Review: Hunger, by Roxane Gay

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I expected the reading of Hunger to be difficult because I’ve spent my whole life dealing with weight issues, and their accompanying self-image problems.  I was right.  Within the first few chapters, I’d broken down in tears several times because what she was saying touched painful places within me.  I would nod, and cry, and think “I’m not alone!” and feel somehow stronger because of it.

And then she’d talk about other experiences that I failed to relate to, and I listened from a distance, appreciating her honesty, but not connecting in any meaningful way.  Gay and I come at our shared problems via very different routes.  I have never been raped as she was, but I come from a genetic background of self-medication and severe weight issues.  (My biological grandmother ended her life as a shut-in due to her weight.  A distant ancestor, who was known in his youth as “The Wolf,” became “The Fat” as he grew old.) but we’ve ended up in the same place, and that is the significant, even central fact of both of our lives.

What is universal here is the pain we can suffer at the hands of other people.  Like Gay, I’ve been abused my whole life because of my weight.  I’ve been called names, shoved, spit on, laughed at, punched, blamed for everything that’s wrong in the world, and more.  Unlike Gay, who is still young enough that these things can hurt her, at my age I have ceased to care what anyone else thinks of me.

Most of the time.

And that’s why her story felt so devastating to me, I think.  It should be painful to any human being with an ounce of empathy, even if they’ve never been the object of prejudice.  It’s all well and good for me to tell myself that bullies are sad, fearful people, but that doesn’t always translate, you know?  It’s all well and good to say, I’m past concerns about how I move through this life, but I’m not.  I have to plan ahead for social gatherings, especially now as age and injury have closed down my world even further.

As Gay points out, and I know well, the world is full of people who are anxious to tell you how to fix these problems.  “Just lose weight!” they say.  (Oh my gosh, why didn’t I THINK of that?  How silly of me!)  “Just eat less!”  (Thanks, but I have spent so much time starving myself that there was a time when I could gain weight on a 600 calorie per day diet.  You live on 600 calories for a while and tell me how that feels.)  This is like telling someone with depression to just cheer up, or someone with a broken leg to just walk it off.  If there really was an easy fix… well if there was we might not all be thin because there’d be no real stigma attached to something that could be changed the way we change our clothes.  We might be able to be who we are instead of who we are told we should be.

And that’s one of the most critical issues within Gay’s book, the control that is so often exerted over women and their bodies.  I’ve known for most of my life that fat men don’t come in for half the abuse that fat women do.  But in a world where women’s bodies remain commodities to be traded in, everyone thinks they have something to say about how women look, about the space they take up in this world.  This is at the core of Hunger, and it makes Gay’s story both uglier and more pertinent.  You don’t have to be a fat woman to have a total stranger tell you your body is somehow wrong or bad, you just have to be female, and minding your own damn business.

I hope that readers will understand what it is Gay is saying here, not just about being fat in a world that values only thinness, but about being female in a world that values us as objects, not people.  Hunger isn’t just about Roxane Gay.  It’s not just about being fat.  It’s not just about being different or challenging society’s expectations.  It is about being female in a world where everything you are is public property, and where you are expected to take up as little space as possible.

And now I feel very sad and angry again, and am going to stop writing.  Read this book.  Believe it.

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