Book Review: Roxane Gay's Hunger
Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body begins with the explanation: “Every body has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger” (6). She goes on to explain that this story isn’t one of “triumph”, it is not a “weight-loss memoir”. She says that “there will be no picture of a thin version...emblazoned across this book’s cover” (6). She says that this is “simply, a true story” (7). And I read this memoir, highlighting most of it, my Kindle heavy with its weight, because this is a story that needs to be heard, and I wish we had more like it.
This summer I have been reading stories, mostly by women, as a way to find answers in my own life. I also want to understand what it is to be a woman in our society, and how I can make that world better for my daughter. When I found out I was having a girl, I was teaching The Great Gatsby. And of course Zelda Fitzgerald’s influential line to her husband, “I hope she'll be a fool—that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” pervades the text through Daisy. And of course it popped in my head when the technician told me I was having a girl. I don’t, of course, hope for Adeline to be a fool, even a beautiful LITTLE one, but that line is almost 100 years old and it persists today. About the littleness of our female culture, Gay says “This is what most girls are taught – that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space.” Certainly we should not take up space!--Not with our bodies, and not with our minds. To be foolish, small, petite, QUIET--that is what little girls are made of.
And yet, Gay reminds us that “it is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth” (84). I have spent the better part of my life equating “thinness with self-worth”, unfortunately. So many--too many--times in my life I have thought, “If I was thin, I would…”. And yet now, the thought that has usurped that refrain for me is “I do not want Amy daughter to grow up wishing she was thin”. It’s exhausting.
But, “Regardless of what you do, your body is the subject of public discourse with family, friends, and strangers alike. Your body is subject to commentary when you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your unacceptable weight” (76). My body has always been the subject of comments. I remember being very little, eight maybe, and putting on my brand new New Kids on the Block nightie, and dancing around joyously, when a relative poked me in the belly and said: “You have a belly!” The shame of having that fat hasn’t left me. And when I look at pictures of me at that time, I see nothing wrong with how I looked. And yet. The awareness that I have an unseemly, ugly, protrusion of flesh has been with me ever since. I am fat? I remember thinking. And later, when I was in my twenties and trying to navigate a new career in new cities and in new places, any time I lost weight (I fluctuate with my weight, and have throughout my life) I’d get: You look great! You are so thin! And it was the knowing that those compliments ONLY came when I lost weight, never when I was just healthily living my life, that was the most detrimental for me. The knowing that I wasn't enough when I was fat, or even just a little fat. I had to be thin.
I think the apex of body comments came when I was pregnant. For someone who has spent the majority of her life trying to hide her body, to be small, to be quiet (my shyness was another source of unwanted comments, because being shy and quiet and introverted is almost as bad as being fat in our world), being pregnant was terrifying. I tried to ignore the comments, or just take it, because that is what we are taught to do when it comes to our bodies: our bodies are public, and hence open to scrutiny. I remember it all: “You must be due soon!” (I was six months pregnant). “Are you having twins?” NO. “Don’t worry, you’ll lose the weight.” The absolute worst moment was when I was shopping for groceries with my parents. I was almost nine months pregnant. I was tired and hot when a man came up beside me, grabbed me in a too-tight side-hug with one hand, while his other hand aggressively rubbed my pregnant belly. He told me how much he loved babies. I froze. And I look back at that moment, when I politely released his grasp, and stepped away, only to listen to him babble on about his love for children until I could politely leave. I still regret how demure and quiet I was. I should have pushed, clawed, and yelled my way out of that unwanted, aggressive touching. But I didn't, because my body is not my own: a woman’s body is the subject of the public. We get comments, hugs, demands, and unrealistic images cast at us all the time.
Roxane Gay’s book, Hunger, is hard to read. Her openness about her body is hard to digest. She says things that made be feel ashamed for how I view fat. I am just as guilty as anyone at the fear I have for FAT. Sometimes I watch the TLC show, My 600 lb. Life that Gay reference. And I watch with that sense of the carnivalesque and grotesquerie that it is intended. I am guilty of that, we all are. Otherwise, why would they make that show? It is hard to talk about these stories of the body and acknowledge that we are wrong.
It is hard to think that our diet-obsessed culture, our thin-obsessed culture isn’t right, because we have stuck to it for so long. My eight year old shame of having a “belly”, is the same shame I have now when I take my one-year-old to the pool, exposing my still-chubby postpartum belly. Gay says: “The way my friends talk about their bodies also leads me to that same conclusion. Every woman I know is on a perpetual diet” (178). And if every woman she knows is on a diet, and every woman I know is on a diet, then where does it stop? When will my daughter come to me worried about her belly? Her thighs? Will she be eight years old, like I was, or will she be told even earlier that she is fat?
There is hope in Gay’s memoir. She shares that “it’s scary...trying to be yourself and hoping yourself is enough. It’s scary believing that you, as you are, could ever be enough” (150). This fear infests our minds. If we were all okay with how we looked, there wouldn’t be a diet industry. And despite the dark moments of Gay’s story, she leaves us with some hope, “I am working toward abandoning the damaging cultural messages that tell me my worth is strictly tied up in my body” (178). This is a powerful statement. This is not an easy feat, but it is one that I will take up, if only to teach my daughter that her body is not tied up in her self-worth.
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These writings are comprised of my creative nonfiction, and books, books, books. This blog is a exploration of the books I read, the people I meet, and my life as a backyard homesteader.