I just finished Roxane Gay’s searingly honest memoir, Hunger, about her battle with her “unruly body and unruly appetites.”
Gay is a literature professor, a respected novelist, essayist and a sought-after cultural commentator. She is also a very large woman. She stands six foot three inches tall and at her heaviest she weighed 577 pounds. She is still about 430 pounds. She is also black and heavily tattooed. A striking presence to be sure.
I read her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, a couple of years ago and in it she wrote for the first time about having been gang raped at the age of twelve. She began eating compulsively after that to deliberately make herself unattractive, as a coping mechanism. “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe,” she says.
“People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions,” she writes.”They think they know the why of my body. They do not.”
Gay wishes that she could be smaller, but for various reasons it hasn’t happened. Hers is not another voice in the “fat acceptance” movement. She does not accept or embrace her “super morbid obesity” – she thinks of her body as a “cage” that she is imprisoned in. She enumerates all of the indignities someone of her size faces – having to buy two airline seats, for example, struggling to find clothes that fit her, worrying about chairs in restaurants and not being able to go to the theatre because she can’t fit in the seats.
Her size has also affected her relationships with family, friends and lovers (of both sexes, she’s openly bisexual) who are constantly trying to fix her “problem.”
Her parents in particular, wealthy Haitian immigrants and strict Catholics, seem to be distant figures more willing to help with advice than emotional understanding. On the other hand, Gay herself does not seem open to communicating with her parents; they first learned about her childhood rape from reading a review of Bad Feminist in Time magazine.
So today she feels trapped by a strategy that she has, if you’ll pardon the expression, outgrown. “Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me.”
Hers is an open, honest and very often sad tale about judgement, survival and social pressure to conform.