The perfect body is a lie. I believed it for a long time and let it shrink my life

As a child, Lindy West was told she was off the charts. In this exclusive extract from her new book, Shrill, she explains how societys fixation on thinness warps womens lives and why she would rather be fat than big

Ive always been a great big person. In the months after I was born, the doctor was so alarmed by the circumference of my head that she insisted my parents bring me back, over and over, to be weighed and measured and held up for scrutiny next to the normal babies. My head was off the charts, she said. Science literally had not produced a chart expansive enough to account for my monster dome. Off the charts became a West family joke over the years I always deflected it, saying it was because of my giant brain but I absorbed the message nonetheless. I was too big, from birth. Abnormally big. Medical-anomaly big. Unchartably big.

My head was off the charts Lindy West as a baby. Photograph: Lindy West

There were people-sized people, and then there was me. So, what do you do when youre too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you cant with your body. You diet. You starve, you run until you taste blood in your throat, you count out your almonds, you try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh.

I got good at being small early on socially, if not physically. In public, until I was eight, I would speak only to my mother, and even then only in whispers, pressing my face into her leg. I retreated into fantasy novels, movies, computer games and, eventually, comedy places where I could feel safe, assume any personality, fit into any space. I preferred tracing to drawing. Drawing was too bold an act of creation, too presumptuous.

My dad was friends with Bob Dorough, an old jazz guy who wrote all the songs for Multiplication Rock, an educational kids show and Schoolhouse Rocks maths-themed sibling. Hes that breezy, froggy voice on Three Is a Magic Number if you grew up in the US, youd recognise it. A man and a woman had a little baby, yes, they did. They had three-ee-ee in the family … Bob signed a vinyl copy of Multiplication Rock for me when I was two or three years old. Dear Lindy, it said, get big! I hid that record as a teenager, afraid that people would see the inscription and think: She took that a little too seriously.

I dislike big as a euphemism, maybe because its the one chosen most often by people who mean well, who love me and are trying to be gentle with my feelings. I dont want the people who love me to avoid the reality of my body. I dont want them to feel uncomfortable with its size and shape, to tacitly endorse the idea that fat is shameful, to pretend Im something Im not out of deference to a system that hates me. I dont want to be gentled, like Im something wild and alarming. (If Im going to be wild and alarming, Ill do it on my terms.) I dont want them to think I need a euphemism at all.

I would speak only to my mother, and even then only in whispers Lindy West as a young girl. Photograph: Lindy West

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 infantilise and desexualise fat people. Fat people are helpless babies enslaved by their most capricious cravings. Fat people dont know whats 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 its no wonder I prefer hot chocolate to whisky and substitute Harry Potter audiobooks for therapy.

Every cell in my body would rather be fat than big. Grownups speak the truth.

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 didnt realise I couldnt shop for clothes at regular shops 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 mens ski pants made me look like a chimney 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 couldnt keep up, and what if we got into a scrape? They couldnt 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 didnt go swimming for a decade.

As I imperceptibly rounded the corner into adulthood 14, 15, 16, 17 I watched my friends elongate and arch into these effortless, exquisite things. I waited. I remained a stump. I wasnt jealous, exactly; I loved them, but I felt cheated.

I stayed home as my friends went hiking, biking, sailing, climbing, diving, exploring. Photograph: Lindy West

We each get just a few years to be perfect. To be young and smooth and decorative and collectible. Thats what Id been sold. I was missing my window, I could feel it pulling at my navel (my obsessively hidden, hated navel), and I scrabbled, desperate and frantic. Deep down, in my honest places, I knew it was already gone I had stretch marks and cellulite long before 20 but they tell you that, if you hate yourself hard enough, you can grab a tail feather or two of perfection. Chasing perfection was your duty and your birthright, as a woman, and I would never know what it was like this thing, this most important thing for girls.

I missed it. I failed. I wasnt a woman. You only get one life. I missed it.

Societys monomaniacal fixation on female thinness isnt a distant abstraction, something to be pulled apart by academics in womens studies classrooms or leveraged for traffic in shallow body-positive listicles (Check Out These 11 Fat Chicks Who You Somehow Still Kind of Want to Bang No 7 Is Almost Like a Regular Woman!). It is a constant, pervasive taint that warps every womans life. And, by extension, it is in the amniotic fluid of every major cultural shift.

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise women to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws, rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where womens safety and humanity are secondary to mens pleasure and convenience.

As I rounded the corner into adulthood, I watched my friends elongate and arch into these effortless, exquisite things. Photograph: Lindy West

I watched my friends become slender and beautiful, I watched them get picked and wear J Crew and step into small boats without fear, but I also watched them starve and harm themselves, get lost and sink. They were picked by bad people, people who hurt them on purpose, eroded their confidence and kept them trapped in an endless chase. The real scam is that being bones isnt enough, either. The game is rigged. There is no perfection.

I listened to Howard Stern every morning in college on his eponymous 90s radio show. The Howard Stern Show was magnificent entertainment. It felt like a family. Except that, for female listeners, membership in that family came at a price. Stern would do this thing (the thing, I think, that most non-listeners associate with the show) where hot chicks would turn up at the studio and he would look them over like a horse vet running his hands over their withers and flanks, inspecting their bite and the sway of their back, honking their massive horse jugs and tell them, in intricate detail, what was wrong with their bodies. There was literally always something. If they were eight stone, they could stand to be seven. If they were six, gross. (Why did you do that to your body, sweetie?) If they were a C cup, theyd be hotter as a DD. They should stop working out so much those legs are too muscular. Their 29in waist was subpar come back when its a 26.

Then there was me: 16 stone, 40in waist, no idea what bra size, because Id never bothered to buy a nice one, because who would see it? Frumpy, miserable, cylindrical. The distance between my failure of a body and perfection stretched away beyond the horizon. According to Stern, even girls who were there werent there.

All smiles: Lindy West last month. Photograph: Jenny Jimenez for the Guardian

If you want to be a part of this community that you love, I realised this family that keeps you sane in a shitty, boring world, this million-dollar enterprise that you fund with your consumer clout, just as much as male listeners you have to participate, with a smile, in your own disintegration. You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard administered by men.

When I was 22 and all I wanted was to blend in, that rejection was crushing and hopeless and lonely. Years later, when I was finally ready to stand out, the realisation that the mainstream didnt want me was freeing and galvanising. It gave me something to fight for. It taught me that women are an army.

When I look at photographs of my 22-year-old self, so convinced of her own defectiveness, I see a perfectly normal girl and I think about aliens. If an alien a gaseous orb or a polyamorous cat person or whatever came to Earth, it wouldnt even be able to tell the difference between me and Angelina Jolie, let alone rank us by hotness. Itd be like: Uh, yeah, so those ones have the under-the-face fat sacks, and the other kind has that dangly pants nose. Fuck, these things are gross. I cant wait to get back to the omnidirectional orgy gardens of Vlaxnoid.

The perfect body is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life, and shrink it my real life, populated by my real body. Dont let fiction tell you what to do. In the omnidirectional orgy gardens of Vlaxnoid, no one cares about your arm flab.

Fat female role models

As a kid, I never saw anyone remotely like myself on TV. Or in the movies, or in video games, or at the childrens theatre, or in books, or anywhere at all in my field of vision. There simply were no young, funny, capable, strong, good fat girls. A fat man can be Tony Soprano, he can be Dan from Roseanne (still my No 1 celeb crush), he can be John Candy, funny without being a human sight gag. But fat women were sexless mothers, pathetic punch lines or gruesome villains. Dont believe me? Its cool I wrote it down.

Here is a list of fat female role models available in my youth.

Lady Kluck

The doting Lady Kluck, far left. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Lady Kluck was a loud, fat chicken-woman who took care of Maid Marian (and, presumably, may have wet-nursed her with chicken milk?!) in Disneys Robin Hood.

Kluck was so fat, in fact, that she was nearly the size of an adult male bear. Being a 28-stone chicken, she wasnt afraid to throw down in a fight with a lion and a gay snake (even though the lion was her boss! #LeanIn), and she had monstro jugs, but in a maternal, sexless way, which is a total rip-off. (Its weird that motherhood is coded as sexless, by the way. I know most of society is clueless about the female reproductive system, but if theres one thing most babies have in common its that your dad goofed in your mum.)

Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller

Cross-dressing thief Baloo sorry, Little John and his foxy accomplice Robin. Photograph: Allstar/Disney

In order to assist Robin Hood in ripping off Prince Johns bejewelled decadence caravan, Baloo (I know this bears name is technically Little John, but he is clearly a character played by a bear actor named Baloo who also plays himself in The Jungle Book) adorns himself with scarves and rags and golden bangles and whirls around like an impish sirocco, utterly beguiling PJs guard rhinos and incapacitating them with boners. Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller luxuriates in every curve of his huge, sensuous bear butt; self-consciousness is not in his vocabulary. He knows he looks good. The most depressing thing I realised while making this list is that Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller was the most positive role model of my youth.

The Queen of Hearts

The perfect feminazi caricature: the Queen of Hearts. Photograph: Allstar/Walt Disney

I dont even know this bitchs deal. In Alice in Wonderland, her only personality trait is likes the colour red. She doesnt seem to do any governing, aside from executing minors for losing at croquet, and she is married to a 1ft-tall baby with a moustache. She is, now that I think about it, the perfect feminazi caricature: fat, loud, irrational, violent, overbearing, constantly hitting a hedgehog with a flamingo. Oh, shit. She taught me everything I know.

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy: sexually assertive … perhaps too assertive. Photograph: Action Press/Rex Shutterstock

I am deeply torn on Piggy. For a lot of fat women, Piggy is it. She is powerful and uncompromising, assertive in her sexuality and wholly self-possessed, with an ostentatious glamour usually denied to anyone over a size eight. Her being a pig affords fat fans the opportunity to reclaim that barb with defiant irony she invented glorifying obesity.

But also, you guys, Miss Piggy is kind of a rapist. Maybe if you love Kermie so much you should respect his bodily autonomy. The dude is physically running away from you.

Morla the Aged One

Neverending melancholy: Morla.

A depressed turtle from The NeverEnding Story whos so fat and dirty people literally get her confused with a mountain.

Auntie Shrew

Shrew by name, shrew by nature. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

I guess its forgivable that one of the secondary antagonists of The Secret of NIMH is a shrieking shrew of a woman who is also a literal shrew named Auntie Shrew, because the hero of the movie is also a lady and she is strong and brave. But, like, seriously? Auntie Shrew? Thanks for giving her a pinwheel of snaggle-fangs to go with the cornucopia of misogynistic stereotypes she calls a personality.

The Trunchbull

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/08/perfect-body-lie-believed-long-time-let-shrink-my-life-lindy-west

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