Roxane Gay’s new book—the “most difficult writing experience of my life,” she admits on Page 4—is called Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Those parentheses seem designed to call the ownership of her body into question. They announce the author’s hard journey: After years of feeling alienated and powerless inside her body, Gay will attempt, through her storytelling, to take full possession of it.
Gay, who at one point weighed 577 pounds, speaks of her flesh as “layers of protection I built around myself,” likening her frame to a “fortress” or “cage.” She says that the idea of enclosure in other spaces enchants her. She describes the enthralling process of growing “immersed in the anonymity” of the internet; she loves “the water, the freedom of moving through it, feeling weightless”; she loses herself in food, in its comforting oblivion, and then finds herself submerged in her physical form. This notion of the self as concealed or drowned, in need of recovery, goes back at least to Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” which literalized the poet’s search for her own identity as the underwater exploration of a sunken ship. But for Gay, the preoccupation with being physically surrounded feels especially poignant. It reveals a preteen girl’s craving for wholeness and solace, her innocent wish for an oceanic embrace.
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Hunger’s animating wound is that a group of boys, including one that Gay loved, raped her in the woods when she was 12. In light of this revelation, her desire for womblike security—a kinder envelopment—makes a terrible sort of sense. So does the ritual that Gay says she devised in response to the violation: to eat and eat until “I made myself safer,” erecting “a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared to approach me.” Gay understood “that too much weight was undesirable.” She wanted to appear off-limits, and also to avail herself of food’s easy gratifications, its “orgy” of “pleasure” aimed at “a hunger that could never be satisfied—the hunger to stop hurting.” “I have tried to move on from the trauma that compelled me to create this body,” Gay claims early in the memoir. “I have been silent about my story in a world where people assume they know the why of my body, or any fat body. And now, I am choosing to no longer be silent. I am tracing the story of my body from when I was a carefree young girl who could trust her body and who felt safe in her body, to the moment when that safety was destroyed, to the aftermath that continues even as I try to undo so much of what was done to me.”
Brave cadences like these led Bustle to declare Gay “secretly Wonder Woman” and Hunger “the body-positive journey everyone should read.” That Gay would most likely dispute both her beatification and the characterization of the book as “body-positive” may not trouble her fervid fan base, which includes Lena Dunham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and wide swaths of the liberal internet. Gay, beloved author of the novel An Untamed State, the essay collection Bad Feminist, and the short story assembly Difficult Women, occupies a cultural pedestal she’s both courted and resisted. She possesses a history that demands telling. At times, reading her essays, I’ve longed for her to bring more nuance or rigor to the act of disclosure. But in Hunger, Gay discovers what might be her ideal form and mode: a sustained, vulnerable striptease—revelation’s slow burn. It is in a book like this that her gift for dramatizing the breaking of silence can take priority over what she says.
“The story of my body is not a story of triumph,” Gay writes in the book’s opening pages. Like Bad Feminist, which debunked upfront the notion of Gay as a feminist paradigm, Hunger begins with a declaration of what its author is not: a lithe victor “standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans.” Gay won’t unfold a chirpy, aspirational tale of weight loss. Such an account would not much interest her readers anyway, but Gay has wrung critical mileage from courageously proclaiming she won’t do or be what no one expects her to do or be before. This tendency can make parts of her prose feel slightly dishonest. Reading Bad Feminist, I sometimes squirmed when Gay presented feminists as humorless, pious, and ruthlessly ideological just so that she could imagine a more appealing alternative. But here, there’s a deeper reason Gay might be pulled toward negation and substitution. The impulse to displace—not this, but that—burns at the core of the eating and weight issues she chronicles. The story of a body is always the story of something else besides a body, something more important than a body. “This is a book about my hunger,” Gay asserts, “about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood.”
Hunger registers an intensity of pain that both transcends the number on the scale and feels utterly captive to it. It partakes of the true cliché in which reasonable people with food-related hang-ups torment themselves over their food-related hang-ups (So trivial! So vain!), except that Gay is a size that, she says, really does circumscribe her quality of life—whether because of the fatphobic prejudice she endures or the public spaces she finds it stressful to navigate. “I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do,” she notes, introducing a paradoxical construction that echoes throughout the book. “I do not have an answer to that question, or I do.” “I wish I knew why. Or I do know why.” This is familiar doublethink: The problem is the body, and it is not the body. The problem is the man sneering on the airplane and the tiny restaurant chair that leaves your thighs black and blue. The problem is also the elusive nature of metaphor, the trauma of becoming a self that the body represents. We all have bags into which we throw our dreams, fears, achievements, and losses. For some people, those bags take physical shape.
I know, from attempting to do it, how fraught it can be to write candidly about your own tortured relationship to food and to your body. It’s hard to explain why a slate of concerns so apparently tangential to your identity can expand to strain the seams of your brain. It is especially hard to avoid neat narratives of cause and effect, cartoon villains and fairy-tale endings. In laying bare one’s hunger, one wants to pinpoint a moment, tracing the whole of one’s history to a single point. In Gay’s case, the connections between her rape, her eating habits, and her body seem fertile and complex in ways that don’t always feel fully unpacked. Cause and effect are elided: To what extent did Gay seek consolation in largeness versus in the act of consuming food? Is the story of obesity she wants to tell a story of buyer’s remorse (formidability pursued too hastily) or of collateral damage (self-soothing gone awry)? Did she long to telegraph her pain with an “unruly” body? Disguise it? Punish herself? I found myself wishing that a book-length exploration of the author’s hunger would examine every inch of this terrain, not merely skim it. “I’ve always been a woman of contradiction,” Gay advises, breezing over many of them.
Gay, whose attitude toward her weight is scalded by societal cruelty, views her physical form as an open wound, a symbol of suffering and brokenness. Her large frame is a “ruin” and, evoking Rich, the “wreck of me.” She takes satisfying shots at Western beauty standards. Yet rather than challenge the entire fatphobic notion of her body as a “crime scene,” she wants to shift the “blame” from herself to the boys who raped her. Someone deserves to pay for the infraction she represents.
Over 300 pages of recounting how she eats “until I am sick,” driven by “compulsion” and “self-loathing,” Gay never uses the words eating disorder. She narrates her flirtation with bulimia but concludes that she lacks the discipline of “the too-skinny girls who starve themselves and exercise too much and are gray and gaunt and disappearing in plain sight.” Yet binge-eating is a real illness (and is often the flip side of anorexia: Gay recalls fasting for most of the day before overindulging at dinnertime). Empathetic representations of this disorder in nonfiction are scant. Unfortunately, instead of bringing her compassionate observation to bear on a syndrome that too often goes unacknowledged, Gay presents reams of what feels like her attempts at self-justification. She rationalizes binges as a logical or at least legible response to being raped, a 12-year-old’s naïve solution to the riddle of male aggression: build a wall of flesh.
I don’t want to undersell the parts of the book that plainly and forcefully document the hideous frustrations of moving through the world while fat. Those passages are damning, acerbic, and raw. Memoir often proves the salvation of people who feel ill at ease in their bodies. Gay exists in a first-person tradition that stretches from Marya Hornbacher to Daphne Merkin to Cat Marnell. (It is worth noting the paucity of first-person body-image narratives penned by women of color.) Toward the end of Hunger, she concedes that she is not “abominable.” “I have found my voice,” she says. Perhaps she has realized that the words she’s plucked and polished from her mind represent her more faithfully than her corporal form ever could.
One’s body and one’s writing can feel like twinned concerns—like the shape your thoughts take on the page is analogous to the shape you take in the world. In her memoir’s loveliest moments, Gay seems to transfuse what she relishes about her physical self into her prose. “I have presence,” she observes. “I take up space. I intimidate.” Her best sentences embody this account of her body: They possess majesty and resonance. They are direct and undeniable, a powerful physical manifestation. When she hits a groove, Gay’s voice lilts with wry warmth. Her declarative style swings from grand and loose (when she’s being serious) to mischievously prim and formal (when she’s not). There are multiclause, repetitious lines that uncoil with what I can only describe as the balletic grace of a woman in full possession of her whole body. This is a trope of literature about eating disorders, the attention to the physical presence of words on paper. Or, if not a trope, it is a wistful superstition, as if honing one’s writing to the sharpest point of beauty, cleverness, or truth might compensate for the perceived deficits of that other, eternally lacking vehicle of self.
Hunger by Roxane Gay. Harper.