Roxane Gay‘s latest book, Hunger, opens up with “Every body has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger.” (3). Gay writes of being fat in a world that shames and demeans people for taking up space. And she looks at her body’s history: how did she get where she is? Why does she weigh so much? What happened to create this body? It wasn’t merely eating. It wasn’t just not taking exercise or being weak or lazy. I could not handle some of the physical challenges she’s endured. Hunger is not a self-help book, it’s not a feel-good book, nor is it a change-your-life book. And while it is not any of those things, this book is everything to me. This book is a writer opening up about her past, exposing the very things so many of us don’t talk about, this book made me feel connected to her in a way very few authors do.
Hunger is about Gay’s body, its history, and its present state.
“Something terrible happened, and I wish I could leave it at that because as a writer who is also a woman, I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me. I don’t want my personality to be consumed in that way. I don’t want my work to be consumed or defined by this terrible thing.
At the same time, I don’t want to be silent. I can’t be silent. I don’t want to pretend nothing terrible has ever happened to me. I don’t want to carry all the secret I carried, alone, for too many years. I can’t do these things anymore.” (Gay, 38)
In junior high, Gay was raped by her boyfriend and his friends. She was then slut-shamed at school. She of course knows the name of her teenage boyfriend. But his friends? She does not know their names. She does not know what they look like, but she knows their smell. And she knows the male gaze. From a very young age she suffered and learned what it meant to be visible to males. And in what she calls “in the after” she so very much wanted to be invisible. And so she ate. She fed on food her mother would not approve of. She ate too much. She ate unhealthy. And she grew. And she gained weight. And then, she was ignored. Invisible. (to the male gaze.) Her goal achieved.
To me, this trajectory makes sense. I took a different train, but our journeys and our destinations were the same. I too was sexually assaulted at a young age, and I quickly feared any attention, from any male, at any age. When I was still in grammar school, I saw my first punks and goths. They were so beautiful and different and kind of scary. And I thought, yes, that’s what I want to look like. Because I knew I didn’t want people to think I was pretty. When you’re attractive, you attract looks. And with looking comes touching. And with touching comes loss of control, confusion, and humiliation. I developed early at a young age, had hips and breasts way too young, I suffered creepy older guys looking at me if I wore a skirt or shorts. And I didn’t want them looking at me, or touching me*, so I searched out big clothes. I bought extra large shirts, t-shirts so big they almost hit my knees. And skirts that went to the ground. Victorian goth is best for keeping everything covered up. Layers upon layers, sheer long sleeves under lace shells under velvet vests under a velvet trench coat or cape. With ankle-length skirts and tights and boots. All this, to hide myself from the wrong kind of attention. All this, hiding instead of talking about what happened and how it made me feel.
Gay does not want to be summed up by what happened to her in the past. She does not want her past to be considered now. And yet, who we are is a result of what happened to us. She admits in chapter five so succinctly: “There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.” (Gay, 14). Currently, her present, is talking about this horrific assault, over and over, and what it did to her, and how it still affects her. She can’t get away from this gang rape. It’s there, on her body, it’s there, in her mind, and it’s there presently, as she continues to talk about it on book tour, after having written a 300 page book about it. What happened to me is still with me everyday. I try not to think about it, but it’s there, in the background, when I’m unsure of a situation, when I feel someone looking at me, when someone walks too close to me.
“They knew nothing of my determination to keep making my body into what I needed it to be—a safe harbor rather than a small, weak vessel that betrayed me.” (Gay, 63) These feelings run through Hunger, fear runs through Roxane Gay. She hid her rape from her family for so very long so of course they never knew why she had gained so much weight. This hiding of what happened, of what hurt was done to us and our bodies, is something that we’ve become adept at. Women end up saying hello to their attackers, women acknowledge their rapists at parties, women end up hugging the person that they detest the most because they don’t want anyone else to know what happened to them. To reveal a rapist, you must reveal a rape. You must expose yourself to that dialogue over and over. By explaining what happened, you are acknowledging a relationship (however criminal and one-sided) with that person to anyone who hears your story. You open yourself up to conversations, accusations, defense, over and over. And sometimes, we’re just so tired that we don’t have the energy.
“When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be.” (Gay, 120) People believe they know how you got somewhere: how you look or act a certain way. And so they offer unsolicited advice and opinions. Sometimes well-meaning, but mostly cruel and judgmental. Whether it’s telling her to eat less and take more exercise or telling me I’d be so much prettier if… I can’t begin to understand the struggles Gay has suffered due to her weight, but I can appreciate her giving voice to them. I know why she gained weight, because I too wanted to hide. We read to know other stories. We read to understand. When we understand other stories, we have empathy. And hopefully with empathy comes kindness.
*because what little I knew, the only sexual experience that I had, which was assault, led me to believe that if someone looked at you and was curious, they would take you away and touch you.
Roxane Gay, Hunger, 2017. Harper Collins, New York.