on hunger

Affecting and intimate, Roxane Gay’s memoir of her body meditates on the fraught relationship between private trauma and social injustice.

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In understated but moving prose, Gay reflects upon her life as a fat woman living in a misogynistic society that seeks to regiment and shame “unruly” bodies. The six-part book consists of eighty-eight short essays that alternate between autobiography, cultural criticism, and social analysis. Gay drifts from topic to topic, memory to memory, for much of the book, even as each section has a distinct theme. Across all the essays, Gay examines the assumptions behind American attitudes toward fat women through the lens of her personal experience. The memoir’s associative and expansive organization counterpoints Gay’s crystalline prose, as well as her ever-focused concentration on the subject of each essay.

Gay eschews the neat linearity common to weight-loss memoirs. Early on, she states that the story of her body “is not a story of triumph” nor is her book “a weight-loss memoir” that seeks to explain to women how they might “overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.” Whereas authors of weight-loss memoirs tend to build chronological narratives that end with thin bodies and the promise of self-respect, Gay instead adopts a cyclical structure that foregrounds the messiness of her life story. She begins and ends her book by stressing that the story of her body is one of trauma, pain, and hunger, while also making clear that she nevertheless has tried and sometimes succeeded in healing past damage. In honestly recounting her struggles and making herself vulnerable, Gay invites empathy and understanding from a culture that typically vilifies fat women and suppresses their stories.

The second and longest part of the memoir centers on Gay’s weight gain following her gang rape at age twelve by her boyfriend and his friends. The pain of this section is palpable. Gay starts by framing the rape as the end point of the boys’ months-long abuse of her body, the culmination of her gradual loss of self-respect and bodily autonomy. She then describes how, over the course of her adolescence and twenties, she turned to overeating as a way of coping and repelling male desire. The level of restraint and nuance with which Gay approaches this period of her life is astounding. Not only does she confront agonizing memories and lasting feelings of shame and guilt, but she does so with patience and sensitivity.

In the remainder of the book—its last two thirds, more or less—Gay considers how her weight has affected the ways in which others perceive and treat her. She describes in great detail how public spaces, from movie theatres to restaurants, fail to accommodate the needs of fat people. As a fat Black woman living in a society that idealizes white thinness, Gay explains, she is both hyper-visible and invisible, ignored and degraded. She tracks how past abuse has thwarted the success of her relationships with women and made her leery of intimacy with men. As she studies her memories, Gay critiques American culture for having made “the desire for weight loss” a “default feature of womanhood.” She takes on the sexism implicit within shows like The Biggest Loser, and she catalogues the ways in which the fashion industry excludes fat women. Gay’s movement from the social to the personal is seamless, and it draws attention to how weight-loss/-gain always is a public, not private, experience for women.

Hunger is flawless, full of insight and feeling. Gay’s style of writing is so captivating that I finished the 300-page book in two sittings, and had I not had to meet a friend after the first, I probably would have read it cover to cover. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I’m now looking forward to reading all of Gay’s fiction in the upcoming months. Highly recommended.

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