I’d already read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay when I saw her on The Daily Show talking about her newest book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017). The interview was great, and I was immediately interested in the book. There was a long wait list at the library, but I picked it up as soon as I could.
“These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth.” (2)
Roxane Gay has been struggling with her weight since she was gang raped at twelve years old. Not understanding what had happened to her and afraid to tell her parents, she dealt with her feelings and made herself feel safer by eating. “Those boys treated me like nothing so I became nothing.” (11) It’s a heartbreaking story that I had first read in Bad Feminist. At her heaviest, Gay weighed 577 pounds at six feet, three inches in height. She declares that this book was incredibly difficult for her to write, and not like other books about diets, which often end with triumph, however temporary, over the body.
Gay discusses what led to her overeating, and, especially, what it’s like to live in such a large body. “The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.” (62) She mentions the people literally taking food out of her shopping cart at the grocery store, not being able to get up on stage at an event, and the many humiliations of flying. In addition, she describes various attempts to lose weight over the years. If she begins to get successful, she doesn’t recognize herself and gets scared. She started eating after the rape to make herself bigger and safer. She does not feel safe in a smaller body. It’s a tragic tale. I can only imagine what she’s lived through. And it’s even sadder that people see her weight and ignorantly judge her without knowing or caring what she’s gone through, her intelligence, or anything else about her. “I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.” (7)
Gay also discusses some of the ridiculous, and often unhealthy, aspects surrounding weight loss and the fallacy that losing weight will make you happier. Her discussion of The Biggest Loser was particularly interesting.
However, I still disagreed with her on some points. Gay mentions that people didn’t like their skin pressed against hers on flights, like they didn’t enjoy touching fat skin. I do have a problem with this. I don’t like touching any stranger’s skin, it doesn’t matter what their size is. On a flight to Hawaii from Denver, there was a very overweight man in the middle seat. He was taking over at least one third of the seat on either side of him. Fortunately, I was on the aisle and could hang off the edge of my seat. The woman seated at the window was smashed pretty tight in there. That woman was also obnoxious and rude and got out of her seat and complained loudly to the flight attendant about him taking up her seat. The flight attendant placated her with free booze, but it was uncomfortable for everyone. The guy sat there the entire flight. He did not move. He did not eat or drink. I felt horrible for him and doubted that he could afford a first class seat or two economy seats, which is really what he needed. At the same time, plane flights are uncomfortable enough without losing what little space you’ve paid for. I don’t want to give up half of my seat to a stranger.
In addition, I remember Gay sighing in pity over her trainer who liked to eat chicken breasts and mustard because he could never really enjoy food. You can be a healthy eater and enjoy food. I love healthy food and I feel good when I eat it. She does not feel the same way, but it’s disingenuous to compare his eating habits with hers. Her eating habits have made it so that she cannot live any kind of normal life. It really is an addiction, a powerful one brought on by incredible trauma and reinforced for over thirty years. Obviously, it’s possible to have eating disorders go the other way–anorexia, etc., but it does not sound like the trainer was in this position.
I also somewhat disagreed with Gay when she complained that doctors would always harass her about her weight. On the one hand, they are doctors. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they ignored the fact of her weight and what it means for her quality of life. On the other hand, at this point, the weight gain sounds like it is a mental and emotional issue, something many doctors are notoriously bad at dealing with. Some random urgent care doctor telling Gay that she’s overweight, something she clearly already knows, isn’t going to help anything.
Finally, this is difficult for me to explain, especially considering how much personal detail Gay delves into in this book. However, I often felt that Gay was deliberately keeping out details, which made her life less understandable. She would often vaguely describe a love interest or relationship, but I had no real understanding of what happened or how it affected her. I sensed that there was a lot beneath the surface that she either did not want to face or did not want to tell the world. That’s fair, and I am not in a place to demand that she tell me the sordid details of her life. However, I sometimes felt that she was crafting an image of herself rather than really delving into the realities of her life.
I’ve found both books I’ve read by Gay so far to be both memorable and challenging. I love her writing and enjoy her perspective, but I’m always left with something that I want to push back against.
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