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Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman

November 2, 2016

I read about Lindy West’s book of essays entitled Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman over at So Many Books, and it sounded so much like my kind of thing that I immediately ordered a copy. This is what I have been doing, in my frustration over not being able to walk–reading and writing and ordering more books to come right to me, here at the house.

Last night I took a few steps and then went up and down the hallway with just a cane, for balance. This morning I tried taking a few more. I’m very wobbly with the cane, but I think I’m just going to have to make myself do it; it’s been so long since I put any weight on my right knee that I think I’m half-afraid to even try. Today I see the orthopedist for a follow-up and I’d be ashamed to walk in there still on crutches. I’d have to admit that I think I can’t put all my weight on the knee yet because there’s so much of it.

Lindy’s essays made me feel better about that.

There are so many little gems in these essays, perfect turns of phrase and expressions of ideas I’ve had but never articulated quite so well. Like this one: “Sincerity is an easy target, but I don’t want to excise sincerity from my life—that’s a lonely way to live.”

And like this diatribe about the use of the word “big” to apply to fat people:
“’Big’ is a word we use to cajole a child: ‘Be a big girl!’ ‘Act like the big kids!’ Having it applied to you as an adult is a cloaked reminder of what people really think, of the way we infantilize and desexualize fat people. (Desexualization is just another form of sexualization. Telling fat women they’re sexless is stil putting women in their sexual place.) Fat people are helpless babies enslaved to their most capricious cravings. Fat people do not know what’s best for them. Fat people need to be guided and scolded like children.”

What she says about one of my favorite books, Fat is a Feminist Issue (published in 1978), makes a lot of sense, too:
“I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece. I am also not a uterus riding around in a meat incubator. There is no substantive difference between the repulsive campaign to separate women’s bodies from their reproductive systems—perpetuating the lie that abortion and birth control are not healthcare—and the repulsive campaign to convince women that they and their body size are separate, alienated entities. Both say ‘Your body is not yours.’ Both demand, ‘Beg for your humanity.’ Both insist, ‘Your autonomy is conditional.’ This is why fat is a feminist issue.

My favorite essay is entitled “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself!” In it, West points out that “As a woman, my body is scrutinized, 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.”

She also points out something that I’ve said here on the blog before, except that, of course, she says it better: “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 programs and individual dietician consultations and tear-filled therapy sessions I’ve poured money into over the years makes me grind my teeth.”

This distinction is wonderfully articulated:
“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 or 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 life 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 the fire, my iron bones are steel.”
After five decades in the fire and five knee surgeries, one of my bones is actually made of an alloy of cobalt-chromium and titanium.

Not my favorite, but the essay that says a lot of what I wish I could say is about flying while fat. It’s entitled “The Day I Didn’t Fit” and in it, she describes what it’s like for a person like me to fly in an airplane:
“If you’ve never tried cramming your hips into an angular metal box that’s an inch or two narrower than your flesh (under the watchful eye of resentful tourists), then sitting motionless in there for five hours while you fold your arms and shoulders up like a dying orchid in order to be an unobtrusive as possible, run, don’t walk. It’s like squeezing your bones in a vise. The pain makes your teeth ache.”

She also describes the lengths a fat person goes to in order to fly anywhere:
“Here’s how I board a plane. I do not book a ticket unless I can be assured a window seat—I will happily sit in the very back row, or change my flight to the buttcrack of dawn—because the window well affords me an extra couple of inches in which to compress my body to give my neighbor as much space as possible. It’s awkward and embarrassing to haul and cram myself in and out of the seat, so I also prefer the window because I’m not blocking anyone’s bathroom access. I’ve learned from experience that emergency exit rows and bulkhead rows are often narrower, so those are out.”
There’s more, but you get the gist… Lindy says she asks for a seat-belt extender when she passes the flight attendants at the front of the plane, but I skip this since I’ve discovered that they don’t really look at a fat person’s lap to make sure she’s buckled up.

As Lindy points out,
“I’m sure some fat people are fat by their own hand, without any underlying medical conditions, but a lot of other fat people are fat because they’re sick or disabled. Unless you’re checking every human being’s bloodwork before they pull up, you do not know which fat people are which. Which means, inevitably, if you think fat people are ‘the problem’ (and not, say, airlines hoping to squeeze out extra revenue, or consumers who want cheap airline tickets without sacrificing amenities), you are penalizing a significant number of human beings emotionally and financially for a disease or disability that already complicates their lives. Ethically, that’s fucked up.”

Her conclusion, again, is better articulated than anything I’ve ever been able to say about it:
“Airlines have no incentive to fix this problem until we, collectively, as a society, demand it. We don’t insist on a solution because it’s still culturally acceptable to be cruel to fat people. When even pointing out the problem—saying ‘my body does not fit in these seats that I pay for’—returns nothing but abuse and scorn, how can we ever expect that problem to be addressed? The real issue here isn’t money, it’s bigotry. We don’t care about fat people because it is okay not to care about them, and we don’t take care of them because we think they don’t deserve care.”

There’s more to these essays, of course, but those are the parts that really spoke to me right now, still doing all my knee exercises but feeling pretty crippled up and wondering if I’m too fat to walk.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. PAJ permalink
    November 2, 2016 12:17 pm

    I probably won’t read this book, but I agree with so much of what she says. It always astounds me that people are so open in their bigotry against people who are overweight. At the store one day, two women in front of me as I was exiting the store were exasperated that they were being held up a bit by someone in an electric cart who was ahead of them. One of the women declared (rather loudly) that the person’s only disability was that she was fat. On a plane, I watched a kind-hearted obese gentleman give up his aisle seat to move to another aisle seat to help a woman who was otherwise going to be separated from her fairly young child. She also had a baby in arms. “What a nice man,” I thought. A few minutes later, a man boarded the plan to take his seat by the obese gentleman and began loudly calling for the flight attendant and demanding to be reseated because he paid for an entire seat but was not getting all of his available space. (An aside here: the man was tiny. He was very short and probably weighed about 110 pounds sopping wet. He could have fit in the overhead compartment, which is exactly where I wanted to stuff him.) Anyway, the flight attendant was trying to talk calmly to him, but the mother, who had been done the original favor that led to the “problem,” stood up and told the guy she would gladly swap seats again, and he could have the pleasure of sitting next to a fussy baby for the trip. We all need to take a long hard look at our biases, try to curb them, be kind, and always, always think before we speak. (I’m biased against fussy babies on airplanes, but I’m working on it.)
    As for you, use a crutch. Use a cane. Use what you need to be safe, take care of yourself, and heal. Remember that the Bible says “the boors will always be with us.”

  2. November 2, 2016 12:39 pm

    Powerful writing, I will seek this book out. Wishing you well & a speedy recovery!

    • November 2, 2016 2:38 pm

      Thanks. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of these essays.

  3. November 2, 2016 2:24 pm

    I am so glad you liked this! I liked the essay about flying quite a lot too. What got me most was her experience in first class and how she declared it was not luxurious at all but simply treats one like a human being.

    I hope your check in with the doctor goes/went well. Will you be getting physical therapy to help with the recovery? Be careful if you are wobbly!

    • November 2, 2016 2:42 pm

      Yeah, I did like her story about paying only $50 for an upgrade to first class. I’ve paid more than that to get enough room to sit (and when the flight was canceled, failed to get that extra money back–once I wrote the airline a letter, but their response was, basically, that’s the way it is).
      I’m back from the orthopedist, who says that I’m doing fine, that I’ve obviously been doing the exercises because I’ve gained back a lot of strength, and that “pain should be my guide” for how much walking is enough. All good, and yet I chafe at how slow it all is. We didn’t discuss PT because he’s performed three of my five knee surgeries, so he knows I know the drill.
      Also he showed me that I do have arthritis on the right knee, which the cartilege removal will exacerbate. So, maybe 5-6 years before the right knee needs to be replaced. It’s a never-ending process.
      On the other hand, it was my first knee replacement that led to the creation of this blog.

      • November 2, 2016 4:51 pm

        The airline didn’t give you a refund? Crooks! Every single one of them.

        Well something good came out a knee troubles at least! 🙂 Glad you got a good report from the doc. We never heal as fast as we want to or think we should which is so very frustrating. Hang in there though, and be good to yourself!

  4. November 2, 2016 8:28 pm

    Oh hon. I hear you.

  5. November 2, 2016 8:35 pm

    This is the piece that resonated with me:

    “I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece.”

    • November 2, 2016 8:36 pm

      “Resonated” is such a good word there.
      I think that piece is one that you and I have both struggled towards, from different ends of the spectrum.

  6. November 3, 2016 12:14 am

    I think I need to read this book.

    • November 3, 2016 8:12 am

      I could loan it to you, if you like; I know you have limited book storage space.

  7. November 3, 2016 4:27 pm

    I know it is not the same thing, but when I broke my ankle last year… I was slow at first putting weight back on it. I was worried about it all. But, once I did, I felt so happy that I went quickly after that. It was just getting over that first hurdle!

    I have this book on my wish list!

    • November 4, 2016 8:58 am

      I’m familiar with that fear of putting weight back on the healing part. Sadly, that’s not it this time, or not all of it, anyway.
      I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about this book.


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