“This is a witch hunt. We’re witches, and we’re hunting you,” writes feminist author Lindy West in her new essay collection, The Witches Are Coming, an incisive and often hilarious takedown of misogyny in the #MeToo era. West is a prolific writer, having also penned the bestselling memoir Shrill, which was adapted into a popular Hulu series and debuts its second season next month, in addition to working as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
Her memoir and the show it inspired (which stars SNL’s Aidy Bryant) address, in a fresh and incisive way, all things surrounding body image, and explore the societal stigmas around being overweight, as viewed through a feminist lens. (On Hulu, Shrill’s protagonist is described as “a fat young woman who wants to change her life — but not her body.”)
At our recent Summit in New York City, West sat down with The Riveter to talk about why she no longer uses the phrase “body positivity;” the importance of true allyship; and how each of us can be activists.
The Riveter: In your recent New York Times piece, you argued that ’90s pop culture set the stage for today’s right-wing backlash against activism. How can those of us that aren’t writers also be witches in this fight? How can our actions go beyond the Internet?
Lindy West: First of all, I think that the internet is absolutely a valuable communication tool. A lot of powerful organizing and activism grows out of the internet. It’s kind of an old-fashioned idea that was very popular and accepted for a while that “slacktivism” was a thing. And that expressing ideas and sharing information on the internet had no value. Of course it does. But you do have to absolutely then take those ideas out into the world in your everyday life. And I think one thing that’s really important is voting in your local elections. Pay attention to local politics and what’s happening in your city and in your county. Because all those little races where you don’t know who anyone is and you don’t even know what those positions are … they do really important things in your community.
It matters who’s on the school board. It matters who’s on the city council. It matters who’s working at city hall, because those are the people that shape the city that you live in and how the people in your city are treated. Who’s taken care of and who’s not, who’s free and who’s not, who’s valued and who’s not. I also think that people let themselves off the hook and ignore local elections. When you skip this one, it leaves those very, very important decisions in the hands of a very small percentage of the population. And that’s maybe not reflective of your values. And also, two other things, it’s important to remember that local elections and local governments are where national candidates come from. So if you want to shape the wave of presidential candidates that’s going to come up in 10, 20 years, pay attention to what’s happening locally.
The Riveter: As a woman, what does allyship look like to you across various intersections?
West: We’re living in a world where Donald Trump is the president of the United States. A lot of people who voted for Donald Trump were men, but a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump were white women. And it is vitally important that white women not forget that. Not try to pave over that, and really think about what accountability looks like in that regard. Obviously, I didn’t vote for Trump, but I think that it’s really important to not talk about women as a block without talking about intersectionality. There is no responsible way to talk about politics and feminism without talking about them in an intersectional framework. Because if you are a person who wants to be a part of a social justice movement, or who wants to fight for progress in any social justice movement, your fight can’t stop where your priorities end.
You have to fight for things that don’t affect you personally at all. You have to fight to the very, very end, to the farthest reaches, the people who are most in jeopardy, who are most marginalized, the people who are most impacted. If you are a white woman who thinks of yourself as an ally, your activism and your allyship can’t stop at equal pay for women working in corporate America. You have to go all the way. It’s the same I think, an instructive parallel is body positivity. So I don’t talk about body positivity anymore, because what I’m really trying to talk about is fat liberation. Yes, it’s important to have cute fat chicks on Instagram in bathing suits. Yes, that was hugely important for me in my twenties. Not on Instagram but on like Tumblr, to look at fat fashion blogs and just imagine that I could have a life that was different than the sort of small, shy apologetic life that I was living.
But to really talk about what it means to liberate all bodies, you have to talk about the people who are the most marginalized, the people who can’t get adequate medical care, people who are being discriminated against in employment, people who are dying. People who are dying because they’re having bariatric surgeries from which they die. People die from weight loss surgery. People die from doctors refusing to look at their symptoms, because every time they go into the doctor, they’re just told to lose weight. These are actual life-and-death issues. There are accessibility issues. Hospitals don’t have equipment that can accommodate fat people. So the point is you can say, I’m body positive because I liked this Instagram photo of a size 14 woman in a bikini. Does that help a size 36 woman who has a job interview tomorrow and is going to be discriminated against? No, not really.
If you want to actually do the work, you have to do all the work. Otherwise you are participating in discrimination if you’re only fighting for yourself. So that’s a long-winded way to say, if you’re an ally, if you’re truly an ally, that means thinking outside of yourself in a radical way, and not centering yourself.
The Riveter: Beautiful. Can you tell us about Shrill season two?
West: Shrill season two comes out January 24th. There’s something so fun about a second season. In the first season you have to cover so much ground. You have to introduce all the characters, explain their relationships. Shrill has all this political significance where we’re talking about the main character’s body and how being fat impacts her life. And there’s all this busy work to build this world and establish this landscape.
With season two, that’s all done. We really got to have fun with these characters and really get to know the supporting characters a lot better. We had so much more room to be funny and goofy. I should want to barf at this point [but] I’m still re-watching them and laughing.
The Riveter: What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
West: This is going to be controversial, but the only piece of professional advice that I think about all the time, it’s from my friend Angela Garbes, who’s also an author who’s totally incredible and you should read her book. It’s called Like A Mother. Angela and I used to work at the same newspaper. And working at a newspaper, especially when you’re feeding a blog at the same time, your work life never ends. There is no separation between work life and personal life and there’s no work-life balance. It’s very grueling and exhausting.
I remember we would get so stressed and so overwhelmed and Angela would say to me, “Listen, they can’t all be winners. Like sure, fulfill the assignment. Sometimes you got to let yourself just get the work done and move on. Not everything has to be a brilliant masterpiece. It’s a job.” And maybe that’s really what that advice means.
They can’t all be winners. Forgive yourself, if not everything is as a masterpiece. Just make most things a masterpiece and then you’ll be successful. I would say if you’re 10 percent masterpiece, you win. So yeah, “They can’t all be winners” by Angela Garbes. I carry it with me every day.