HUNGER, by Roxane Gay, is a book that fascinated me. It’s a memoir of Gay’s life, up until the present day, in which she describes the trauma that at age 12 shaped her. As she looks through her life, she notes all the different places in which her trauma manifested, and we are invited to see how a single day in the life of a girl can ripple through everything. Gay explains that she obsessively and compulsively eats, in part, to shield her body from the world. Her own disgust with her fat body, combined with societal disregard and distaste, imbue the novel. It’s not an easy read.
Any person who knows Gay’s work wouldn’t be surprised by either of these two revelations: they are both discussed in Bad Feminist too. And I think that was a striking part of this book, for me; it felt commissioned. I can’t say that someone pitched at Gay for her to write this book, but I do know that as someone who blogs and tweets a lot about the pains of being fat in America, it would make sense for a publishing house to commission this book from Gay. I noticed this also in the lack of editing in this book. Hunger could have been at least 100 pages shorter without losing any of its weight, importance or emotional honesty.
It also wasn’t a satisfying book. I think memoirs are hard, and as a genre they are not something I have grappled with, but this book left me with the simple question of “why?” Why had Gay decided to write this book? She described painful and complicated emotional journeys, and then interrupted them with small short episodes about her life. These didn’t hang together well, though, and often lacked introspection. I felt like I was reading, over and over again, the idea that “being an adult is hard,” or that “being healthy is hard,” to which I agree! But also…that was it. There were no pieces of wisdom, and no larger moral lessons– it was just a book about how life is hard. To which my answer is, of course, I feel you, but also: why did you write a book about it? Why did I read a book about it?
In Hunger, Gay talks a lot about how existing in a fat body is hard because society rejects it. The pinnacle of beauty is thinness, and fatness is read as a moral failing. People feel implicated in fatness, she explains. This is valid. In order to exist as a happy fat person, then, one could posit, one needs to accept ones own body. Gay never moved away from hatred for herseld though, which I think surprised me, because I thought that as a queer person, she would have practice in accepting both her non-normative existance, and existing with other people’s disdain for it. Gay never seemed to have a moment in this book in which she discussed trying to accept herself.
And part of that, I think, is that Gay talks a lot about how her body is too unruly for a lot of spaces in public life. Seats are too small for her, and walking even a little bit makes her sweaty and breathless, and stepping up a space can’t be accessible to her. All of these visible boundaries punishing unruly bodies must be a constant grating reminder of her own non-normative existence. But I think I just expected there to come a moment of self-love — so many queer fat people celebrate their bodies, and I was just repeatedly struck how that never happened. Gay cautions in her intro that this book isn’t a bout a triumph of weightloss, and so I think I expected this book to be about the triumph of accepting her own body, but it wasn’t that either.
One of the parts of Gay’s book that I thought was particularly interesting was her take on Oprah. Oprah famously lost a lot of weight, and then brought large bags of lard onto the stage of her show, doing almost public penance for her fatness. Gay discussed this episode, but then continued to point out that Oprah recently bought a controlling share of Weight Watchers. In her ads she explains to viewers that now she can live her best life by eating whatever she wants! (The famous “I love bread” gif comes from these ad). This, Gay thought was sad: how could a woman, worth so much money, still care so much about the diet industry and what other people thought about her? I just quickly wanted to give Gay a quick counterpoint — the diet industry makes a lot of money. It has been a source of riches since the 14th century. Western civilization loves diet culture, and Gastropod does an amazing episode about it that we highly recommend. But once you listen to that episode, you realise something amazing: diet culture is worth a lot of money. What if, instead of bowing to societal demands, Oprah was simply monetizing societal demands? I felt that it was a pretty reductive argument on Gay’s part to consider Oprah as a victim of the industry, when I think it is just as easy to read her as a winner.
In essence, I felt that this book posited “being a healthy adult is hard,” and left that there, as if it was somehow a revolutionary or different statement. Entire chapters are devoted to this premise; she talks about how hard it is to work out, how hard it is to eat healthily, and how hard it is to cook. Yes! These are all true! Most young adults, especially those who suffer from mental illness and trauma, would agree! And here I grew frustrated: Gay would just end her chapters. She would often finish anecdotes of how exercising was hard with a verbal “so there,” as if that proved her point. It was hard, she couldn’t do it, that was that. Sometimes the chapters were: it was hard, she didn’t it for a short time, so there. But ultimately, there was this large, loud “full stop”.
Despite the fact that it often felt like, although Gay was the one writing this book, she was also the one who constantly wanted to close the conversation around her own weight and behaviors, she did end it on a positive note. The final part of the book describes an incident when Gay fractured her ankle. I have been a fan of Gay’s since 2014 (when she started the Toast vertical The Butter), and as a result I remember her talking about her ankle fracture in real time. I thought it was fascinating that she talked about this moment when her body betrayed her in a small and arbitrary way, and how she needed that to reminded her that she and her body had a responsibility not only towards herself, but to the people that loved her. I loved the images she evoked, and I thought it was the perfect note to end the book on. It wasn’t an uplifting story about success, but it also wasn’t a moment of sadness — it was a moment in which Gay realized the abstract love that she had perceived as single pieces were suddenly all counted up as one.
I think, ultimately, I was frustrated with Gay’s book because I expected so much more of her. I am a big fan of her writing, saw her speak once and was enamored, and generally love her analysis. I just don’t think Gay’s short and decisive moments of clarity lend themselves to a memoir. Throughout the book, she had good points — I liked how she separated the ideas of “poor” and “broke,” for example. She explains that even at her worst she was just “broke,” because her parents have money, and if she had needed it, she always has a place to which to come back. Her discussion of extreme and performative diet culture (“The Big Loser” was her example) was also good. Ultimately, though, I just wanted someone to challenge Gay. Or perhaps for Gay just to get some therapy? Who knows.
All in all, I simply found this book oddly juvenile, and very incomplete.