A few weeks ago, I came across a cartoon that enraged me:
Two anthropomorphic avocado halves are in a fight. One of them is crying and the other is chasing after it, apologetically pleading via speech bubble "I said you're the good kind of fat!" Because the fat in avocados is monounsaturated. Because the fat in human bodies is a stigma, or a punchline, or an asset, depending on whether it pleases or repulses the eye of the beholder.
The cartoon itself is not malicious, but the meaning is all too real: If your body is "the bad kind," others will tell you, even if – like that meddling avocado, its confused little grimace the proverbial facial gesture of condescending ungraciousness – they haven't been asked.
In Roxane Gay's new memoir, Hunger, these intrusions happen every day, verbally or otherwise. Gay tells the story of giving a reading at the Housing Works bookstore in New York. The stage was a metre off the ground. Gay and the other authors were expected to climb up, despite the sheer inaccessibility of the expectation. She struggled. "I was filled with self-loathing of an intense degree for the next several days," she writes. "Sometimes I have a flashback to the humiliation of that evening and I shudder." She writes of going to the doctor only if she really has to in order to spare herself the shaming; of the indignities involved in air travel; of the unsolicited evaluations from strangers. To read these experiences consolidated in one place, written so clear-heartedly, is to understand the exhaustion of living in a body under surveillance.
"Mine is not a success story," Gay writes early on, squashing any preconceived assumptions that this memoir is about weight loss, as so many body stories are. A bestselling author and contributing writer at The New York Times, Gay calls the process of finishing Hunger the most difficult writing endeavour of her life: "I was certain the words would come easily, the way they usually do. And what could be easier to write about than the body I have lived in for more than forty years? But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body; I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained, and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I've been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I've cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy."
Gay makes it clear that this memoir is not about the experience of being moderately heavy. "This is a book about living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight," she says. Too often, body-acceptance discourse is driven by celebrities who aren't actually overweight. (Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Khloe Kardashian have all cashed in on chubby-girl personas, despite not being plus-size.) Gay may not consider her story a "success," but claiming the space in which to write fiercely about her body, when so few narratives in pop culture's body-acceptance arena are genuine – earned – is powerful. There are truths in this book many will be hearing for the first time. There are truths in this book many others will know dearly.
Hunger is perhaps one of the most honest texts ever published by a woman in a body of size. Silent protests of dignity between herself and others, the Housing Works story as one example, are throughout. But it is Gay's internal melee that truly digs into the complicated matter of not just having a body (that's labyrinthine enough), but having a body that others see as a spectacle despite the inhabitant making no such claim.
"I am never allowed to forget the realities of my body, how my body offends the sensibilities of others, how my body dares to take up too much space and how I dare to be confident, how I dare to use my voice, how I dare to believe in the value of my voice both in spite of and because of my body," she writes. (Indeed, days ago, Australian website Mamamia apologized for the hideously thoughtless way Gay's body was described in a blurb introducing a podcast on which she appeared.)
Despite being inundated with recherché body narratives – protein powders, detox teas, the sect of CrossFit, the sect of thin people eating ice cream on Instagram, within the consciousness at large there exists this false idea that bodies are whatever they are – you're either healthy and empowered or you're not. But a body is psychological. A body that does not appeal to the gaze of any given adjudicator is just as likely to be intentional, for any number of reasons.
Hunger is as much a memoir of Gay's body as it is a memoir of the aftermath of sexual assault. At 12, Gay was raped by multiple schoolmates. It was a scenario I'll describe as sickening and monstrous. She now categorizes her life in two parts: the before, and the after. Gay writes that she had a healthy attitude toward food before she turned to it as a coping mechanism. This strategy has defined the after. Unaware of the rape, and meaning well, Gay's parents sent her to a fitness camp in the Berkshires of Massachusetts when she was in high school. "They knew nothing of my determination to keep making my body into what I needed it to be – a safe harbour rather than a small, weak vessel that betrayed me," Gay writes. (The book's early pages detail Gay and her father at an orientation session for gastric bypass surgery, which Gay ultimately decides against.)
As a person who has moved through various sizes over the years, I found myself pondering who, if anyone, Gay had in mind when she wrote: Is this book for others of size who might take solace in the relief of familiarity, or is it for lifelong thin people who've never thought twice about the fortune and ease their bodies afford them? The essence of this book goes much deeper than condemning body shaming; it shines a light on the parts of the mind that encourage cruelty, and furthermore, what kind of mental apparatus permits one person to think of another as lesser, based on what their body looks like. There are layers here. If you get it, you get it.
"I always wonder what healing really looks like – in body, in spirit. I'm attracted to the idea that the mind, the soul, can heal as neatly as bones," Gay writes. "That if they are properly set for a given period of time, they will regain their original strength. Healing is not that simple. It never is."
"I'm learning to make a home for myself based on what I want and need, in my heart of hearts. I've decided that I will not allow my body to dictate my existence, at least, not entirely. I will not hide from the world."
Our bodies are our stories. With Hunger, Gay takes the parts she didn't get to write and turns them into something vigorous.
Carly Lewis is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail.