Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What I've Been Reading: Hunger by Roxane Gay

I just read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay, a book she describes as a memoir of her experience living in a clinically defined “super morbidly obese body” (a BMI greater than 50).  The type of body in which people feel compelled to offer unsolicited diet and weight loss advice, going so far as to replace items in her cart at the grocery store for “healthier” options.  The type of body in which she cannot shop at Lane Bryant.  The type of body that demands she purchase two seats on a plane.  The type of body that a scale at the doctor’s office cannot accommodate. The type of body that many chairs cannot accommodate.  The type of body that we have collectively decided is deserving of shame and derision and consequently, the shame and derision that Gay has internalized in her body.

Gay immediately alerts the reader that this is not Biggest Loser, and there is no happy ending with her beaming as she holds up her old jeans, bewildered as to how this newfound skinny person could ever have been so fat.  But rather, she unflinchingly describes the gang rape at twelve years old that was the catalyst for her immense and (initially) deliberate weight gain and her subsequent attempt to shield herself from sexual violence and male attention by creating an impenetrable fortress of her body that was safe and undesirable.  The journey that she took alone because she was too ashamed to disappoint her parents and their regard of her as a “good girl.”  And her journey ever since to cope with this body.

If you can’t already tell, I highly recommend this book.  I picked it up after reading Difficult Women, a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay, a week earlier and after listening to Gay discuss the realities of being fat on NPR’s Podcast This American Life.  I was intrigued by the concept of “Lane Bryant fat” and hearing someone dismiss body positivity for its exclusivity.  Clearly, Gay’s reality is unique and not represented in conventional media.

Reading Hunger, or more appropriately devouring it, I felt myself acknowledging my complicity in the microaggressions towards fat people, specifically making snap judgments about someone else’s character or discipline due to their size.  But I also felt a mutual understanding about the harmful way in which women’s relationships to their bodies develop.  Hearing accomplished women like Oprah say, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be” or listening to Jennifer Hudson describe weight loss as her greatest accomplishment, superior to receiving an Oscar, sheds light on just how universal issues like weight and body image are.

Criticism of Hunger speaks to the narrow scope of the book.  The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Felix recognizes that Gay prefers “to focus on material that directly correlates to the story of her fatness.”  For example, during her twenties, she entered a series of abusive relationships but either to protect the identity of her partners (she is an admittedly private person) or to not distract from the story of her fatness, she only writes in vague terms about the indifference, disdain and outright aggression she endured both physically and emotionally.  

Thank you, Roxane Gay, for sharing your truth and in doing so, for allowing us the reader to confront ours too.


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