Earlier this summer, Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body received heaps of praise from reputable publications like the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. Reviewers praise Gay for her brutal honesty, her willingness to share her thoughts on her body and the traumatic rape she experienced as a child which influenced her rapid weight gain. While Gay does discuss several important issues in Hunger—particularly the middle chunk of the book where she explains the practical and mental stressors of being fat in America—she also mires her writing in self-loathing.
Gay’s self-loathing feels familiar to anyone with a body. Everyone, even those who fit into the strict confines of conventional beauty standards, feels at odds with their body at some point. Media outlets of all sorts—from old culprits like the fashion industry to promotional materials for local businesses—tell consumers how they should look, what they need to do to fit in. The truth is, a lot of people just don’t. Gay acknowledges this truth, and steeps her prose in an intense, infectious self-hatred. While reading this memoir, I found myself feeling down on my own body. I’m fat, too, and I study how American culture medicalizes the body. This is my wheelhouse, and I normally project self-confidence (or try to). I want everyone to love their body. Yet while reading Gay’s work I started to wonder if maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should hate myself. It’s what my culture is telling me to do, isn’t it?
One particular passage that has stuck with me in the days since finishing this book is one in which Gay discusses her many experiences with dieting. To be clear, this dieting is something beyond eating healthier, drinking more smoothies, or whatever supplement all the CrossFitters are into these days. She’s talking about yo-yo dieting. You know, the kind that fails 95% of the time. The Nutrisystems and the Slimfasts and the liquid diets of the world. You’ve seen the commercials, likely around New Years. You might have even considered buying in. This type of dieting is not only dangerous physically (rapid weight loss and weight gain do bad things to the body), but mentally.
When I was about 12, my grandmother took me to my first Weight Watchers meeting. I was, by far, the youngest person in the group, and I felt out of place amongst the older women huddled in the back of this country Baptist church. They talked about how to cut calories out of foods so that they’d still taste good—Cool Whip between two chocolate graham crackers instead of an ice cream sandwich, for example—and they told stories of how they’d “failed” over the past week. At 12, I didn’t particularly care about these women’s lives, but I did want to lose weight, and I tried very hard to do so. While my friends were eating whatever they wanted, I was measuring out my food carefully and telling myself it was normal to do so. When I meet other fat people who were fat as kids, they tell me similar stories. It’s not hard to talk about now. I’m not ashamed, and I don’t really blame my grandmother, but I have to wonder if being told I was fat in a variety of ways impacted me as an adult, both in terms of my research passions and my quickness to engage in Gay’s own self-hatred.
The point is, Hunger isn’t just Gay’s story. Yes, the details of her body are hers and hers alone, but the feeling behind it feels true to my own experiences, and I suspect the experiences of many others. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the struggles of experiencing a nonormative form of embodiment, and the sharing of experiences is an important step in destigmatizing the fat body. Yet Gay’s sheer hatred of herself and her body never blossoms into any sort of self-awareness or discovery. Instead, she begins and ends hating herself. Gay tells readers up front this is the case, but I still wanted to believe that something different might happen, that Gay might have something more hopeful to impart to her readers.
I’m ultimately torn on Hunger. I don’t want to shame Gay for sharing her true feelings about her experiences and her body, but I can’t deny that her writing runs the risk of alienating her fat audience—who will ultimately end up feeling that they, like Gay, should hate themselves and their bodies. No one should have to feel that way. I understand that Gay’s hatred of her body stems from trauma that she repressed for years. She mentions therapy and working through her issues frequently in her writing, but none of that work seems to be reflected in the way she views herself.
Since we love to rate things according to Goodreads on our podcast, I’ll admit I struggled to rate this book once I finished it. I ended up giving it 3/5 stars because the middle of the book really does get into cultural discussions I think are important—the ethics of The Biggest Loser, air travel, social stigma. However, Gay’s self-hatred completely turned me off.
I don’t entirely know that I’d recommend this book, and I’m curious to know what our readers and listeners think. Make sure to contact us via social media or email to let us know your thoughts on Hunger and the ethics of self-loathing.
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