Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger, is a radical book. It challenges readers to recognize and reassess cultural norms through the lens of personal experience. It is a book that insists that human bodies are worthy of respect regardless of their size, and that although our culture moralizes and pathologizes bodies that are fat, the presence or absence of fat has no bearing on a body’s essential value.
Gay became fat after she was gang-raped at age 12 by a boy whom she thought she loved and his friends. In the aftermath, she writes, fat made her feel strong; it also made her feel undesirable, and the combination of the two made her feel as though no one would hurt her again. “I needed to feel like a fortress, impermeable,” she says. “I did not want anything or anyone to touch me.”
There are certain expectations that come with writing about one’s body in public, for women in general and for feminists in particular. Women in general are expected to hate their bodies with a kind of performative smugness, as if the more loudly they announce their loathing of their thighs and their butts and their bellies, the more feminine they will become. Feminist women are encouraged to aggressively love their bodies, to understand that one can be healthy at any size and to fight against the culture that teaches women to hate their bodies.
Gay’s position means she can’t quite conform to either expectation. She treats her fatness as a physical expression of her PTSD, which means it’s not something that she can love and accept about herself unconditionally. She doesn’t like that when she starts to lose weight, she begins to feel unsafe and compulsively eats until the danger has passed. “I no longer need the body fortress I built,” she concludes. “I need to tear down some of the walls, and I need to tear down those walls for me and me alone.”
On the other hand, she holds the very reasonable opinion that her body is not made immoral or dangerous or unclean by the fact of its fatness. Her body has the right to exist and to be treated with dignity, and that so often she and her body are not treated with dignity is a profound failing on the part of our society.
In Hunger, Gay describes sitting in an airplane exit row next to a man who becomes convinced that she is unable to “fulfill the responsibilities” of the exit row because of her size. She describes being covered with bruises after being forced to squeeze into a chair with arms when it is too small for her. Strangers shout slurs at her; professional acquaintances are shocked when they meet her in person because they cannot imagine that a well-respected author might also be fat; doctors refuse to treat her for strep throat without first scolding her about her weight.
Our culture, she concludes, treats fat people with enormous cruelty and disrespect, and hides that cruelty under faux concern for the health of the people in question.
Hunger is an intimate and vulnerable memoir, one that takes its readers into dark and uncomfortable places. Gay examines wells of trauma and horror, not sparing her own self-loathing from her forthright analytic eye. But all the while, she insists on her right to be treated with dignity.