and now writes columns for Jezebel and The Guardian, about important issues that affect women.