Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay was published on June 13th by Harper Collins. There are 84 chapters over 6 sections. Each chapter is written like flash fiction (about 1-4 pages), but it also feels like she gets writing, is ashamed of her story, and then starts again. It’s effective at showing the difficulty of this book’s contents. Many of the chapters start with the same idea, which creates a poetic rhythm to the memoir. Hunger a long-awaited memoir whose original publication date was pushed back quite a bit (a year, I believe). People are going to read this book and call it raw, honest, inspirational, brave. I argue those will all be thin people who say that. They’ll feel like they understand fat bodies after reading this memoir and feel sad at the lives fat people live. Even Roxane Gay writes that she does not want her fat body to be their inspiration. Her fat body isn’t inspiration.
Roxane Gay is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. When she was 12 and thin, she was gang-raped in a cabin in the woods. After, she eats to make her body both stronger and objectionable. No boy wants to have sex with a fat girl, she reasons, but she’ll be tougher if she eats more, too. Gay didn’t tell her parents what happened, living with her sexual assault alone for reasons she can’t explain. Her family was and is made up of loving, kind, successful, and intelligent people. She went to boarding school and was accepted to an ivy league college. But then she disappeared for a year, developed an eating disorder, and engaged in relationships with women because she felt that women couldn’t hurt her like those boys in the cabin had.
There’s so much to say about Hunger, but I’ll focus on two attributes that impressed me most. First, Gay’s story is so personal, but she never loses the perspectives of other people who have difficult lives. She notes that although she was gang-raped, many women have worse stories — and too many stories — about sexual assault. When she disappears from home for a year, she points out how broke she was. She is quick to note that she was “broke,” not “poor” because she could always call her parents and make the money problems go away. I appreciated that she her story with respect to others. She also claims that being fat made her more empathetic to the difficulties people with disabilities may have moving in public spaces, like stairs, planes, how fast people are walking, climbing up to a stage, etc., which most of us won’t see with our able bodies.
Second, I was impressed with Gay’s commentary on the nuances of living in a fat body. She desires to make peace with her body, but has never loved it at any size. She wants to work out at the gym without people telling her she inspires them to go to the gym (which we fat girls basically hear as “If this fat heifer can exercise, I sure can!”). She writes:
[The compliments at the gym] are a misguided attempt to reward the behavior of a “good fat person,” who is, in their minds, trying to lose weight rather than simply engaging in healthful behavior.
What Gay references is known as “Health at Any Size,” a movement currently gaining attention. The idea of a “good fat person” is always tied to weight, diet, and exercise. Even well-meaning people can be a problem. Gay points out:
These pretenders will lie, shamelessly, and say, “You’re not fat,” or offer a lazy compliment like, “You have such a pretty face,” or “You’re such a nice person,” as if I cannot be fat and also possess what they see as valuable qualities.
What Gay is doing is educating thin people on the things they do that they feel are positive, but really come from a place of ignorance. Do thin people know that fat people walk close to walls to stay out of the way? They sometimes buy two plane tickets so they can maintain their dignity? That fat people are always aware of whether they’re the fattest person or not at an event? DO they know that fat people get unsolicited dieting advice at the grocery store, that people will remove things from a fat person’s shopping cart? Since Gay is a famous author with a world-wide platform, this memoir could do a lot to help fat activists make progress on being respected in their bodies. Because right now, fat people are not respected. Roxane Gay knows that. She reminds us all of that: “No matter what I accomplish, I will be fat, first and foremost.”
If you’re a fat reader, you’ll see that Hunger can give voice to your experiences. If you’re a thin reader, Hunger is the experience you need.