As someone who developed an unhealthy relationship with food at a young age, used to be obese, and still regularly struggles with body image, I knew before sitting down to read Roxane Gay’s newest book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body that I was going to relate to it. But Hunger isn’t a telling of what it’s like to live in a body that’s merely overweight, obese, or even morbidly obese. Gay’s specific story is of how she came to be super morbidly obese, and all the ways it’s colored her present-day psyche, identity, and feminism, as well as her personal and professional life.
After surviving a horrific act of sexual violence at age 12, Gay turned to food for comfort, building layers of fat and turning her body into a massive “fortress” that would protect her and keep men away. In some of the most heartbreaking (and relatable) parts of the book, Gay discusses her relationship with her loving—if not helicopter-parenting—Haitian parents, both constantly concerned about her increasing weight problem and oblivious to the event that started it.
Gay illustrates the way society treats fat bodies as “before” bodies—a weight problem to be handled by any means necessary, and a burden on society. She describes the way large-bodied people are punished for their size, and how she has punished herself throughout her life, feeling worthless and repulsive for struggling to get her unruly, undisciplined body under control. She shines a light on the shame, humiliation, and ridicule that fat people endure in public spaces, emphasizing feelings of being both highly visible and invisible. Gay reports being stepped on, shoved, and targeted with a barrage of insults from men in cars who are displeased with Gay’s refusal to cater her body to the male gaze.
Gay draws a line between the body-positive “health at every size” movement that includes plus sizes up to a size 28, and the super morbidly obese who have barely any place to buy clothes. She points out that the obesity epidemic is said to affect a staggering portion of the population, and yet even the medical industry often does not accommodate all these large bodies, failing to provide hospital gowns and blood pressure cuffs big enough, or scales capable of weighing people who are more than 350 pounds.
I loved Gay’s analysis of the weight loss industry, framing shows like Fit to Fat to Fit and The Biggest Loser as anti-obesity propaganda that exploit people of size and tout the message “that self-worth and happiness are inextricably linked to thinness.” She also says The Biggest Loser is “a show about fat as an enemy that must be destroyed, a contagion that must be eradicated,” and “that through that discipline, the obese might become more acceptable members of society.”
Of course, it would be nearly impossible to fully discuss the weight loss industry and Gay’s experience without also delving into how society treats women’s bodies. She hits the nail on the head when discussing how diet commercials alone encourage self-loathing. “They tell us, most of us, that we aren’t good enough in our bodies as they are,” Gay writes. “In these commercials, women swoon at the possibility of satisfying their hunger with somewhat repulsive foods while also maintaining an appropriately slim figure... Every time I watch a yogurt commercial I think, My god, I want to be that happy. I really do.” She goes down the list of diet food commercials and celebrity weight loss endorsements, and asks a poignant question: “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”
Later, Gay also talks about how being a woman of size has revoked her right to be seen as feminine, even causing her to sometimes be misgendered by strangers. “We have such narrow ideas about femininity. When you are very tall and wide... you all too often present as ‘not woman,’” Gay explains. “Race plays a part in this too. Black women are rarely allowed their femininity.”
The book provokes thought on a new level. I didn’t anticipate how much introspective questioning I’d turn on myself in regard to how I might treat, ignore, stare at, and think about very large-bodied people. Do I treat people of size like they are invisible? Do I harbor the preconceived notion that accomplished, capable people are thin? Am I considerate of the physical needs of people with large bodies?
After all, some people will never achieve their “best body” or become their “inner thin” person. Some people will live their entire lives in big bodies; they deserve to be seen and treated with respect and gentleness, too.
Gay’s body memoir is unique because it makes no promises of a triumphant weight loss success story. Instead, the book offers honest testimony detailing nearly 30 years of various unhealthy relationships with food, family, friends, lovers, and self, all leading up to a breaking point that (hopefully) helps her change course.
“I no longer need the layers of protection I built around myself but pulling those layers back is harder than I could have ever imagined.” Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Hunger is the lasting impact that sexual assault and rape can have on victims, and how one traumatic event can shape a person’s entire existence for decades. Fortunately, after reading Gay’s book, I felt hopeful and grateful for a new perspective. Even more, I was inspired to look at the world—and all the various bodies in it—differently, with fewer assumptions and more care and consideration.