Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins
Roxane Gay holds nothing back, and you have to appreciate her stark honesty. She is a large woman, and because she knows you will wonder, she reveals on page 6 that, “At my heaviest, I weighed 577 pounds at six feet, three inches tall.” As you read, you realize how that fact has nothing to do with her courage, her power, or her ability to lay it all out.
Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper paperback, June 2018; first published June 2017) begins at a weight loss clinic with her father, listening to lectures about gastric bypass surgery, for which she is declared an ideal candidate. And she considers it, despite the horrific side effects like living the rest of her life nutrient-deprived and experiencing something called “dumping syndrome.” Thankfully, her father talks her out of the surgery. But she is left alone with the shame of her own body, accepting that she did this to herself, on purpose.
As a child of intelligent, hard-working Haitian parents, she is afforded many luxuries, sports many accomplishments, and she is loved. She needs to make that perfectly clear, that her parents loved her. Unbeknownst to her family, though, “Something terrible happened.” When she was 12, she was violently gang-raped by a golden boy she thought was her boyfriend and a group of his beer-drinking friends for several hours while she screamed for help in a remote cabin. Afterward, she tells no one. She lives not only with the shock and pain of the event, but the shame of her role in it and the self-described cowardice of keeping silent. This is not rare with survivors of sexual abuse, and feeds the crime further.
Gay begins to eat out of protection, then, thinking she will be safe if she surrounds herself with more of herself. Food is a nonjudgmental friend. Many diet and exercise plans, camps, and regimens are experienced, but the reason she’s wrapped herself up remains in her mind and will not leave. She is trapped in her memories.
Through the years, she explores the cultural reaction to overweight women, and the issue seems to rally primarily around women. There is a startling amount of mean-spirited terminology for fat. Gay also delves into the popular culture of weight loss reality shows and their demeaning cruelty: People want to watch the contestants sweat and vomit and cry out of humiliation. People watch to feel better about themselves. At least, they can rationalize, I’m not that fat.
She hungers not for food, but for acceptance, for love, for the ability to climb stairs without being winded. Gay is well aware of the space her body takes up. She sees the looks of disgust on a plane, bears the smirks when she’s on the treadmill at the gym. Though she has inconvenienced no one, people feel entitled to comment on her size. This fills her with rage, and rightfully so. Even within the community, there are comparisons to others, hoping not to be the fattest person in the room.
When Gay is finally able to come out with the story of how she was irreparably broken at such a young age, nothing magically changes. To be a victim of sexual abuse is to carry it with you always. Her bravery lies in the courage to tell her story, and to listen to others. People need to acknowledge their pain. She writes: “I am increasingly committed to challenging the toxic cultural norms that dictate far too much of how women live their lives and treat their bodies. I am using my voice not just for myself, but for people whose lives demand being seen and heard.”
And that is everyone, no matter what their hunger.