Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body:
I wish I could write a book about being at peace and living myself wholly, at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which has been the most difficult writing experience of my life, one far more challenging than I could have ever imagined. When I set out to write Hunger, I was certain the words would come easily, the way they usually do. And what could be easier to write about than the body I have lived in for more than forty years? But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body; I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained, and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I’ve been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I’ve cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.
I have been a body image activist since the early 1980s. I have heard people’s body image stories, told my body image stories, led workshops where people tell their body image stories, edited body image stories for print. Doing this work for much of a lifetime, one of the many things I have learned is that while your story is not, is never, cannot be my story, your story nonetheless overlaps and strengthens and connects to my story in hundreds of places.
So that takes us to Roxane Gay, who has perhaps written the most powerful body image story ever told. Having made that statement, let me say what I don’t mean:
- Gay, as she is extremely careful to stress, is not the victim of The Worst Trauma. She is precisely aware of her privileges and the ways she is lucky.
- She is not a stand-in for every other fat woman, nor does she want to be; her story is her own, not mine, and not anyone else’s.
- Hunger is not a book about miraculous healing, or a road map for other fat women to find healing.
- The book has no new information, and doesn’t contain much that is surprising to someone who inhabits the world of fat activism.
What makes this book such a punch in the gut is that Hunger ranks among the most nakedly honest books ever written. Whether Gay is reliving the story of her childhood, talking about her family, recounting relationships, or just telling every fat woman’s story of going to the doctor, she never for one second takes the easy way out. She never tells a simple version of the truth: the truth is always complex, thick, interwoven. She also accomplishes the amazing feat of not writing about race, while also not excluding the role of race in body image. Here’s just one example of how open this book is:
During my twenties, my personal life was an unending disaster. I did not meet many people who treated me with any kind of kindness or respect. I was a lightning rod for indifference, disdain, and outright aggression, and I tolerated all of this because I knew I didn’t deserve any better, not after how I had been ruined and not after how I continued to ruin my body.
My friendships, and I use that term loosely, were fleeting and fragile and often painful, with people who generally wanted something from me and were gone as soon as they got that something. I was so lonely I was willing to tolerate these relationships. The faint resemblance of human connection was enough. It had to be enough even though it wasn’t.
Food was the only place of solace. Alone, in my apartment, I could soothe myself with food. Food didn’t judge me or demand anything from me. When I ate, I did not have to be anything but myself. And so I gained a hundred pounds and then another hundred and then another hundred.
In some ways, it feels like the weight just appeared on my body one day. I was a size 8 and then I was a size 16 and then I was a size 28 and then I was a size 42.
In other ways, I was intimately aware of every single pound that accumulated and clung to my body. And everyone around me was also intimately aware.
There is so much more here. We live in a world where physical nakedness is easy currency, although its implications are extremely contextual and complicated, and the physical nakedness of fat women is fraught indeed, as Laurie and I know in detail. But Gay’s determination to be emotionally as naked as a human being can get is far from easy.
Just as everyone’s story is individual and unique, our stories all also overlap on each other. They intertwine and diverge and reconnect. And when they are brilliantly told, they reflect so much more than one person’s story. Without ever taking a moment to speculate on whether or not her truth is related to anyone else’s truth, Gay opens a window on human truth in general; she focuses unrelentingly on her own story, and by doing so models how each of us can see ourselves.
Read the book (if you can stand a graphic description of pre-teen sexual trauma, and an unflinching examination of its results). Read it whether you’re a lifetime body image activist or completely new to the concepts. Rarely will you find a book more worth your time and attention.
Caveat: Lots of people (including me) will respond to this book by wanting to reach out and make a connection with Roxane Gay. If you have that reaction, and you follow through, I’m personally asking you now to make sure that whatever you send or say to her doesn’t ask for anything from her in return: not an acknowledgment of commonality, not a response, not advice, not comfort. She’s given us everything she has in this book, and you can be 100% sure that a great many readers are asking her for more, and every one she has to turn away causes her pain. Don’t be That Reader.