Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist was an important book for me and her Bad Feminist Manifesto is something I read over and over again when I feel I’ve failed as a feminist (when I tie my self-worth to the male gaze, when I make comments on what another woman is wearing, etc.). When my friend lent me her copy of Hunger I expected to feel inspired. I wasn’t. Gay makes that clear for her readers from the get-go that this is not an inspirational text. Her memoir is not about loving your body no matter the size; there are no before-and-after photos of weight loss; there’s no “we can do this!” message about either losing weight or being comfortable in your body. The book is the story of her body–what was done to it, what she did to it–and it is not an easy read, but still a very important one.
Gay wrote about being gang-raped as a child in Bad Feminist and that horrific experience is the crux of this memoir. Experiencing an event that makes you feel weak and not in control make you do whatever you can to gain back that control and to feel like you are in charge of your own body. Gay needed her body to feel strong, impregnable. Gaining weight was supposed to do that. But she also wanted to be invisible. Instead Gay learned that by being a larger women (both in weight and in height) means that others think they have a say about your body. Once again, you are not in control. Others create a narrative about your body and don’t think that you have your own. Instead of being invisible, like she wanted to be, she became more visible. She talks about people always offering diet advice, people taking food out of her cart (seriously, who the hell does that??), and dealing with internet trolls who feel the need to tweet about her supposed “laziness.” She discusses being called “fatphobic” (presumably because she’s vocal about the struggle of being a larger woman and trying to lose weight), while also being called a bad example and promoting obesity. As a public figure, her body is the site of other people’s agendas. She must promote “healthy at any size!” mentality and be proud of her body, but she should simultaneously (according to others) be ashamed for “letting” herself go and thus somehow making what people assume to be a “gluttonous” lifestyle legitimate. As mentioned in her interview with Lindy West, it is as if because she is a fat black woman, Gay must be an activist either for weight loss or fat acceptance. What we see in Hunger is that you can learn to accept the body you have while working to change it. There is a false dichotomy, promoted by both the fat-acceptance movement and by the larger, societal push for thinness, that one cannot love/like/accept one’s body while trying to change it. Gay shows us that you actually can and breaks down that dichotomy. So, maybe she has made herself an activist, but an activist for herself and not for others.
Hunger is more than a memoir; it is a critique of society’s obsession with weight. I wanted to add “especially with those in the public eye,” but I’m willing to bet that the strangers who take food out of Gay’s grocery cart don’t really know who she is. Gay has said, and made clear in the book, that this was very difficult for her to write. I can see why. She gives us a look into her past, her present, and her daily struggles. I wasn’t left feeling inspired or feeling connected, as I did with Bad Feminist, but it’s not meant to do that to the reader. This wasn’t an easy read, but it is a book that people of all sizes should read, because no matter your size there are important critiques about how we all approach weight, food, and others.