CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND EATING DISORDERS.
Roxane Gay’s 2017 memoir Hunger, subtitled A Memoir Of (My) Body, presents itself as an
exploration of Gay’s experiences as a morbidly obese person, but it is in fact so much more than that. In it she deals with all the facets of her identity that come with inhabiting a body,
her body: as a Black woman, as the daughter of Haitian immigrants; as a woman who loves
women and men; as a victim of rape, rather than a survivor.
When a friend lent me this book, she warned me that the subject matter slowed down her
reading. She told me that learning about Gay’s disordered eating, the way she has been
treated as an obese woman, and the life-long effects of her rape meant that my friend
couldn’t bring herself to read more than twenty pages at a time before having to set the book
down. I was therefore prepared for these difficulties, but not for the other, more subtle issues
that surfaced in my reading. I found that although many of the facts of Gay’s life aren’t
relatable to me, many moments within her narrative resonated: her inherent sense of guilt,
which led to her habit of self-sabotaging, especially in relationships. Her inability to speak out
against what she knows to be an injustice. It is these passages that make this memoir
relatably compelling not only to people who have experienced sexual assault and eating
disorders and even ableism, but to all who have felt silenced, overlooked.
Hunger begins with Gay’s gang-rape at the age of twelve, at the hands of a boy she
thought she loved. It then follows a semi-linear narrative up to the present day, tracing her
gradual dependence on food, her family’s attempts to curb her eating, her coming out, and
the eventual practical and medical consequences of her weight. The narrative jumps back
and forth to explore her relationships, and through them her own relationship with her body.
Gay’s narrative is frought with questions of identity. Early on in her book, she makes the bold
move of identifying as a victim rather than a survivor. This is just the first of many of her
struggles with identity. She presents her twelve-year-old self as “a skinny black girl” faced
with a group of white boys. She talks us through her adoption of men’s clothing as a means
to dress her body when it does not fit high street women’s fashion, and her eventual
embrace of her femininity.
The author expresses at length her difficulty to fit into spaces, be
they physical or theoretical. She compares the bodily and emotional discomfort of sitting in
seats designed for people smaller than herself (the constant bruises on her thighs, the
embarrassment of hearing a chair start to crack), to the discomfort of fitting into societal
assumptions of what it is to be obese. Likewise, she struggles to fit herself into cultural
labels. For example, she writes about her coming out as a lesbian to her family in her young
adulthood, yet also mentions numerous relationships, both short- and long-term with men.
Regardless of this contradictory information, she at no point negates her identity as a
Hunger is an incredible piece of writing on a topic that is too little discussed; many of the
memoir’s issues were new to me, yet living in a country where 28.7% of the population is
medically considered obese, I would imagine that the book would resonate differently with a
lot of its other readers.
Words by Lucy Caradog
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