Comedy Helps Us Love Our Bodies
Lindy West is a columnist at The Guardian, a contributor to This American Life, and the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. Her work has appeared The New York Times, GQ, Jezebel, and The Stranger.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LINDY WEST: My least favorite kind of joke is, we’re all a group over here, and we’re just pointing and laughing at that person over there. It’s much more interesting to find, I don’t know, more fundamental things that unite us instead of these superficial things like “That person’s fat,” or “That person has herpes.”
There’s so much to make fun of. So I just think people should do that.
Just do that. Do the good stuff instead of the bad stuff, you guys. That’s my comedy advice.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy, and this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully by listening, we learn how to create our own.
This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And Lindy West’s writing helps me survive. I first discovered her through her piece in The Guardian called “My wedding was perfect — and I was fat as hell the whole time.” The raw vulnerability of her voice, I’d never read anything like it. And her new book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, had me laughing and crying — and sometimes crying while laughing — as I saw myself so clearly in her journey of acceptance as a fat woman, a feminist, and as a human being. As Lindy says, comedy forces you not to feel alone: “Because you can’t be alone when someone’s making you laugh, physically reaching into your body and eliciting a response.”
MS. PERCY: The thing that I first wanted to ask you, which you talk a little bit about in your book, but for those who haven’t read it yet, who really, really should, because it’s remarkable — I mean Shrill, I read it in two hours last night. I couldn’t stop reading it.
MS. WEST: Oh, my god.
MS. PERCY: It was fantastic.
MS. WEST: Wow.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, just so you know.
MS. WEST: Thank you.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] That’s how much I loved it.
MS. WEST: I should make my book longer next time. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: You really should, actually, because that’s what I was thinking: “I don’t want this to end.” So then I had to go online and find more things that you’ve written, because that’s exactly what I was left wanting to do. But who was the person, growing up, that made you laugh the most?
MS. WEST: Oh, that’s such a good question. I mean I always had a really, really intense, close group of female friends who are all really, really funny. We always made little videos and wrote funny stories and comics, and we were constantly generating humor and jokes. And we weren’t complete social outcasts, but we definitely weren’t top-tier popular. We were sort of this middle-of-the-road, weirdo group of kids. And it was nice, because it was like — I feel very fortunate to not have been constantly bullied, growing up, because then you have this mental and emotional space to be creative but without the pressure to be pretty and wear good clothes. [laughs] Being in the middle, I felt, was very fruitful for me, personally.
And I also just have funny parents. My dad was really the sort of old-timey, song-and-dance-man kind of funny. And my mom’s really dry and mean and judgmental, but in a good way.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. [laughs]
MS. WEST: And my sister is really funny and bizarre and fascinating. And I don’t know, I just — I feel like I grew up in a nice triangulation of a lot of different kinds of humor and people using humor for different reasons.
MS. PERCY: I love the way you write about your parents actually, in Shrill, where you say about your mom: “Dad was the entertainer, but I’m funny because of my mom. She has a nurse’s ease with gallows humor, sarcastic and dry; she taught me to cope with pain by chopping it up into bits small enough to laugh at.” I love that last line. I mean it’s really true. That is what we do.
MS. WEST: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a pretty basic coping mechanism, I think. I don’t know of any other way. I’m sure other people do other things, but for me, that’s it.
I mean, I remember the day my dad died — even at the hospital, I remember my sister and I just cracking up at the horrible movie selection in the family lounge at the hospital. [laughs] There is a little — a horrible little room that you’re supposed to sit in and watch VHS tapes of, you know, Beethoven’s 2nd.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Oh, my god.
MS. WEST: I just remember sitting there and like, dying laughing, because it was the most inadequate [laughs], unhelpful…
MS. PERCY: This is not what you want to watch when you’re in that situation. [laughs]
MS. WEST: Right. Exactly. It was weird action movies, but everything was a sequel. It was all — I don’t know. And there’s always — I definitely grew up always finding those little things: when everything feels horrible, what can we — what tiny detail can we seize on and laugh about.
MS. PERCY: There’s a line in the book that just struck me so much, because I felt like it was out of my own diary, when you were saying, as a little girl, “I knew very clearly what I was not: small, thin, pretty, girlish, normal, weightless, Winona Ryder.” And it’s the “Winona Ryder” that killed me, because she was the person I admired. I had her pictures plastered in a scrapbook. I loved her obsessively. And I don’t think that until the moment I read that sentence that you wrote, that I understood why. She represented, for our generation, beauty.
MS. WEST: Yeah. I mean there was such an intense need to be like Winona Ryder, which is just the most inaccessible thing. [laughs] I remember very vividly, in maybe middle school or high school, watching Reality Bites and realizing that there are Winona Ryders and Jeanine Garofalos, and I was a Jeanine Garofalo, for sure.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, same, same. You’re the offscreen friend.
MS. WEST: Right. Exactly. [laughing] I have no home in the movies.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, no, it’s so true. And I mean you talk about that so much, about not seeing yourself reflected in pop culture. And there’s something you write — and I swear, I’m just going to keep reading your writing, because it’s so beautiful, and it’s so wonderful to hear this.
MS. WEST: Oh, thank you.
MS. PERCY: But you say, “For me, as a kid who felt lonely, ugly, simultaneously invisible and too visible, comedy felt like a friend. That’s its greatest magic — more than any other art form, it forces you to interact with it; it forces you not to feel alone. Because you can’t be alone when someone’s making you laugh, physically reaching into your body and eliciting a response. Comedy is also smart. It speaks the truth. It was everything I wanted to be. Plus, if you’re funny, it doesn’t matter what you look like.” And I just want you to talk a little bit about that feeling that you wrote about.
MS. WEST: Yeah, I mean I think anyone who really loves comedy, and who loves TV, especially, can relate to this, I assume. Like I just remember I would get so deeply attached to my favorite TV shows, to the point where I would need to have them on all the time — that it felt like my friends were there, or even my family.
MS. PERCY: What were those favorite TV shows?
MS. WEST: Well let’s see. I mean I guess this is more like — I mean like Freaks and Geeks. I have watched that series, in its entirety, probably a hundred times. My So-Called Life, which is not a comedy, obviously…
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MS. WEST: But I watched that a million times. And it is funny.
MS. PERCY: It is funny, in its own way.
MS. WEST: I would listen to standup specials over and over and over. And then I — especially once I started to have the these conflicts with standup comedians in my professional life and personal life, and I started to be like, ugh, standup, [laughs] and I moved away from that, to the point where now I almost entirely watch narrative, scripted shows.
MS. PERCY: Well you mentioned there — you talked a little bit about standup comedy, and you talk about that in your book, in a chapter which ends with something that kind of made me so sad, when you say, “Men, you will never understand women. I hope I helped. Comedy, you broke my heart.”
And I was thinking that you’ve talked a lot about holding comedians accountable for jokes that they tell, and you even talked about Howard Stern, who’s someone that I love but have had a real love-hate relationship with, just because — and even the way you defended him is exactly the way I defend him, to girlfriends, especially. He’s this neurotic — he’s so enjoyable to listen to, in his banter with Robin and with the staff; it’s just — you feel like you’re part of that family. But then there’s the other side, right, which is the side that makes you feel terrible, as a woman. And trying to hold comedians accountable in that way. I just thought it was fascinating how you talked about that.
MS. WEST: Right. Yeah, I mean and there was this idea that by critiquing comedy, misogyny in comedy, specifically, that I was trying to destroy comedy. And it’s like, what I would like is to be able to consume comedy without feeling like garbage, you know. The next phase, after realizing the power of comedy and becoming obsessed with standup, was realizing how often it was just telling me horrible things about myself and using my gender as a stand-in for all kinds of negative, destructive things. It’s like, you know, women are just, like, sex nothings… [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Yeah, pretty much. [laughs]
MS. WEST: And then horrible, old, fat wives. Those are the two things that comedians talk about, at least when I was growing up.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, the nagging wife, always.
MS. WEST: The nagging wife or the unattainable hot chick — none of whom are real human beings. And I remember having this realization that if I’m spending my money on this art form, if I am devoting my life and my time and attention and love to this art form, why should I not have a voice in the way that it talks about me? Why should I not at least express, like, hey that kind of sucks. [laughs] You know?
But when I was getting really obsessed with comedy as a late teen, it was because I could feel its potential to move the world. And repeating over and over again that women are annoying does nothing. All it does is reinforce the past, which is just not interesting at all.
MS. PERCY: Well, I wanted to ask you about something that I’ve really thought a lot about, which is self-deprecation. So I had a conversation with a family member recently, and they said to me, “I’m so glad that you’ve become more confident, that you’ve stopped putting yourself down.” And they said, “Your jokes always made me feel uncomfortable.” And I never realized that my jokes, which I thought were funny, which were about myself, made other people uncomfortable. And it made me really think about the perception of myself that I was putting out there and what I was saying to people about it. And also, why were they uncomfortable? These — all these questions that are in my head around this. And I just wondered, have you thought about this?
MS. WEST: You know, that’s so interesting. I actually — I haven’t. [laughs] I mean I’m sure I have to some degree. But as you were talking, I was like, huh. I mean I definitely notice that sometimes I try to be self-deprecating, and it doesn’t work, and sometimes it does work. And I feel like the difference is, am I being self-deprecating about something that deserves it or something that doesn’t? If I make fun of myself for being lazy — I’m not lazy. It’s not true. But then sometimes, if I actually have a real flaw, it can be really funny and really therapeutic to sort of highlight that and apologize for it.
MS. PERCY: No, and that — well, I ask because, in your book, I felt like actually your humor doesn’t come off that way at all. It feels like you make fun of situations, but you don’t make fun of yourself.
MS. WEST: Well, it just almost always feels disingenuous, like you’re trying to get people to give you permission to do something that you’re going to do anyway, or you’re fishing for a compliment, or you’re doing a weird flailing thing because you’re having an insecure moment. And so yeah, I think self-deprecation can be really funny and great, I just — maybe I’m not good at it.
MS. PERCY: Well, I wondered if in your 20s, when I know that you were still — I mean, we’re all growing all the time, [laughs] getting better, hopefully. But, you know, even, like a story you tell, working at a retail store, in the book, and this man who essentially was trying to get you to — I think it was to exercise, or to take some kind of weight loss thing; I have no idea. And you say this: “I was still small then, inside.” And that line struck me, because I think that what my family member was talking about with me being self-deprecating was that at the time, it was my early 20s, and I think I was trying to be the butt of my own joke before someone else said something to me about it.
MS. WEST: Oh, totally. Yeah. I mean even in that conversation with that horrible man, he’s like, “Don’t you want to lose weight?” And in that interaction, I was like, “Well, yeah, obviously. Doesn’t everyone? Hahahaha.”
I would never say that now. Ever. And definitely, before I figured out how to be confident in my body, I would definitely make fat jokes about myself, not because I felt like I deserved it, but the sort of like — that was the first phase of my journey to body positivity, to be able to be like, “Well, you know, I’m kind of a fat-ass, but whatever.” [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Yeah, no, and I think that’s exactly what I thought I was doing, but I don’t think other people knew. [laughs]
MS. WEST: Right, exactly. And I remember it making people really, really uncomfortable. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Yes. Yeah. This is — yeah, exactly.
MS. WEST: But it does feel, in retrospect, like it was kind of necessary to then move on to not saying it as a joke and being like, “Yeah, well, this is my body, and I have to use it and go places, so it’s actually not funny.”
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Exactly. It’s just the way it is.
MS. WEST: It’s just the way it is.
MS. PERCY: I’m so curious about — you talk about, early on in the book, in describing pop culture characters that you saw, examples of fat women. And you say — specifically, in this case, talking about Trunchbull from Matilda — you say, “The world is not kind to big, ugly women. Sometimes bitterness is the only defense.” And I think that’s also something that I’ve been guilty on in my own body-positive journey, which is, you know, the first thing is being bitter toward thin women, being bitter to people who didn’t look like me. And I just wonder, how have you fought against that, from becoming this bitter kind of caricature?
MS. WEST: Oh, I don’t think it’s really in my nature to be super-resentful. I don’t really hold grudges against people. I was just thinking about this the other day, like, is there anyone that I — that wronged me, and I hate them? And I kind of can’t think of anyone.
MS. PERCY: That’s great. [laughs]
MS. WEST: So I don’t know. But I really do genuinely recognize that every single person struggles with feeling okay about their body, and I have genuine empathy for that. And I have many, many thin people, conventionally beautiful people in my life who I know have really, really painful, life-ruining struggles with this stuff. So it’s not — it’s not terribly hard to have empathy. But that said, I also have a lot of empathy for fat women who are, for fat people who are. And I tend to give people a little bit of wiggle room. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: I think you understand it’s a process.
MS. WEST: It’s a process. And if you’re a person who has grown up never having heard anything positive about your body, never having been told that your body is even — when you’re fat, people treat you like you shouldn’t exist. Not only, like, a lack — a withholding of praise or any positive feedback, it’s like: We want you to disappear. We want you to starve or die or go away or hide.
And so to say not just, “I deserve to be here” but “I’m beautiful,” to go that far in the opposite direction is hugely empowering. And so, like you said, it’s a process, and I definitely do feel — I don’t even want to say that I forgive them. It’s not my place to forgive. It’s like, I just — I understand.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, so you write in the introduction of Shrill, you say, “There are a few simple directives that I tried to lay out in this book: Do a good job. Be vulnerable. Make things. Choose to be kind. That notion of choice — of choosing what kind of person you want to be — is more important now than ever.” And I wondered just how humor has helped shape this person that you want to be.
MS. WEST: Oh, I mean I think humor has definitely taught me a lot about how to communicate with people. It’s really, really easy to deliver complicated, difficult ideas if you can wrap them up in a joke and make people want to consume them. That’s definitely been the biggest influence on me, in terms of my consumption of comedy — just figuring out how to interact with people who are different from me, how to get through to people who are really, really entrenched in their own ideas. Because if you can make a good joke, a good joke is a good joke. And the desire to laugh is pretty universal.
The best comedy, to me, is true, is illuminating truths that have been obscured or shared experiences that we haven’t talked about yet, pointing out absurdities that we may not have noticed. It can be used in the opposite direction, to cement generalizations that are harmful. But it can also dismantle those generalizations, you know what I mean?
MS. PERCY: Yeah, I mean I think you prove that, even in the way you — you tell the story in your book about how your husband, who wasn’t your husband at the time but just a friend, when you were in a comedy club watching someone do standup about someone who had herpes, a girl who had herpes — I can’t even remember who it was. And you turned to him, and you said, “Well, I could have herpes.” You were making a point about making fun of someone who was going through something.
MS. WEST: Yeah. I was standing in the back of this room, looking at this room full of people, all of whom were laughing hysterically, and I was thinking about, the statistic is, something like a third of people have herpes. And I was like, there’s so many people in this room who probably have herpes who are just pretending to laugh but really feeling disgusting and unwanted and broken.
MS. PERCY: But you proved a point with that joke to him, and then, as you tell later, when he talked about when you guys fell in love, he said, “That joke made me realize you were a good person.” [laughs] That’s amazing.
MS. WEST: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] I win.
MS. PERCY: Exactly.
MS. WEST: I mean my least favorite kind of joke is, we’re all a group over here, and we’re just pointing and laughing at that person over there. You know, like, what is the point. What are you accomplishing? And it’s much more interesting to find, I don’t know, more fundamental things that unite us instead of these superficial things like “That person’s fat,” or “That person has herpes.” [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Yeah. [laughs]
MS. WEST: It’s much more interesting to think about things that we care about and shared values and — yeah, I don’t know. There’s so much to make fun of that makes people’s lives better instead of just furthering division and marginalization. There’s so much. There’s so much to make fun of. So I just think people should do that.
MS. WEST: Just do that. Do the good stuff instead of the bad stuff, you guys. That’s my comedy advice.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] Done.
[music: “Electric Love” by BØRNS]
MS. PERCY: Lindy West is the writer of the amazing book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, which had me laughing out loud at nearly every single page. She’s also a columnist at The Guardian and the writer of many amazing essays, but my personal favorite is still her pitch-perfect take on Love Actually. But beware, this will ruin Love Actually for you.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.
[music: “Electric Love” by BØRNS]