Warning: This memoir contains accounts of sexual assault and trauma. Please be advised before reading this book or this review.
“The story of my body is not a story of triumph.”
There were many words that struck me and our book club while we read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. There were words that reverberated with power and self-awareness; words full of pain and shame; words that were heavy and difficult to read. But this statement above most succinctly describes this book and this woman.
Roxane Gay is an American author and writer across several mediums. She has published several books including Bad Feminist and Difficult Women. She is a contributing author for the New York Times, and she is currently working on projects for television and film. She is also the first black woman to write for Marvel Comics as one of the writers for the World of Wakanda series.
I’ll be honest – this memoir was amazing but difficult to read.
It was heavy. The writing is beautiful, and Gay has a way with words that makes you feel as if she is sitting across from you, telling her story to you in person. It is the material that is heavy. She shares her life and experiences with raw honesty – the good and the bad.
This is a memoir of her body. But it’s about so much more than her physical form.
She recounts her sexual assault at the age of just twelve years old. I couldn’t help but tear up. I felt her shame as she hid this from her family for many, many years. I cringed at the idea of this happening to anyone. This trauma at such a young age shaped her entire life and being, literally and figuratively. It is the event that changed her.
While difficult to read, it was powerful. She was taking charge of what happened to her and empowering herself. I was not alone in this feeling. Amelia stated, “That brutal honestly and look into heart and mind was just amazing. I know several people who have the same kind of trauma, and it helped make me even more empathetic toward them.”
Gay recounts that her life was split into the before and after, but in two parts. There is the before and after the assault; there is the before and after she gained weight. But really, all of this goes together to form her story.
She also admits that she used her body as a shield to avoid any further provocation from not only her attackers but the world. She also ate emotionally; to ease her pain, to fill the void of loneliness, to feel something like happiness. She gained weight rapidly, to the dismay of her family and friends. She writes:
‘I do clearly remember eating and eating and eating so I could forget, so my body could become so big it would never be broken again…I am tracing the story of my body from when I was a carefree young girl who could trust her body and who felt safe in her body, to the moment when that safety was destroyed, to the aftermath that continues even as I try to undo so much of what was done to me.’
While the assault is a pivotal moment that shaped her life, Hunger is about more than just this trauma.
Gay writes about her weight and her body. She describes how it feels to be an obese person in the world (a term she used herself).
There are strangers who feel they need to tell her some diet or food that would better serve her. She purchases two airline seats for her own comfort and takes offense when others question her seat belt extender or try to use her extra seat themselves. She avoids armchairs, which can leave bruises; she has squatted on less sturdy chairs for hours to avoid an embarrassing break. I was astonished at the things she must encounter and overcome daily that most of us can take for granted.
I found the paradox of wanting to accept her body as is and also wanting to change her body most relatable.
She was not born obese; she was not a large child. Gay clearly accepts blame for her eating and weight gain. But she also admits to trying many, many things to change her body. She has dieted, exercised, binged, and purged. She has sought clinical help and mental health counseling. And there are points in this memoir that you can see that she really wants to accept her body.
Then there are parts where she bemoans it. She points out that our society focuses on those with the “perfect” image and is constantly telling us how to reach it. She angrily discusses weight loss shows and fad diets that make millions of dollars in revenue. The medical community wants to help people lose weight under the more noble reasons for prolonged health and longevity, but it can fall short on addressing a person’s body and mind as a whole.
I think all of us have felt this same paradox – I know I have.
We want to be accepting of who we are and the body we inhabit, yet we are continually striving for a better version of it. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be as healthy as possible. But I agree with Roxane Gay that healthy is about more than just a body shape. It’s about a person’s mind and heart; their life and experiences; their supports and their community.
And Hunger shows, in honest and often heartbreaking prose, that the word is about much more than food. This memoir has stuck with me and given me some new perspectives. As a fan of this author already, I expected nothing less.
Thanks for reading with us! Come back next month as we tackle a classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.