Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (#20BooksofSummer book 12)

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.22813605

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.

 

Body of Truth by Harriet Brown

One of my reading goals for next year is to read books that feature body-positive themes.  I don’t know about you, but as I approach my fortieth year, I’m exhausted by battling my body.  I’m exhausted by viewing foods as “good” and “bad” and feeling either virtuous or full of self-loathing depending on which I eat.  What I seek is clarity on what really matters, peace with myself, and the pursuit of health even if it doesn’t result in weight loss.  I want a healthy relationship with food and I want to move my body in ways I enjoy. Sounds simple when you read it yet (for me) it’s actually anything but.

519rtaeemkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_So I began my reading resolution a bit early with Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It. It’s a slim book, just 274 pages, including 60+ pages of notes and index.  You can tell that she’s done her research.  But you can also feel how deeply personal this issue is for her, both as a woman and as a mother of a daughter who battled anorexia.

A sixth-grade “wellness” class kicked off both her anxiety about eating and her interest in health.  Though her weight was normal, she started to worry about being fat.  She cut out desserts, telling us she’d learned that sugar was unhealthy.  Over the next six months or so, her restricting took on a life of its own, and eventually turned into full-blown anorexia that nearly killed her.

What I really liked about this book was the way Brown made me rethink my assumptions about weight and health.  I’d already thought that being overweight does not automatically equate to poor health, because people can still be active and have healthy blood tests yet still carry extra weight. Conversely, some people are naturally thin but don’t exercise at all; they may have chronic health problems too.  The first chapter is devoted to chipping away at the four most common myths (or lies, as she puts it) about weight and health:  1) That we’re all getting fatter and fatter; 2) Obesity can take at least a decade off your life; 3) Being fat causes heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses; and 4) Dieting makes us thinner and healthier.  The last one gets its own full chapter.

Dieting can make people thinner for a while – six months, a year or two, maybe three.  Which, coincidentally, is about how long most studies follow dieters, and how they claim success.  In reality, your change of maintaining significant weight loss for five years or more is about the same as your chance of surviving metastic lung cancer: 5 percent.  …only 3 to 5 percent of dieters who lose a significant amount of weight keep it off.

You’d never know any of this from reading the weight loss research, or talking with most researchers in the field.  In fact, when I asked the University of Alabama’s David Allison about dieting research, he insisted that studies do show success after five years, ‘just less than what we’d push for.’  I told him I was aware of only one research project that followed dieters for five years or more, the Look AHEAD project, a ten-year study of people with type 2 diabetes.  I asked Allison to point me toward other studies that followed dieters for five years or more, regardless of their findings.  He couldn’t come up with any.  

Brown wants her reader to question what they think they “know” about weight and health.  Who controls the purse strings for weight loss drug research?  Do doctors feel and exhibit obesity bias towards their patients?  Does yo-yo dieting eventually destroy a person’s metabolism?  Is prodding kids and adults into weight loss by any method necessary, including shaming, worth the emotional and physical risks involved?  These are some of the issues Brown addresses.  Besides including her own life long experience being 50-ish pounds “overweight” and yo-yo dieting over the years, and her daughter’s experience, she also includes interviews from people who have struggled with unhealthy behaviors and attitudes about weight, both their own and those of others around them.

The big takeaway for me from this book is the pursuit of health at any size.  “Normal” eating includes a range of foods and behaviors, and is much more flexible than most of us allow for ourselves.  We should all be giving ourselves permission to enjoy food, to seek a balanced diet, to engage in fun ways to move our bodies.  There is a lot of money to be made by the diet, pharmaceutical, and medical industries, not to mention women’s magazines, in keeping people dieting and hating themselves.  Brown wants us to be able to think critically about weight and health, not blindly swallow all that the diet and medical industries tell us.  As she points out, there is still that science simply doesn’t know about weight loss and the human body (like how to keep us thin, for one.)  It is a highly individual process.

I consider this a good, solid book to put in your body-positive arsenal.  There are so many passages I jotted down from this book that I’d love to share with you, but in the interest of brevity I’ll end with one of my favorites:

We’d do better for ourselves and our children if, instead of pushing diets and surgeries and medications, we looked at real-world strategies for eating more fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, dancing and playing sports, and other joyful physical activities.  And especially if we supported those things for everyone, no matter what they weighed.

Gorge:My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson Whitely

“…what kind of mother would do something as dangerous as climbing a mountain at three hundred pounds?  I decided to write my will before I left, and I also made Ana a construction-paper book bound with pipe cleaners.  Worst-case scenario, I thought it would be something to remember me by.  I called it ‘Mommy on the Mountain.’

Mommy is traveling across the globe to conquer a mountain called kilimanjaro.

The first few days will be a breeze as she walks by trees filled with monkeys.

Soon enough, she’ll be above the clouds, blowing you kisses to where you are now.

She will start one last hike under the stars.  All through the night.  One step at a time, she’ll be alright.

Then she’ll reach the top, such a proud sight, after trying with all her might.

A few more days and she’ll head home, happy to be with her family who she loved all along.”

I think I discovered Kara Richardson Whitely’s memoir Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds through author Cheryl Strayed Facebook page.  Apparently Kara was once her student and has since become a friend.  She gave the book a very nice review and I was instantly interested.  It hit two of my bookish buttons: travel-memoirs and food/weight/body image memoirs.51XD10iV3iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I plowed through this book last week on my vacation, which is something of a feat for me, and a testament to the engaging and propulsive quality of Whitely’s writing.  When my son took a short afternoon nap, or before bed, I would eagerly return to her compelling story.

It turns out that Whitely had written another book, a self-published one, called Fat Woman on the Mountain.  It was published in 2010 and chronicles her first journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro a dormant volcano in Tanzania that rises more than 19,000 feet above sea level.  In the course of training for and completing the climb, Whitely lost 120 pounds.  I haven’t read that book, but Whitely touches on it and explores her first two attempts at climbing Kilimanjaro.  The first one was successful, the second one was not.  Early on we learn that she attributes her failure to reach the summit the second time in part to a binge the night before she set out on the trek.  Before the second attempt, Whitely had a daughter named Anna, and regained 70 pounds of her previous weight loss.  She takes this third trip to Kilimanjaro in part to make her young daughter proud of her, no matter what she weighs.

Whitely alternates sections describing her trek up the mountain with sections detailing the traumatic events in her past that still haunt her and push her to binge.  Her parents’ stormy relationship, their divorce, and the subsequent physical and emotional absence of her father set the stage for a disordered relationship with food.  Add to that an incidence of sexual molestation by her brother’s friend, and years of the diet/binge cycle.  Whitely is so brave and so raw with her emotions and her past.  I read in an interview on The Rumpus that she initially approached writing Gorge as a travel memoir, but that food, weight, and her past kept coming up.  Her editor encouraged her to reveal more about her emotional struggles.  I know as a reader that her decision to open up made this book so much more compelling for me than a straight-up travel narrative would have been.

That said, the parts of the book dedicated to her climb are fascinating.  I knew nothing previously about Mt. Kilimanjaro, not one blessed thing.  I was interested in her description of the different climates and topographies climbers pass through from the base to the summit.  I was interested in her complicated relationship with her fellow climbers, and with the porters and guides leading them.  She stands out among the hikers, obviously, and her (understandable) discomfort at being stared at and talked about is palpable.  I truly admire anyone of any size for attempting such an arduous, physically and mentally draining trek, much less a woman of 300 pounds.

I gave this book four stars on Goodreads.  As someone who has struggled and continues to struggle with emotional eating and bingeing, I felt connected to this memoir on a personal level.  I was enthralled by the mechanics of the slow ascent towards the top of the mountain.  Whitely ends the book with a clearer sense of who she is and what she’s made of, but there are no easy solutions or dramatic weight loss for her.  What is left is a portrait of a real woman, a brave woman, facing her past and working towards a better future.