As a shy, comedy-loving teen, all Lindy West wanted to do was "write jokes about wizards [and] love letters to John Goodman's meaty, sexual forearms," she writes in her new book. Instead, she wound up using her columns at Jezebel and the Guardian to tackle misogyny with jokes and grace, and the take-no-prisoners attitude heard in her "This American Life" piece about tracking down an Internet troll. Her new collection of essays, "Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman" (Hachette Books: 272 pp., $26), treats feminism, fatness and social change with rigorous attention without losing any of her signature humor. We talked with West by phone as she prepared to leave her Seattle home to take "Shrill" on the road. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You dislike euphemisms for fatness like "big" or "big-boned." Why did you feel you needed to reclaim the word "fat"?
My whole life, the worst possible thing I could imagine was someone calling me fat. And at some point, I just started to realize that if I called myself fat, and presented it as something that wasn't a moral failing but was just a fact, it took all the teeth out of it. How can you hurt me by calling me fat if I've already declared it a perfectly fine thing to be? Why should I let other people own this term and use it against me when it's mine? I'm a fat person, I own fatness and I can use it however I want.
Did it take you awhile to be able to unpack the cultural relationship between fatness and moral failure, or was it something you always thought about?
Oh no, it took me a tremendously long time. I didn't exactly have low self-esteem. I knew that I was pretty cool and smart and nice. [Laughs] [But] I still bought into the idea that I was broken and needed to be fixed. And that this was going to be the defining struggle of my life. That some day I would win, you know, I would defeat my body and I would become thin, and then my life would rule. And that is a really exhausting paradigm to live under. Because my body didn't change much. It fluctuated here and there, but I never suddenly became Cindy Crawford.
For so long, I thought the options were "Be fat and miserable" or "Become thin and be happy." And finally in my late 20s, I was like, "OK, what if this is made up and I could just be happy now?" It feels like a cheat code. It was simple but so revolutionary. I think loving yourself, or at least accepting yourself, letting yourself live without this constant state of apology and remorse and shame -- I think that's intrinsic to health and really important to living a healthy life.
In your essay "Lady Kluck," you talk about the lack of characters on television and in movies that you could identify with as a young girl. Why is it so important to talk about the representation of fat bodies in the media?
It's important, first of all, to be able to see yourself and feel like you're being included in the world. If you never see yourself, it's like you don't exist. And perhaps more important than that, media teach other people how to treat you. There were occasional fat characters on TV shows when I was growing up, but their function was always to be fat. It would have meant a lot to me to see a fat person presented as a person.
You also speak openly about getting an abortion. How do you want to see our cultural narratives about abortion continue to change?
What I would like to see is the narrative of abortion taken out of the hands of right-wing abortion opponents and into the hands of people who are actually having abortions and trying to support abortion care providers. Because my abortion was relatively painless. It was not a difficult decision. I didn't regret it. I didn't feel guilt or shame. I felt only relief and gratitude for the abortion care providers who took great care of me.
What made you decide to write about some of these difficult topics: Body image, abortion, online harrassment? Was there a particular moment?
It's when I got real fed up at the Stranger with the way my boss Dan Savage [and] the media at large were writing about [the obesity epidemic]. I just hit the end of my rope and wrote this scorched-earth confessional essay, saying, "Hi, I'm a fat person, and I work in your office, and we are friends." It's really easy to separate fat people from their bodies. You either accept fat people's humanity and [their] right to dignity and autonomy, or you don't. You can't put qualifications on people's humanity. It felt good to use my platform for something that really mattered to me.
You write more than once about your acceptance of online harassment as part of your job. Does it have to be part of your job? Is it something that can be fixed?
When I say that it has to be part of my job, I'm certainly not saying that it should be part of my job. It shouldn't. It's tough, because I am tired at this point. And when I wrote that, I was less tired. [Laughs] Tech companies can create fixes that make their platforms safer for women and for marginalized people. But the real problem, the core problem, is misogyny and racism and transphobia... [driving] outsize Internet hate. I can't look to Twitter to repair centuries of racism and misogyny. I think what's really needed, if we're being honest, is a massive culture shift. And that kind of thing happens at a glacially slow pace.
Is there anything else that helps you deal with the mountains of trolls? What makes it worth it to keep writing?
I am extremely accustomed to getting called a "fat bitch" 20 times a day. And it barely registers. I used to engage with trolls as a political statement, to draw attention to the problem and model for other women ways to take back online spaces. And now I just kind of do it for fun. [Laughs] I also have a really great family. I have a really great husband and really great kids. It's easy to keep a hold on who you are when you have a great foundation to fall back on.
You discuss quite often in your book how language, even if it's in a joke, can create the world that we live in. What kind of world are you trying to build with a book like "Shrill"?
A world where people are kinder to themselves and to others. A world where everyone has the opportunity to access their full potential. There are so many systems that are designed to hold certain people back and push other people forward, and we accept those systems as a given, rather than something we build and reinforce every day. I would like people to come away from this book believing that change is possible.
Is there one thing about your body or about feminism that you wish you never had to explain again?
Ugh. All of it? You just never stop explaining the same things over and over, which I think is a deliberate derailing tactic, to keep women from ever getting to move on and accomplish things. I'm so bored of arguing with men on the Internet.
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.