Book Review: Roxane Gay's Hunger
TW: sexual assault, eating disorder
Over Winter break, at the recommendation of a former Empower lab member, I had the pleasure of reading Roxane Gay’s latest, Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body. I was unfamiliar with Gay’s work, except that she had become a feminist icon, hailed for her representation of queer women of color. I knew that Hunger would be a book about sexual assault and how it feels to be morbidly obese, to live in a fat body. Indeed, Gay goes on to tell how she was brutally raped by a boy she was seeing and his friends when she was 12 years old. She explains how her overeating became the response to her rape. “I ate and ate in the hopes that if I became big, my body would be safe.” I say “live in a fat body” because that is what Gay explains she did “for years on end.” She went through the world split in three, “There was me, and the woman I saw myself as while living inside my head, and the woman who had to carry my overweight body. They were not the same person. They couldn’t be, or I wouldn’t have survived any of it.”
Gay reveals that gaining weight was her attempt at becoming invisible to the men who had hurt her. Speaking about her worried parents, she says “they tried to help without realizing my early weight gain was only the beginning of the problem my body would become. They had no idea at all about what created the problem. They knew nothing of my determination to keep making my body into what i needed it to be -- a safe harbor rather than a small, weak vessel that had betrayed me.” She also admits the irony of the situation: that her tall, big, black body takes up a lot of space, that she is scrutinized wherever she goes, made a spectacle. She speaks of the shame of being overweight in a society that worships thinness above all else. She talks about the panic that overcomes her every time she loses weight and starts getting closer to “the me I could have, should have, would have been and want to be,” the panic induced by trauma that makes her put the weight back on.
Gay talks about trauma and how it is continued. She talks about how trauma shaped her sexuality, her relationships, her desires. She writes about how she felt ruined for a long time. She wonders, about the man who raped her, if he knows that “for years, she could not stop what he started.”
Gay reminds us of the person the body belongs to, of resilience and hardship. She doesn’t talk about forgiveness. She talks about the contradictions of her life. “This is a book about my body, about my hunger, and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood,” she writes. “This is a book about accepting to be seen and understood.”
The trauma Gay suffered and describes is so violent I can hardly bear to write about it. I know I am not doing her words justice. “I am as healed as I am ever going to be (...) I will not hide from the world” she says in the last pages of the book. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Gay speak at a panel at New York University. Her resolve was apparent. Her memoir is a must-read, unforgettable account of her truth.