I Am a Polar Icebreaker: Notes on SHRILL

So a few Wednesdays ago, I went to the doctor. A new doctor, chosen after much sturm und drang with insurance companies and recommendations from well-trusted friends and Internet searching. And it seemed to pay off, because when the day finally came, the doctor was fine and personable when she showed up. There were pleasantries, y'know, I was feeling nice and relaxed. And then it was time to get down to business, so the doctor looks at the computer and says to me, "So just looking at your height, I'd say we need to get you down to an ideal weight of—"

The buzzing in my ears started when she said a number improbably lower than what I weigh now—indeed, a number that, were I to actually weigh that much, would not be "healthy" for me at all. The heat in my cheeks started when I realized she hadn't even asked me why I was there that day, or taken a look at my medical history and medications, or—really—examined me at all. My head started pounding when I realized I had maybe a ten-second window to get this appointment back on track to the way I'd wanted it to go—

And then the doctor kept talking, relating every single health issue I'd carried into that office to the mass that I'd carried in as well, and I realized I'd missed my ten-second window because I was too shocked to say anything.

And right then, I thought about SHRILL.

Lindy West's tearjerking yet pants-wettingly hilarious memoir-essay-manifesto has been on my mind since I devoured my advance copy like an anaconda unhinging its jaw to swallow a small goat whole. This self-conscious moment of body shame and self-recrimination wasn't the only time I'd had West's words echo in my head since reading SHRILL, but it was the first time that SHRILL became my guidebook.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9780316348409
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Published: Hachette Books - May 17th, 2016

In the part of my memory that comes up with really good comebacks half an hour after getting into fights with people, I told that doctor off. In the part of my memory that remembers exactly how many people were present the day I ripped my pants in seventh grade gym and exactly what color underwear I was wearing that day, I know that I sat there kind of stunned and awkward for the rest of the exam and then had a fit of tears in the Uber on the way home and then was a total bitch to my therapist that afternoon when she tried to help.

But this time, I had Lindy West in my ear saying, "You know that's total bullshit." And when I got home and picked up SHRILL to reassure myself that I hadn't hallucinated that really good chapter about how women's bodies are considered public property, and size and weight are conflated with health in terrible ways, and how that's crap (the second chapter "Bones", for the curious)—I felt better. This doctor's appointment wasn't the first time I'd encountered people concern-trolling my body for "my health" (thanks, dad). It wasn't even the first time I'd had a medical professional give me an arbitrary number for "my health" that, to reach, I would have to literally slice off parts of my body. It was, however, the first time I'd had these things happen after reading SHRILL, and it was the first time that I didn't cry about it for days after.

And I don't experience a fraction of what Lindy West experiences in SHRILL, is the thing. I am still acceptably small and shrinkable; my body can compress itself into straight sizes and does not unduly make itself known on planes, in restaurants, in public transit. But my natural shape and size is still a "concern" to people around me, and it's hard not to hate and fear my squishy bits for that. The strength to not do that—to push back and get loud and defend my right to take up space—I have to thank Lindy West for.

This might be the most personally honest thing I've ever blogged for this website, but if you think this is honest, you need to go read SHRILL. SHRILL brings a new meaning to "brutally honest," in that it lures you in with hilarity and pop culture criticism and then sucker-punches you in the tit with the West's reality of being a loud, unapologetic, funny fat woman in our fatphobic, perfection-obsessed culture. This book is funny as hell, and powerful as all-get out, and incredibly important. Important, because West doesn't hold back any details on how vitriolically hated she has been for being a woman who dares to have opinions in a public space.

My first exposure to Lindy West, and a lot of people's first exposure to her, was when her piece "How to Make a Rape Joke", a response to Daniel Tosh's hideously unfunny "rape joke" controversy, went viral in the summer of 2012. According to RAINN, every 107 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States—the majority of those someones being women. Please imagine, if you somehow avoided this controversy, how absolutely exhausting it was to be a young woman in the summer of 2012, when a bunch of men you'd formerly felt safe with came charging in frothing hordes to every social media site you'd formerly enjoyed, all to feverishly defend the ability of mostly white, privileged dudes to tell careless jokes about one of the most horrifying, violent, and demeaning things that one in four women will experience. It was a pretty brutal summer.

But West's piece came into the conversation like a bucket of cold water, and for me and many women I knew, it became a rallying cry. For me, still in college and still finding my legs to stand on when faced with the visceral evidence of my male peers' disregard for my bodily autonomy, Lindy West became my #goals. To be that articulate and capable of defending not just myself but the women around me—damn. I wanted to be able to do that. In West's essay-chapter "You're So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself!" West discusses her own acceptance of her fat body: "I am unassailable. I am a polar icebreaker… I can absorb blows—literal and metaphorical—meant for other women, smaller women, more breakable women—women who need me." As I straddle the line between breakable and unassailable, that line hits me where I live. And it makes me feel safe. I finally have someone on my side.

My notes from reading SHRILL are absurdly all-over-the-place: quotes from my review copy with six asterisks in front of them and ten exclamation points after; stuff in all-caps like "UGH YES THANK YOU"; my sole comment for the chapter "The Tree" is "owwwwwww christ"—this is what West's writing does to you. It makes you fist-pump emphatically; it makes you think truly and deeply about other people's experiences and how—and more importantly why—your own have been different. It's tough to read sometimes, not gonna lie, because that's what happens when a writer is this open and candid about her life, but ultimately, it's heartening. This book is not a relentless stream of negativity. Far from it.

I did nearly pop a rib laughing at this book. West's desert-dry wit and turn of phrase find humor in absolutely every painful or awkward life situation there is. Even when it's something we're told not to talk about—though usually that, in West's book, is the perfect reason to talk about something. The first chapter of this book is about periods. There are many stories about the online harassment she's flooded with as an outspoken feminist writer—harassment we are usually told is "just part of the internet." There is an unabashedly unashamed and emotionally devastating chapter, in which the familiar daily calculus of making decoy purchases at the drugstore so as to not be judged for the one thing you actually need to buy, becomes the lead-in for the story of her abortion (shared with the world last year when #shoutyourabortion was trending to help end the stigma around the procedure). There's still a tremendous pressure for women not to share their experiences of these things—harassment, menstruation, termination of accidental pregnancies—which, in SHRILL, means it's high time we started being loud about them.

West believes unwaveringly in building a better world with her championing of under-recognized humanity, and you know what the best part it? All those trolls and haters and vicious misogynists—some of them, West tells us, change their minds. Her story in SHRILL of a troll who reached out to her and apologized made me cry—not from empathetic pain at his cruelty, but in awestruck disbelieving hope and joy that maybe more trolls and haters and vicious misogynists will change their minds. And it's a good reminder for me, too, when I get exhausted and angry and fed-up with being silenced and shamed and misunderstood, not to take the easy way out—the easy way being more silence and more anger, or just to hate everything. Because it's easy, West reminds us, to hate things. Hate is lazy. Sincerity is harder—but worth it.


Liz Wright is the Kids Specialist at Brazos Bookstore, though she likes to remind people she created the Gender & Sexuality section on the main floor as well. She received her BA from Wellesley College, where she spent four years learning how to raise her voice and the voices of other women. Her writing has appeared in BUST Magazine and Minerva Rising Literary Journal. This fall, she’ll pursue her MA and MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children at Simmons College, where she’ll be the Dean’s Fellow for Children’s Literature.


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