Small, quiet and dainty aren’t in Lindy West’s vocabulary. She tells us why we need to be loud and unforgettable
I used to live a shy, quiet, small life,” says Lindy West, speaking of a time unthinkable to those who know anything about her. Because today, she is anything but – more famous now as an outrageous and outspoken American feminist, who has stirred up social media and won prominent fans like Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran. Lindy West, the self-proclaimed “fat bride” who fights vicious trolls and prompted more than 600,000 women to share their experiences and end shame around terminations with the #shoutyourabortion movement. “And then I exploded it,” she says, frankly. “And now I live a mostly big, loud life.”
West, at 34, undoubtedly lives a big life – and moreover, she is a big deal in every sense of the word. She has big ideas, a big voice (which is often seen shouting back on the internet IN ALL CAPS) and a big following of almost 70,000 on Twitter. She famously took on a troll who impersonated her father in a big way, culminating with his on-air apology as they discussed his behaviour on a US public radio show, and takes on fat-shamers on a daily basis.
Now, her new book Shrill is her personal mission to encourage all women to take up more space visually, audibly and psychologically. “Women are told to be small. But if you’re less visible, people can ignore your needs and ignore your voice,” says West, not mincing her words. “That’s b*llsh*t.” So, we asked her to share her five commandments on how to make our voices heard and our presence felt. World, watch out.
1. Accept how big you really are
“As a woman you’re told it’s your duty to do everything you possibly can to stay as small as possible. You’re taught to minimise your physical impact at every moment. But taking up space is powerful. It means that you exist and people know you’re there. Let them know you’re there.
Growing up, there wasn’t a specific time that I made myself smaller, it was more a state of being. I was so shy. I felt so big, I felt physically so wrong and so unnaturally big that I just kept my personality and my presence as small as I could. I was so shy and so quiet I didn’t speak in front of strangers, I didn’t stand up for myself in any way.
By high school, I’d stopped being so painfully shy. But I was still really trapped in this body- hatred thing. And then college was more of the same, where I was convinced that no-one would ever love me because my body was terrible.
Then there was this moment, at around 27, when life completely sped up in every direction. I’d started to read about fat positivity on the internet and some of these amazing women who had been writing about body image in a really radical way. A bad relationship I was in came to an end, I started dating my husband and he wasn’t horrible to me. It started to occur to me that maybe I had been wrong about myself before.
Once I figured out how not to hate my body and to just embrace who I am and what I look like, I really relished moving through the world and taking up space and having my physicality have an impact on people. And my time. You see women everywhere constantly obsessing over what their size is and what they’re eating. The amount of time and energy that takes up is tremendous and that time is a finite resource that women could be employing making their lives brilliant in ways that don’t have anything to do with their dress size.”
2. Have a much bigger voice
“We’re trained to never say anything too concrete or too bold or too challenging. It’s as though women’s communication always has to be this complicated two-way street where you say what you want to say but you also have to say what the other person wants to hear. It’s like we’ve been trained to undermine our own opinions, to give our own ideas less weight. I think it’s really important to push against that.
We do it everywhere, like at work. We should stop. Tell yourself you’re not going to say sorry at work. Not at all. I mean, unless you do something horrible to someone. Like running over your boss’s cat. Then apologise.
Women are quick to back-pedal and second-guess themselves and apologise and that gives men a head start. If you shout or speak up, you’re punished. That’s what the title of my book Shrill is about – women are dismissed based on our tone and men certainly aren’t.
But it’s a completely artificial concept. What does ‘shrill’ mean? What does it mean to be ‘shrill’? To conflate the message you’re communicating and the physical sound you’re making is just bizarre. To say that I don’t like the sound you’re making – it’s too high-pitched, too loud ‘for a woman’ – and therefore your ideas are invalid and I will dismiss you, that is nonsense. It’s just another way for people to shut women’s voices down. And there’s nothing wrong with women’s voices.”
3. Take up your share of space online
“When I was trolled by one particular man in 2013 – who impersonated my deceased, beloved father – it was pretty clear that what he wanted was for me to stop writing. He found it really threatening. That just made me want to be louder. If people are calling for my silence, the last thing I want to do is to be silent.
I confronted the troll and it worked out in the most miraculous, stunning way. I wrote about it online and received an apology from him. He later agreed to speak openly to me about it on national radio. It was one of the most enlightening, satisfying things that’s ever happened to me.
It’s brilliant when your personal victory also feels like it’s having a positive impact on the world. The experience prompted Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo to implement additional user controls, improvements to reports and new enforcement procedures for abusive accounts – because, he admitted, ‘We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls.’
All these changes might be microscopic. But they count.
Getting over this fear of people disagreeing with us is really important. There are people who are going to hate you for expressing strong opinions, especially if they’re feminist ones – and those people are wrong and bad.
There are people who are going to criticise you for making a mistake. We all screw up sometimes. There will also be times when you get corrected, sometimes angrily by the internet. And those learning experiences are really important. So the two things that could happen are: people whose respect you don’t want anyway are mean to you because they suck. Who cares? Or people whose respect you do want give you the gift of knowledge. And the opportunity to make yourself a smarter, more responsible, compassionate person. We can all have a say and a voice and shout until we don’t feel alone any more.
The only downside – from my perspective – is the emotional trauma of being screamed at online all the time. Which is real.”
4. Get a big squad
“I couldn’t do what I do without my friends. Mostly they give me a sense of normality and grounding. And assurance that my thoughts and instincts are still correct. When the entire internet is howling at you it can be really easy to lose your bearings and think ‘Am I a monster?’ Or am I wrong? Am I out of touch with reality? To have people who are going through the same things is a huge help.
It takes all the sting out of a horrible comment if you can screengrab it and then make fun of it for three hours with your friends. Then it’s not painful at all any more. I’m grateful I have so many funny friends.
At work we need friends to overcome barriers. If a boss is speaking over you or something similar, it’s difficult because the system is set up to keep you from complaining about that.
I see women building these private Facebook groups where they can talk to each other about men who they interact with professionally who treat them poorly or are even dangerous. Things like that – creating a structure to remind you that you’re not alone, and surrounding yourself with the support of people who are dealing with the same issues – are a big step towards dismantling some of these systems.
Though I do think it’s really important to emphasise that a lot of these problems are not women’s to solve. The idea that it’s on women’s shoulders to fix the system that victimises them is just an extra layer of victimisation. We shouldn’t have to build these coalitions with other women, but while we’re in this position, it helps.”
5. Be large in confidence
“I’m a kind, funny, genuine person who generally tries to do good, and treat other people well. I try to do a good job and hopefully contribute to the world becoming a kinder, better place to live. I think I’m a good wife and step-mum and a good daughter and a good friend.
And I can’t even explain the difference that having confidence to say things like that has made to my life. To be able to live confidently in the belief that I’m not broken and that I’m not a work in progress and I’m not something to be fixed. I’m not.
You can just embrace your life, as it is, and start really living and advocating for yourself. You can start making your life happen.”
How to be bigger and bolder
Three smart women share their most useful tip
Stand with power
Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and Harvard professor
Strike a power pose – think Wonder Woman: hands on hips, legs planted. It suggests power and authority, lowers stress-hormones and increases testosterone by 20%.
Stop saying ‘just’
Ellen Petry Leanse, leadership strategist and Apple and Google alumna
The word “just” has become a “permission” word when we’re communicating – diminishing our own position by putting the other person in a “parent” position. Just leave it out.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO
Implement a no-interruptions rule in meetings: “leaders must also encourage women to speak and be heard. A no-interruption rule while anyone – male or female – is pitching can make the entire team more effective.”
Shrill by Lindy West (£16.99, Quercus), out 19 May
Words: Zoë Beaty
Photography: Getty Images