Book Review
Feminist Bodies, Feminist Selves

Feminist Bodies, Feminist Selves

I have never known a person who was 100% content with everything about their body, 100% of the time. The pressure to be physically perfect — thin and athletic, with flawless skin and hair that conforms to the perfect straightness or curl you prefer — obviously falls especially hard on female-bodied people. I think most women can remember a few or several or dozens of times in their lives when thinking about their appearance — dismaying over an extra five pounds or hair that wouldn’t lay right or eyebrows that grew in too thick — distracted them from enjoying a moment.

We are #blessed to have two new books that talk about women’s bodies in glorious and vital honesty. Both Lindy West and Jessica Valenti are well-known feminist writers of the internet age. West is a weekly Guardian columnist and culture writer, known for writing about social justice and body image with a good dose of humor. In 2015 she helped launch the #ShoutYourAbortion movement to promote open dialogue about women’s abortion experiences and to combat stigma. Valenti is the co-founder of Feministing and the author or co-author of books like The Purity Myth, Full Frontal Feminism, and Yes Means Yes. She now also writes a column for The Guardian US and hosts their “What Would a Feminist Do?” podcast.

Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (Hatchette Books, 2016).
Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (Hatchette Books, 2016).

In their new books, West and Valenti have written beautifully about their feminism by focusing on their bodies in a series of memoir-essays. In Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, West embraces her position as a fat feminist. Constantly asked by fans how she is so confident, she writes in several essays about how she came to accept herself. She herself never hated her body. As she writes, “I used to describe it as ‘reverse body dysmorphia’: When I looked in the mirror, I could never understand what was supposedly so disgusting. I knew I was smart, funny, talented, social, and kind — why wasn’t that enough? By all the metrics I cared about, I was a home run.”1 But the overwhelming weight of living in America as a fat woman — her own experiences in sex and dating, having strangers offer unsolicited weight loss advice, seeing media portrayals of fat women as unsexed mothers or disgusting unloveable villains — had an effect. The turning point for West was looking at Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project. She writes, “For the first time it struck me that it was possible to be proud of my body, not just in spite of it. Not only that, but my bigness is powerful.”2

West also ties her fat acceptance and activism to her pro-choice stance. She argues,

[gblockquote]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 health care — 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.3[/gblockquote]

She relates her own abortion story — a self-acknowledged mundane experience of an unplanned pregnancy with the wrong guy, an appointment with her regular gynecologist who refers her to an abortion clinic, and the generosity of the abortion provider who bends the rules to bill her for her pills after she receives them. As a white, middle-class woman in Seattle, West recognizes how her access to abortion was much easier than for many other women. Today she sees her abortion as both a huge moment in her life as well as an event she barely thinks about. “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.”4

Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir (Dey Street Books, 2016).
Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir (Dey Street Books, 2016).

Valenti’s title, Sex Object, comes from the way that American society often positions women. As she writes, “Unlike ‘author’ or ‘wife,’ ‘sex object’ was not an identity I chose for myself as much as it was one pushed upon me from twelve years old on; I admit my use of the term is more resignation than reclamation. Still, we are who we are.”5 Growing up in Queens, NY, Valenti learned from a young age that her body was on display in public. Men constantly spoke to her, exposed themselves to her, and rubbed against her on the subway, particularly after puberty. This experience had a profound impact on her:

[gblockquote]When this reality started to become more and more clear to me, as I grew breasts and took subways, watched movies and fucked boys, I didn’t make a conscious decision not to lie down and die. But I do know that my survival instinct took over and I became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her. If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be.6[/gblockquote]

Valenti writes powerfully about her body in this book. Particularly affecting is the essay on the premature birth of her daughter. A preeclampsia diagnosis leads to an emergency c-section.7 Her body is so swollen with water retention that they can barely get an IV in her arm. A description of breast pumping for the baby highlights some of the horror of the situation: “the only thing that came out of my nipples was brown ooze and blood. Still, I pumped, bleeding, until my nipples were stretched to three times their size in the machine and, finally, the milk came.”8 Valenti and her husband spent eight weeks visiting the baby in the hospital and when she came home, they experienced the constant fear that parents of preemies often suffer from. Eventually Valenti’s anxiety is diagnosed as PTSD and she is warned that another pregnancy and birth would likely kill her. She has an abortion a year later – her second — to protect her life and to be present for her daughter.

These books made me think about the ways that both misogyny and feminism have affected my feelings about my own body. Like most women, at different times in my life I have worried about my weight, my skin, my clothes — and these feminists reiterate how American society places such insane pressures on all women’s bodies. Women who drink in short skirts are still thought to be “asking for it,” and girls who walk down city streets are constantly told they’d be prettier if they smiled. I find that feminist writers like these help me question the automatic doubts that pop into my head when I look in the mirror. With such brave voices like Lindy West and Jessica Valenti teaching us to challenge the inner doubts and the outside harassment, I hope we can strive for healthier relationships with our feminist bodies.


  1. Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (New York: Hatchette Books, 2016), 68. Return to text.
  2. Ibid., 77. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 15. Return to text.
  4. Ibid., 56-57. Return to text.
  5. Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir (New York: Dey Street Books, 2016), 2. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 13. Return to text.
  7. Readers who are fans of Call the Midwife or Downtown Abbey know the seriousness of this condition. RIP Sybil. Return to text.
  8. Ibid., 156-157. Return to text.

Laura Ansley is an editor, writer, and historian with degrees from Case Western Reserve University and the College of William & Mary. In her day job, she is managing editor at the American Historical Association.

1 thought on “Feminist Bodies, Feminist Selves

    • Author gravatar

      As a young woman, I didn’t appreciate my beauty. When I look at pictures of myself 30 years ago, I’m baffled by what I could possibly have found wrong with me! Today, when I look in the mirror, I see a beautiful woman who has come through life challenges, dents and all. I love that woman. I love she is me! xoxoM

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