Tag Archives: Body image

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

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Debbie says:

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 exclusHere’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.

Embodying Decolonization: Learning to Love Your Marginalized Body

 

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Debbie says:

Alicia Soller’s excellent personal essay at Everyday Feminism is both very familiar and somehow fresh. Soller’s story echoes so many thousands of stories of internalized racialized self-hatred, each one worth reading and thinking about. What struck me about Soller’s version, from the lens of Body Impolitic, is how very embodied it is.

Soller lays out clearly the four ways in which growing up Filipinx-American in a predominantly white community in Florida damaged her self-esteem and ability to appreciate herself.

  1.  I was conditioned to believe I was different, and therefore inferior.

She illustrates this one mostly with talk of food, and embarrassment over traditional dishes in school lunches. As I’m currently almost done with Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene (which I will review here soon), this topic is very close to my heart. Twitty never fails to remind us of the connection between food and embodiment: we are, in very real senses, what we eat. Thus, when Soller feels forced to ask her mother to stop packing traditional Filipino foods in lunches (though she loves the food), she is literally rejecting her own body’s pleasure.

2. I had poor body image.

Enough said, but let’s hear some of her own words:

I had a difficult time seeing the beauty in my own features because I was taught to believe that they weren’t desirable. For much of my life, I felt that I looked undesirable and wished to look more like the white women I revered.

Even the “pretty Asian girls” I went to school with sported a more eurocentric aesthetic: they dyed their hair light, contoured their noses, and wore only American or European brands.   

I have a wide, round nose with a flat bridge, a feature that many of my Filipinx family members also share.

Of course, any media push to make her want to look different was echoed  by members of her family and nastily reinforced by her schoolmates. To underscore how serious this was, she says:

Self-consciousness doesn’t quite capture the entirety of how I felt about my physical features: I felt shame and embarrassment, which often led to low self-esteem and depression.

3. I felt ashamed of being Filipinx American.

In this less embodied, and important, section Soller talks about her own family’s reinforcement of that shame, which again reinforces the body shame.

4.  I felt conflict from my identity and questioned whether I was “enough.”

I grew to feel conflicted about Filipinx culture because of its heavy influences of colonial forces. What constitutes as ‘authentic’ Filipinx culture when so much of it is deeply rooted in colonialism?

I felt a lack of belonging when I so badly yearned some semblance of it.

Being disconnected from our identities and our cultures is, again, a kind of disembodiment, an inability to live in the container that we are born into, the container that is who we are.

Soller goes on to talk about how to fight colonial mentality, again partially by directly embodied choices:

One way I’ve done this is by literally loving the skin that I’m in. Over recent years I’ve been following Filipinx American influencers on social media. Exposing myself to Filipinx American voices that were unjustly missing from my childhood has allowed me to embrace the beauty in my features that I once stubbornly denied.

She doesn’t use the phrase “making the invisible visible,” but that’s one way to frame her decolonization process: making sure that she surrounds herself with images of (and realities of) beauty and power that look like her, that reaffirm who she is.

This work, of which Laurie and I are one tiny part, feels unending, and often impossible. But every essay like Soller’s, and every person like Soller who doesn’t take the time or find the platform to write an essay, reminds me of why it is important … and how it is improving people’s lives. That’s why I chose to illustrate this post with a beautiful portrait of a Edna, a Filipinx-American, from Women En Large.