Roxane Gay’s bold account of her weight issues offers insight into the connections between trauma, shame, and body image.
It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth,” writes best-selling author Roxane Gay in her latest book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.
Gay is renowned for exploring the intersections between race, gender, and popular culture in her writing. In this brave confessional, she offers a searing critique of the media and the weight-loss industry, both of which are programmed to convince women to shape themselves into an idealized image. “Women continue to try to bend themselves to societal will,” she notes. “Women continue to hunger. And so do I.”
The story of Gay’s hunger and unruly body begins when she was 12 years old and raped by a group of boys. No longer feeling safe and not knowing how to talk to her family about what happened, she turned to food. “I ate because I understood that I could take up more space. I could become more solid, stronger, safer.”
Over the years, Gay lost and gained weight. She used food to find “ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied — the hunger to stop hurting.”
Yet her method of survival also filled her life with myriad challenges: keeping up with friends, finding clothing options, and dealing with anxiety about airplane and restaurant seating.
The memoir is deeply personal but highlights a universal paradox — how to accept who we are now while also embracing a desire to change.
“I have tried to make peace with this body,” she writes. “I also want to lose weight. I know I am not healthy at this size (not because I am fat but because I have, for example, high blood pressure). More important, I am not happy at this size, though I am not suffering from the illusion that were I to wake up thin tomorrow, I would be happy and all my problems would be solved.”
Gay masterfully shines light on the struggle to love yourself in a world that leads many to believe they’re not enough. Here are a few of the powerful insights she shares in Hunger.
On writing about her body:
“I hesitate to write about fat bodies and my fat body especially. I know that to be frank about my body makes some people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too. I have been accused of being full of self-loathing and of being fat-phobic. There is truth to the former accusation and I reject the latter. I do, however, live in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment.”
On having other people comment on your body:
“When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be.
“Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes. You may become very adept at playing the role of wallflower. You may learn how to be the life of the party so that people are too busy laughing at or with you to focus on the elephant in the room. You may do whatever you have to do to survive a world that has little patience or compassion for a body like yours.”
On denial as a weight-loss strategy:
“Part of disciplining the body is denial. We want, but we dare not have. We deny ourselves certain foods. We deny ourselves rest by working out. We deny ourselves peace of mind by remaining ever vigilant over our bodies. We withhold from ourselves until we achieve a goal, and then we withhold from ourselves to maintain the goal.”
On weight-loss reality TV shows:
“Few areas of popular culture focus on obesity more than reality television, and that focus is glaring, harsh, and often cruel.
“I hate these shows, but clearly I watch them. I watch them even though sometimes they enrage me and sometimes they break my heart, and all too often they reveal painfully familiar experiences of loneliness, depression, and genuine suffering born of living in a world that cannot accommodate overweight bodies. I watch these shows because even though I know how damaging and unrealistic they are, some part of me still yearns for the salvation they promise.”
On healing and forgiveness:
“I am as healed as I am ever going to be. I have accepted that I will never be the girl I could have been if, if, if. I am still haunted.
“I will never forgive the boys who raped me and I am a thousand percent comfortable with that because forgiving them will not free me from anything.
“I am not the same scared girl that I was. I have let the right ones in. I have found my voice.
“I am learning to care less what other people think. I am learning that the measure of my happiness is not weight loss but, rather, feeling more comfortable in my body.
“I appreciate that at least some of who I am rises out of the worst day of my life and I don’t want to change who I am.”
On being vulnerable:
“To lay myself so vulnerable has not been an easy thing. To face myself and what living in my body has been like has not been an easy thing, but I wrote this book because it felt necessary. In writing this memoir of my body, in telling you these truths about my body, I am sharing my truth and mine alone. I understand if that truth is not something you want to hear. The truth makes me uncomfortable too. But I am also saying, here is my heart, what’s left of it. Here I am showing you the ferocity of my hunger. Here I am, finally freeing myself to be vulnerable and terribly human. Here I am, reveling in that freedom. Here. See what I hunger for and what my truth has allowed me to create.”
Adapted from Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. Copyright 2017 by Roxane Gay. Published on June 13, 2017, by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.