In Hunger – A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay writes: “[w]hen you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects… [p]eople project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth may be” (120). Gay describes with such clarity the way in which the world we live in is so ill-equipped to make space for marginalized bodies – and more specifically – fat bodies*. Nevertheless, Hunger is an account of Gay’s life told on her own terms, an account that must be heard, deserves to be heard, though the world cannot hold it.
Despite having had horrifying acts of violence committed against her, I am baffled by Gay’s persistent identification as a privileged woman: she acknowledges that though at times in her life she has been ‘broke’, she has never been ‘poor’. She acknowledges a family who has been her social safety net when she had nothing else, a privilege that those who are poor do not have. She tells of her father’s insistent parenting, bailing her out of difficult situations that she had got herself into. Though Gay’s description of her parent’s patronizing posture towards her body – as a problem that needs to be fixed – was tense and painful, I could still feel her offering of tenderness and compassion towards them, as parents who continue to love her in the best way they know how to.
I feel deeply hesitant to identify with Hunger as a narrative, mostly because my life looks so different than the author’s. I am a white, thin woman who has never been sexually assaulted. But, I have experienced trauma that has functionally derailed my life in the past, and intermittently since. Hunger seems to be capable of resonating with those whose life has been derailed by trauma. Trauma is not a respecter of persons, and the body holds onto it in the way it knows how. As I was reading, I was reflecting on the ways in which my body held onto trauma and tried to make sense of it – eating was difficult for me on most days. I lost a lot of weight and was comforted by that, not necessarily because I wanted to be thinner – or even was aware that I was becoming progressively thinner – but because I had obsessive compulsive behaviours that made physical contact with anything or anyone nauseating. I wanted to be small so nothing could touch me. And still, though I was quite ill, I was often praised with the “social currency” that thinness brings.
I was made aware again and again in my reading of Hunger of the mysterious relationship between the body and shame. Gay writes: “I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode” (67). It is so clear to me that shame marks our bodies, whether it is seen or unseen, publicized or private. Hunger displays so clearly the cognitive dissonance that every woman (at least that I’ve met) experiences: the intellectual acceptance of bodies the way they exist whether or not they are embraced as desirable by societal constructions of beauty juxtaposed with the disappointment of buying into those societal narratives. Beauty aside, Gay is often simply positing that her body and bodies like hers should be able to take up space. Period.
Hunger is functionally educational in many ways, though I do not think that was in the scope of authorial intention for Gay. For those who have bodies that do not take up very much space, Gay is offering the opportunity to observe the way “women of size”, as she says, move through the world. She writes of the utter panic of walking into a restaurant with friends, having to sit in chairs with armrests, bruising her sides and thighs: “I see how physical spaces punish me for my unruly body” (202). Gay also shares the joy and frustrations of learning to cook as someone who loves food but, is at times, overcome with self-loathing, making engaging in the practice of taking care of herself difficult and complicated.
I was reading the chapter in which Gay describes the disregard that she is met with from doctors who attribute any health issue, no matter how trivial, to ‘morbid obesity’ while I was waiting for care in the ER at St. Paul’s hospital. I was waiting for my leg to be looked at, swollen, red and hot, presumably from another blood clot – this time not from birth control. It is likely now that I am just prone to them – a mutation in my gene. It is something I take so deeply for granted, not having blame placed on me for my health issues. When something goes wrong in my body, doctors do not put my character under a microscope, accuse me of being lazy, a glutton or think that I have done something wrong to bring suffering upon myself in some way. I am (most of the time, and mostly by women) looked in the eye, met with sympathy and never blamed for my ailments.
Perhaps Gay’s most striking observation was that of her family and friends response to her stay in the hospital after surgery on her ankle. She says that “love was no longer an abstraction” to her (282). Indeed, love does something. Love takes action. While violence takes action against and seeks to destroy, love takes action that empowers, reminding those who are being loved that they matter, that the space they take up in this world is sacred.
*I want to identify my usage of the word ‘fat’ as a neutral descriptor.
Featured photo by Jennifer Silverberg for the Guardian.