“”Shrill” is a gendered insult: calling a man “shrill” makes as much sense as calling a smell “tall.” To be shrill is to reach above your station; to abandon your duty to soothe and please; in short, to be heard.”
“I dislike “big” as a euphemism, maybe because it’s the one chosen most often by people who mean well, who love me and are trying to be gentle with my feelings. I don’t want the people who love me to avoid the reality of my body. I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable with its size and shape, to tacitly endorse the idea that fat is shameful, to pretend I’m something I’m not out of deference to a system that hates me. I don’t want to be gentled, like I’m something wild and alarming. (If I’m going to be wild and alarming, I’ll do it on my terms.) I don’t want them to think that I need a euphemism at all.
“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 still 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. Having that awkward, babyish word dragging on you every day of your life, from childhood into maturity, well, maybe it’s no wonder that I prefer hot chocolate to whiskey and substitute Harry Potter audiobooks for therapy.
Every cell in my body would rather be “fat” than “big.” Grown-ups speak the truth.
Please don’t forget: 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.
All my life people have told me that my body doesn’t belong to me.
As a teenager, I was walking down the street in Seattle’s International District, when an old woman rushed up to me and pushed a business card into my hand. The card was covered in characters I couldn’t read, but at the bottom it was translated: “WEIGHT LOSS/FAT BURN.” I tried to hand it back, “Oh, no thank you,” but the woman gestured up and down at my body, up and down. “Too fat.” she said. “You call.””
“Over time, the knowledge that I was too big made my life smaller and smaller. I insisted that shoes and accessories were just “my thing,” because my friends didn’t realize that I couldn’t shop for clothes at a regular store and I was too mortified to explain it to them. I backed out of dinner plans if I remembered the restaurant had particularly narrow aisles or rickety chairs. I ordered salad even if everyone else was having fish and chips. I pretended to hate skiing because my giant men’s ski pants made me look like a smokestack and I was terrified my bulk would tip me off the chairlift. I stayed home as my friends went hiking, biking, sailing, climbing, diving, exploring — I was sure I couldn’t keep up, and what if we got into a scrape? They couldn’t boost me up a cliff or lower me down an embankment or squeeze me through a tight fissure or hoist me from the hot jaws of a bear. I never revealed a single crush, convinced that the idea of my disgusting body as a sexual being would send people — even people who loved me — into fits of projectile vomiting (or worse, pity). I didn’t go swimming for a fucking decade.”
“In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.”
“I found out I was pregnant with the part-Mike fetus just three months before I figured out how to stop hating my body for good, five months before I got my first e-mail from a fat girl saying my writing had saved her life, six months before I fell in love with my future husband, eight months before I met my stepdaughters, a year before I moved to Los Angeles to see what the world had for me, eighteen months before I started working at Jezebel, three years before the first time I went on television, four years and ten months before I got married to the best person I’ve ever met, and just over five years before I turned in this book manuscript.
Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many-too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups-anti-choicers have accused me of believing), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes — set into motion years, even decades, back — all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision — the first time I asserted, unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it’; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.
So, I peed on the thingy and those little pink lines showed up all, “LOL hope u have $600, u fertile betch,” and I sat down on my bed and I didn’t cry and I said, ‘Okay, so this is the part of my life when this happens.” I didn’t tell Mike; I’m not sure why. I have the faintest whiff of a memory that I thought he would be mad at me. Like getting pregnant was my fault — as though my clinginess, my desperate need to be loved, my insistence that we were a “real” couple and not two acquaintances who had grown kind of used to each other, had finally congealed into a hopeful, delusional little bundle and sunk its roots into my uterine wall. A physical manifestation of how pathetic I was. How could I have let that happen? It was so embarrassing. I couldn’t tell him. I always felt alone in the relationship anyway; it made sense that I would deal with this alone too.”
“The woman on the phone told me they could fit me in the following week, and it would be $400 after insurance. It was the beginning of the month, so I had just paid rent. I had about $100 left in my bank account. Payday was in two weeks.
“Can you bill me?” I asked.
“No, we require full payment the day of the procedure,” she said brusque from routine but not unkind.”
“I wonder what made me sound, to her ears, like someone worth trusting, someone it was safe to take a chance on. I certainly wasn’t the neediest person calling her clinic. The fact is, I was getting that abortion no matter what. All I had to do was wait two weeks, or have an awkward conversation I did not want to have with my supportive, liberal well-to-do mother. Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”
“Lots of men wanted to have sex with me — I dated casually, I got texts in the night — they just didn’t want to go to a restaurant with me, or bring me to their office party, or open Christmas presents with me. It would have been relatively simple to swallow the idea that I was objectively sexually undesirable, but the truth was more painful: There was something about me that was symbolically shameful. It’s not that men didn’t like me; it’s that they hated themselves for doing so. But why?”
“Studies have shown that visual exposure to certain body types actually changes people’s perception of those bodies — in other words, looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more. (Eternal reminder: Representation matters.)”
“We, as a culture, discuss fat people differently now too. If you go back to just 2011, 2010, 2009–let alone 2004 or 2005, when Dan was writing about the Sioux Falls water park and low-rise jeans, the rhetoric, even on mainstream news sites, was vicious. Vicious was normal. It was perfectly acceptable to mock fat bodies, flatten fat humanity, scold fat people for their own deaths. You only have to look back five years to see a different world, and, by extension, tangible proof that culture is ours to shape, if we try.
Obviously there’s no shortage of fat-haters roaming the Internet, the beach, and America’s airports in 2016, but an idea has taken root in the hive mind: We do not speak about human beings this way.”
“Why is invasive, relentless abuse — that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field — something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered.
At pretty much every blogging job I’ve ever had, I’ve been told (by male managers) that the reason is money. It would be a death sentence to moderate comments and block the IP addresses of chronic abusers, because it “shuts down discourse” and guts traffic. I’ve heard a lot of lectures about the importance of neutrality. Neutrality is inherently positive, I’m told — if we start banning trolls and shutting down harassment, we’ll all lose our jobs. But no one’s ever shown me any numbers that support that claim, that harassment equals jobs. Not that I think traffic should trump employee safety anyway, but l’d love for someone to prove to me that it’s more than just a cop-out.”
“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.
It’s the same lack of care that sees fat people dying from substandard medical attention, being hired at lower rates and convicted at higher ones, and being accused of child abuse for feeding their children as best they can.”
“Comedy doesn’t just reflect the world, it shapes it. Not in the way that church ladies think heavy metal hypnotizes nerds into doing school shootings, but in the way it’s accepted fact that The Cosby Show changed America’s perception of black families. We don’t question the notion that The Daily Show had a profound effect on American politics, or that Ellen opened Middle America’s hearts to dancing lesbians, or that propaganda works and satire is potent and Shakespeare’s fools spoke truth to power. So why would we pretend, out of sheer convenience, that stand-up exists in a vacuum? If we acknowledge that it doesn’t, then isn’t it our responsibility, as artists, to keep an eye on which ideas we choose to dump into the water supply? Art isn’t indiscriminate shit-flinging. It’s pure communication, crafted with intention and care. Every comedian on every stage is saying what he’s saying on purpose. So shouldn’t we be welcome to examine that purpose, contextualize it within our culture at large, and critique what we find?
The short answer, I’d discover, is “nah shut up bitch lol get raped.”
For years, I assumed it was a given that, at any comedy show I attended, I had to grin through a number of brutal jokes about my gender: about beating us, about raping us, about why we deserve it, about ranking us, about fucking us, about not fucking us, about reducing our already dehumanized existence to a handful of insulting stereotypes. This happened all the time, even at supposedly liberal alt shows, even at shows booked by my friends. Misogyny in comedy was banal. Take my wife, please. Here’s one I heard at an open mic: “Last night I brought this girl home, but she was being really loud during sex, so I told her, ‘Sssshhh, you don’t want to turn this rape into a murder!” Every time, I’d bite back my discomfort and grin — because, I thought, that’s just how we joke. It’s “just comedy.” All my heroes tell me so. This is the price if I want to be in the club. Hey, men pay a price too, don’t they? People probably make fun of Eddie Pepitone for being bald.
When a comedian I loved said something that set off alarm bells for me — something racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise I thought: It must be okay, because he says it’s okay, and I trust him. I told myself: There must be a secret contract I don’t know about, where women, or gay people, or disabled people, or black people agreed that it’s cool, that this is how we joke.
But in that moment at Bridgetown, it dawned on me: Who made that rule? Who drew up that contract? I don’t remember signing anything, and anyway, it seems less like a universal accord and more like a booby trap that powerful men set up to protect their “right” to squeeze cheap laughs out of life-ruining horrors — sometimes including literal torture — that they will never experience. Why should I have to sit and cheer through hours of “edgy” misogyny, “edgy” racism, “edgy” rape jokes, just to be included in an industry that belongs to me as much as anyone else?
When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demi-gods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr) and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions — maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two — but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom.”
“”I actually agree with Daniel Tosh’s sentiment in his shitty backpedaling tweet (‘The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies’),” I wrote. “The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them. But the best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse.”
Then: “This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did ‘not censoring yourself’ become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… In a way, comedy is censoring yourself — comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling. And being an “equal-opportunity offender’ — as in, ‘It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah’ — falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry — I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean… Okay, well, that baby duck is dead now.”
I analyzed four rape jokes that I thought “worked,” that targeted rape culture instead of rape victims (in retrospect, I should have been harder on Louis CK, whom I basically let off on a technicality) — and then I explained, “I’m not saying all of this because I hate comedy — I’m saying it because I love comedy and I want comedy to be accessible to everyone. And right now, comedy as a whole is overtly hostile toward women.”
My point was that what we say affects the world we live in, that words are both a reflection of and a catalyst for the way our society operates. Comedy, in particular, is a tremendously powerful lever of social change. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression may have tipped the 2008 election for Obama. Plenty of my peers cite The Daily Show as their primary news source. When you talk about rape, I said, you get to decide where you aim: Are you making fun of rapists? Or their victims? Are you making the world better? Or worse? It’s not about censorship, it’s not about obligation, it’s not about forcibly limiting anyone’s speech — it’s about choice. Who are you? Choose.
I do get it. Tosh plays a character in his act — the charming psychopath. He can say things like “rape is hilarious” because, according to his defenders, it’s obviously not. Because “everyone hates rape.” It’s not an uncommon strain in comedy: Anthony Jeselnik, Jeff Ross, Lisa Lampanelli, Cartman. The problem is, those of us who actually work in anti-rape activism, who move through the world in vulnerable bodies, who spend time online with female avatars, the idea that “everyone hates rape” is anything but a given. The reason “ironically” brutal, victim-targeting rape jokes don’t work the way Tosh defenders claim they do is because, in the real world, most sexual assault isn’t even reported, let alone taken seriously.
Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes — we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neigh- borhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it. Maybe we’ll start treating rape like other crimes when the justice system does.”
“She asked me one of the questions that people always ask me in those awkward, floundering moments: “So, what’s it like to work from home? Aren’t you lonely?”
“Not really,” I said. I gestured to Aham. “He works from home, too. It’s hard to feel alone when there’s a guy constantly playing the trumpet in your face.”
She laughed and turned to him. “So, you two are roommates?”
Yes, lady. We are platonic adult roommates who hold hands at bars. This is, clearly, the only logical explanation. Actually, since you asked, I recently sustained a pulsing gash to the palm and he’s just holding the wound closed until paramedics arrive. Also, every night before bed, a rattlesnake bites me on the mouth and he has to suck out the poison. It’s the weirdest thing. We should probably move.
I wasn’t surprised that this woman took so many willful leaps past “couple” and landed on “roommates” in her split-second sussing-out of our relationship — it happens all the time. But it was a disheartening reminder of an assumption that has circumscribed my life: Couples ought to “match.” Aham and I do not. I am fat and he is not. He is conventionally desirable and I am a “before” picture in an ad for liquefied bee eggs that you spray on your food to “tell cravings to buzz off!” (COPYRIGHTED. SEND ME ALL THE MONEY.) It is considered highly unlikely — borderline inconceivable — that he would choose to be with me in a culture where men are urged to perpetually”upgrade” to the “hottest” woman within reach, not only for their own supposed gratification but also to impress and compete with other men. It is women’s job to be decorative (within a very narrow set of parameters) and it is men’s job to collect them. My relationship throws off both sides of that equation, and a lot of people find it bewildering at best, enraging at worst.
There are long, manic message board threads devoted to comparing photos of me with photos of Aham’s thin, conventionally pretty second ex-wife (number one is blessedly absent from the old MySpace page he doesn’t know how to take down; number two is not so lucky), and dissecting what personality disorder could possibly have caused him to downgrade so egregiously. Servers always assume we want separate checks. Women hit on him right in front of me — and the late-night Facebook messages are a constant — as though they could just “have” him and he would say, “Oh, thank god you finally showed up,” and leave me, and some dire cosmic imbalance would be corrected. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they “match.” They can talk about hot-people problems together-like “too many clothing options” and “haters.” I wouldn’t understand.
It’s not that I’m not attracted to fat men — I’ve dated men of all sizes but the assumption that fat people should only be with fat people is dehumanizing. It assumes that we are nothing but bodies. Well, sorry. I am a human and I would like to be with the human I like the best. He happens to not be fat, but if he were, would love him just the same. Isn’t that the whole point? To be more than just bodies?
When I think back on my teenage self, what I really needed to hear wasn’t that someone might love me one day if I lost enough weight to qualify as human — it was that I was worthy of love now, just as I was. Being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act. That’s why a wedding mattered to me. Not because of a dress or a diamond or a cake or a blender. (Okay, maybe a cake.)”
“The week after it happened, I wrote about PawWest Donezo in a Jezebel article about trolling. I wrote sadly, candidly, angrily, with obvious pain.
A few hours after the post went up, I got an e-mail:
I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either.
I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.
I have e-mailed you through 2 other gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults.
I apologize for that.
I created the PaulWestDunzo@gmail.com account & Twitter account. (I have deleted both)
I can’t say sorry enough.
It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever.
I’m done being a troll.
Again I apologize.
I made a donation in memory to your dad.
I wish you the best.
See attached a receipt for a fifty-dollar donation to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, designated “Memorial Paul West” for “Area of greatest need.”
This e-mail still unhinges my jaw every time I read it. A troll apologizing — this had never happened to me before, it has never happened to me since, I do not know anyone to which it has happened, nor have I heard of such a thing in the wide world of Internet lore. I have read interviews with scholars who study trolling from an academic perspective, specifically stating that the one thing you never get from a troll is public remorse.”
“Within a few days, there I was in a recording studio with a phone — and the troll on the other end. We recorded it for This American Life, a popular public radio show. I asked him why he chose me.
In his e-mail he wrote that it wasn’t because of the rape joke thing, so what exactly did I do?
His voice was soft, tentative. He was clearly as nervous as I was. “Well,” he said, “it revolved around one issue that you wrote about a lot which was your being heavy — the struggles that you had regarding being a woman of size, or whatever the term may be.”
I cut in. I hate euphemisms. What the fuck is a “woman of size,” anyway? Who doesn’t have a size? “You can say fat. That’s what I say.
“Fat. Okay, fat.”
He told me that at the time he was about seventy-five pounds heavier than he wanted to be. He hated his body. He was miserable. And reading about fat people, particularly fat women, accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn’t articulate at the time.
“When you talked about being proud of who you are and where you are and where you’re going,” he continued, “that kind of stoked that anger that I had.
“Okay,” I said, “so you found my writing. You found my writing, and you did not like it.”
“Certain aspects of it.”
“You used a lot of all caps,” he said. I laughed, and it got him to laugh a little too. “You’re just a very — you almost have no fear when you write. You know, it’s like you stand on the desk and you say, ‘I’m Lindy West, and this is what I believe in. Fuck you if you don’t agree with me.’ And even though you don’t say those words exactly, I’m like, who is this bitch who thinks she knows everything?”
I asked him if he felt that way because I’m a woman.
He didn’t even hesitate.
“Oh, definitely. Definitely. Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that — and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first.”
“Right.” It was a relief to hear him admit it. So many men cling to the lie that misogyny is a feminist fiction, and rarely do I get such explicit validation that my work is accomplishing exactly what I’m aiming for. “You must know that I — that’s why I do that, because people don’t expect to hear from women like that. And I want other women to see me do that and I want women’s voices to get louder.”
“I understand,” he said. “I understand.” I really felt like he did.
“Here’s the thing,” he went on.
“I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, ‘Oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women.’ And I could say, ‘Nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my — the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life.’ But you can’t claim to be okay with women and then go online and insult them — seek them out to harm them emotionally.”
In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, “Oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons.” So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.
We talked for two and a half grueling hours. They flew by, but every second hurt. He was shockingly self-aware. He said he didn’t troll anymore, that he’d really changed. He told me that period of time when he was trolling me for being loud and fat was a low point for him. He hated his body. His girlfriend dumped him.
He spent every day in front of a computer at an unfulfilling job. A passionless life, he called it. For that reason, he found it “easy” to take that out on women online.”
“It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity. It’s hard to be cold or cruel when you remember it’s hard to be a person.”