To be a large person in America is like being the condemned figure of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” The sentence of humiliation is embroidered on the body in trapunto: FAT.
In her harrowing new memoir “Hunger,” fiction writer and cultural critic Roxane Gay discloses how she began eating compulsively and gaining weight after being gang-raped at age 12. (This linkage will not shock anyone who has worked or spent time with women with eating disorders.) “Even at that young age, I understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to men, to be beneath their contempt, and I already knew too much about their contempt,” she writes.
Inadvertently or otherwise, many novels and memoirs glamorize alcohol and drug abuse even while describing their destructive outcomes. That doesn’t happen with obesity. In fact, few contemporary writers I’ve read display much empathy for large people. (Jami Attenberg’s novel “The Middlesteins” is a recent, welcome exception.)
Big people – or the morbidly obese, should you prefer doctor’s office lingo – are routinely mocked and lectured, even by strangers, often in language of moral failure. Feeling shame for being fat leads to eating as temporary relief for feeling that shame, leading to more shame. That is a closed feedback loop.
Gay, who is 6 foot 3 inches tall, reveals that she has weighed as much as 577 pounds, though she weighs significantly less than that now. Simply disclosing that number is remarkably brave. As a writer and critic, Gay is used to creating and questioning narratives; she understands that for an overweight person “your body is subject to commentary when you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your unacceptable weight.”
“Hunger” is also a coming-of-age story, often a painful one, about a shy young woman coping with the aftershocks of her violation, grappling with her compulsive eating and its consequences, and discovering her voice as a writer. As a Haitian-American, she comes from a culture that prizes thinness, making her size a family issue.
In pointed detail, she describes attending with her father an intake seminar for possible gastric bypass surgery, an experience that shook both of them. (Her account won’t show up in the surgeon’s press kit anytime soon!)
I do not come to Gay’s book with a pretense of clinical detachment. I have weighed as much as 372 pounds myself, baffling my own well-meaning parents. I can’t claim to have shared all of Gay’s experiences, but like her, I have often thought, “I am the fattest person at this event.” Like her, I have eyed those classroom chairs with built-in desk arms with fear and shame, doubting my ability to fit into them. As someone who has also been mocked by random strangers shouting from passing cars, I admire her bravery while also fearing for the hits she will take.
“Hunger” is also a brave book because it fits no preconceived template. “This is not a weight-loss memoir,” she writes early on. The arc of Gay’s story is toward greater physical and emotional health, but it is a slow one, not the crisis-and-conversion tale of a stereotypical recovery memoir. She respects much about the fat acceptance movement, but admits her desire to lose more weight.
Naturally she critiques America’s celebrity-infused thindustrial complex: “Gossip magazines keep us constantly abreast of what’s happening to the bodies of famous women, the better to keep the rest of us in line.” She drips acid on “The Biggest Loser” for its “constant shaming of fat people.” More calmly, she notes that “it is startling to realize that even Oprah, a woman in her early sixties, even Oprah, a billionaire and one of the most famous women in the world, isn’t happy with herself, her body.”
Gay’s memoir does not include a miracle diet that would make her rich enough to buy all the tiny baby elephants her heart desires. But it succeeds in illuminating the painful Cartesian predicament of the very overweight person: Am I this body, or am I separate from it? Do I have to love this body that causes me pain today before it can change to a body I love more?
“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body”
By Roxane Gay (Harper, $25.99)