Review: "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body" by Roxane Gay

I’ll put it bluntly: If I hadn’t already read Bad Feminist and if her 2015 TED Talk wasn’t in my all-time favorites list, I wouldn’t have thought to pick up Roxane Gay’s latest literary masterpiece, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.

And that’s precisely the problem.

We can’t begin to understand each other as human beings unless we really look at how we treat those who are different from us. Unless you or someone you know has lived through similar experiences, it’s difficult to imagine exactly what it’s like to move through this world as someone who is overweight. It’s even harder to face the reality that—whether it’s through ridicule or neglect—those same people are made to feel as if they deserve no space in this world at all.

Gay’s Hunger immediately shuts down the idea that this is a story of “triumph”. You won’t find this book in the fad diets section of Barnes & Noble or turned into a popular reality television show about weight loss (more on the ridiculousness of those shows in Chapter 35).

No, this is the story of a woman who endured a terrible trauma as a small child, so she ate to make herself larger and therefore less vulnerable. It’s fiercely honest. And it’s heartbreaking.

Photo: Jennifer Silverberg

Photo: Jennifer Silverberg

“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 may be.”

Gay makes little to no excuses for how her body came to be. “I began eating to change my body,” she writes. “Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it...and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away. Even at that young age, I understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to men, to be beneath their contempt...”

Although Gay explicitly states that this book is about living as someone who is “not obese or morbidly obese but super morbidly obese,” it’s really for anyone who has ever experienced self-doubt. Hunger’s unflinching honesty takes you to the “good” days when you are around the right people or in the right environment and able to transcend self-doubt; these are the days when you recognize it is not you, it’s society that has a problem. But it also takes you to the “bad” days, the “I hate myself” days. As it is reflected in the chapter, these feelings can happen in the same day, or even—as confusing as it may seem—at the same time.

The chapters in Hunger are brief but poignant, perfect for late night reading when you want to drink in every word in a quiet room by the light of your bedside lamp. While the chapters are nonlinear, Gay breaks down her experiences with her body as the “before” and the “after”, in reference to her encounter with the boys who “broke” her. Different phases of her life are explored, focusing on pivotal moments and social constructs—sexuality, gender, race, femininity, celebrity, etc.—that intersected with her body type.

In a recent interview with Elle magazine, Gay talks about gender and race as they relate to one’s body weight. “Being obese ‘in many ways, erases your gender identity,’ Gay says. ‘People just treat you like nothing. You can hide lots of problems, but you can't hide fatness. And you can't hide race.’ The intersection of the two is ‘interesting,’ she says. ‘Certainly there is less cultural stigma in black communities about fat than there is in white communities. But the kinds of fat that are acceptable in black communities—there's a limit.’”

Gay’s take on celebrity culture’s intersection (and rejection) of being fat should be required reading for everyone. “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth,” she writes. From average Joans on The Biggest Loser to Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Simpson representing Weight Watchers, Hunger brings mass-marketing and celebrity culture to the hot seat and asks, what gives? Why are 100-calorie snacks and yogurt primarily marketed towards women? Why should someone’s bikini body be different from their normal body? I found myself getting riled up by the subtle yet myriad ways in which women’s bodies—despite their size—are constantly told they are not good enough by the media. And in checking my privilege here, I recognize my contempt is minuscule compared to the anger and neglect felt by most overweight women. In Gay’s own words, “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”

There are many things Roxane Gay and I do not have in common. Had I not been familiar with her previous work (and amazing presence on Twitter), that probably would have been reason enough for me to not read Hunger. If you thought the same, consider this review my way of telling you that you’re dead wrong. Hunger will confront you. It will haunt you and it will inspire you. Most importantly, it will teach you as much as one book can to better understand and respect the way other people take up physical and figurative space in this world. And I think we could all use a little bit of that right now.

One last quote, and then I promise to stop before I get sued for transcribing the whole thing:

“I am not fearless the way people assume I am, but despite all my fears, I am willing to take chances and I like that too about myself.”