I feel some trepidation as I begin writing this review. I so want to do this book justice. Hunger by Roxane Gay is so powerful and honest and brave, and it’s one of my favorite books so far this year. Roxane Gay pretty much puts her soul out there for everyone to see, the good and the bad, in an attempt to convey to the world what it’s like to live as a very fat woman in a society that abhors, pities, and stigmatizes fat people.
I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation. I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals. I believe that we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types… I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance. I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.
What I know and what I feel are too very different things.
This is not an easy read but neither is it unrelentingly brutal. Gay chronicles the changes in her life, mental state, and body after being gang-raped by a boy she trusted and his friends when she was twelve. She was a “good Catholic girl” and didn’t understand that what happened was not her fault, that she didn’t invite it in some way. She didn’t tell her parents until she was well into adulthood (indeed, until her essay collection Bad Feminist came out.) Instead, she decided that the best way to protect her body and soul from anything like that ever happening again was to eat.
I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode. I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger to stop hurting.
Throughout high school and college and beyond, she kept getting bigger and her mental state kept deteriorating. She even experienced a “lost year” where she moved to Phoenix on a whim, not telling her roommate or her parents where she was going. Her parents, loving and supportive but always trying to “fix her weight problem,” finally hired a PI to find her. She completed college, got her Masters, and slowly built her professional life. But progress in her personal life was painstakingly slow, as she admits to letting people use her and treat her poorly because she felt she didn’t deserve better.
Gay also writes about weight loss “reality” shows like “The Biggest Loser,” how doctors (mis)treat her, and the wonders of the famous cook Ina Garten (“She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.”) She talks about getting tattoos (“I am taking back some part of my skin”) and the stress and indignities of dressing up for, traveling to, and getting around at readings and bookish events. She is charming and insightful and very, very human. I can’t imagine the courage it took to lay her life out there like this, so open and vulnerable.
Any woman, any person, who has ever felt ashamed of their body in some way will feel a kinship to Gay. We may not know her exact struggle but we know the ways in which our bodies let us down, fail to measure up to the ideals in our minds. Gay is, like any of us, a work in progress, and I was left feeling hopeful when I finished reading Hunger. Writing and talking about her pain and her body has helped her. She writes, “I am not the same scared girl that I was. I have let the right ones in. I have found my voice.” I am profoundly grateful that Roxane Gay decided to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I feel like she is helping others find their own voices. This was a moving, compelling, beautiful memoir. Five Stars.