June 13, 2017
Content warning: rape.
“There are so many things I hunger for.”
Statistics say that 34.9 percent of Americans are obese and 68.6 percent of Americans are obese or overweight. Going into Hunger, and knowing what Gay looks like, you know that there will be references to food, weight, and hunger. But what you don’t know until you’re enmeshed in her life is how much the idea of obesity and other people makes an impact on her life. On her soul.
“I know that to be frank about my body makes some people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable too.”
The first thing I noticed about Hunger was the chapter count: 88 chapters. I knew then that this was going to be something. Something big. Something important. When Roxane Gay speaks, I listen. And already I was aware that I would be listening for quite some time.
I spent several weeks taking in Hunger’s words. At first I would read chapters five or ten at a time, unable to go further, or just unwilling. There are some things that need time to process before you can move on. Then, I found myself reading more; there was less terror, less of the terrible, and more hope. More of Roxane seeing the better things about life and herself. More about moving forward, even if it is impossible to truly move on. This isn’t to say that there are not heartbreaking moments in the last third of the book; merely that they are eclipsed by the things that have made her the stronger person she finds herself to be today. Not fixed; but no longer quite as broken.
“I began eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it.”
Having read Bad Feminist a couple years ago, I was not taken unawares by the story of Gay’s rape, or of her reaction to it. But the visceral reaction to her blatant, open words, could not be escaped. You can have knowledge that prepares you for reading such an experience, but we can never be truly prepared for Gay’s words before they come out in her deliberate, heartbreaking way. While the description of the event that changed her life is terrible, her recounting of the aftermath is devastating. We’re talking about a child. Changed forever.
“Food was not only comfort; food also became my friend because it was constant and I didn’t need to be anything but myself when I ate.”
It’s not all terrible. There is a darling story about her Haitian American family having meals around the table, and the loving relationship she had with her mother, at least for a brief time. The brief stints that allow you to smile, getting little glimpses into the time before, are sweet. They help you bolster your heart for the rest of the story.
And as we journey with her through the story of her body, we also discover the story of her mind. Because if there’s one thing we know of Roxane Gay, it’s that she can create some of the most devastating stories, told in the most gorgeous ways. She has always been a writer, and in the years leading up to An Untamed State, Ayiti, and Dangerous Women, writing fiction has helped her take the words she could not say aloud and express them on paper. This is not to say that she has Mary Sued herself into every story that she has written, but she has taken her own experience and used her writing to express the hurt, anger, frustration, horror, and a million other words running through her mind and body.
“I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to me, so I wrote the same story a thousand different ways. It was soothing to give voice to what I could not say out loud. I lost my voice, but I had words.”
As we move through her life, out of high school, into an aborted stint at Yale and a doctorate program in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we also see into her psyche as a woman who has not yet come to terms with her childhood trauma. Even the idea that “rape” was something that happened to people, and that it wasn’t her fault, takes a long time to reach her. And by that point, there’s another culprit for the sadness in her life: her body. The one she has given herself.
Not just her size, but what she does with it. While telling the story of the man who was probably her first true love, she says he was the only person who ever touched her with any gentleness, even when she asked him not to. She didn’t know what to do with her body; she didn’t know that letting people treat her badly wasn’t the default. It didn’t have to happen that way; but after countless men and women in her twenties who saw nothing wrong with treating her the way she expected she should be treated physically, what could she possibly think?
Gay speaks to the soul of every fat woman who has tried to make it through this world with everyone only having their best interests at heart. I am nowhere near the level of obesity that she has been in her life, but I can still relate to that picture of walking around waiting for someone, whether you know them or not, to ask you whether you think you shouldn’t have a diet soda instead of a Sprite, or if maybe you should get that burger without fries.
“What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”
Gay touches on so many topics through the lens of a fat woman of color. Everything from Oprah and Weight Watchers to being challenged by skinny women at the gym is pulled through her particular lens, and there are things to be said out of both of them. As a member of the “Lane Bryant Fat” body size, I see her points regarding body positivity, and how part of that is acknowledging that not everyone is ready to love the skin they’re in. Even the simple idea of dressing yourself, wearing clothes, involves a long, enduring lie to yourself when you are fat. Sure, you want to wear something fun, flirty, and flamboyant. But when the only thing you want to do is not stand out, you stick to your uniform of dark jeans and tee shirts, no matter what extensive wardrobe you might have featuring the opposite. As someone who has a monster collection of heels and other cute shoes, but wears black flats almost exclusively, I can get that. As someone who is still just over half Gay’s size, it took me a long time to be comfortable enough to wear certain things. And there are still things I question, as though I am less worthy to like clothes because I am not model-thin. But for her, it reaches a point of panic. How dare she even try? That is not something I will ever be required to understand.
“[The] fat acceptance movement is important, affirming, and profoundly necessary, but I also believe that part of fat acceptance is accepting that some of us struggle with body image and haven’t reached a place of peace and unconditional self-acceptance.”
When reading Gay’s words, it’s easy to get whiplash. Every chapter is a miniature essay, and each one tackles its own topic and packs its own punch. The feelings, oh god, the feelings. This is the kind of book that makes you want to hug the author, just for your own comfort, but also know that she wouldn’t want you to do such a thing. By the end, your relationship with Gay is complicated; you’re uncomfortable. She’s uncomfortable. But you both have realized truths, truths that bring something of value to both of your lives.
There are so many powerful statements in Hunger. It would be impossible to include even a fraction, and were I to do what I really wanted and start this review with a meaningful statement, I would have to write twenty reviews just to start off each one with something I want to include. You should see my notes for this review. It’s basically just twenty pages of comments and quotes, most of them full paragraphs of text. There is so much here to try to grasp; and these meager 1,000 words aren’t going to get there. Just read the damn book, and process it in whichever way you see fit. You might not want to see any of her words again; they pack such a punch that you might not want to revisit them. Or you might take so many notes you’ve practically copied the book. Read a print copy; take a pen and highlighter to it to your heart’s content. But read this book, whether you identify with Gay on the surface or not.
In the end, Hunger is two things: it is a memoir, given to us wholeheartedly by Gay as she has been known to give us her words in the past. But it is also a manifesto on what it means to be fat in the United States, in the world, and the effects the general population’s attitudes have on those who are fat. Think about The Biggest Loser and what has happened to so many of the people exploited by that show. Think about Roxane herself, whose sole initial purpose in gaining weight was to be invisible and undesirable to those who would hurt her.
“Women continue to hunger. And so do I.”
Hunger is hard. Every sentence is a hit. There is no high and low; every word is skillfully crafted. Gay is not writing to give readers an easy time. She’s writing to tell her truth, and very early on you know it won’t be an easy one. It’s hard for both of us.