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Hunger

August 12, 2017

My friend Claudia sent me Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger, because she knew I’d like the subject matter, especially since Gay is also a very tall woman. And I did. Pretty much the only thing I didn’t like about the book is that she assigns the blame for her hunger on an assault that happened when she was twelve. I would have liked to see more of her thinking about the kind of hunger for which it’s harder to pinpoint a single cause. But it’s her memoir.

55185244Of course she describes hunger well:
“I reveled in the steam of biting into a salty French fry and the slick hot ooze of melted cheese on a hot slice of pizza and the thick cold sweetness of a frappe.”
Is there anyone who can read a description like that and not get hungry?

Gay also talks about writing, and how she learned to write. Like most writers, she had a particular teacher who gave her the same compliment/advice we all got and now give:
“He told me I was a writer and he told me to write every day. I realize, now, that being told to write every day is writing advice many teachers give.”

Her observations, it seems to me, are spot-on:
“Rare does a day go by, particularly in the United States, without some new article discussing the obesity epidemic, the crisis. These articles are often harsh, alarmist, and filled with false concern for people afflicted by this epidemic and a profoundly genuine concern for life as we know it. Oh, the burdens on the health-care system, these articles lament. Obesity, these articles ultimately say, is killing us all and costing us an unacceptable fortune.
There is, certainly, a very small grain of truth in these articles, in this frenzied panic. And also, there is fear, because no one wants to be infected by obesity, largely because people know how they see and treat and think about fat people and don’t want such a fate to befall them.”

Like all fat women, she has periodically lost some of the weight, and I found her observations about what that feels like to be familiar and well-expressed:
“I taste the idea of having more choices when I go clothes shopping. I taste the idea of fitting into seats at restaurants, movie theaters, waiting rooms. I taste the idea of walking into a crowded room or through a mall without being stared at and pointed at and talked about. I taste the idea of grocery shopping without strangers taking food they disapprove of out of my cart or offering me unsolicited nutrition advice….Inevitably I stumble and then I fall, and then I lose the taste of…hope….I am left feeling ravenously hungry and then I try to satisfy that hunger so I might undo all the progress I’ve made. And then I hunger even more.”

In this memoir, Gay puts into words experiences that I’ve never seen anyone else brave enough to discuss before, like how children gape at fat people:
“I am terrified of other people. I am terrified of the way they are likely to look at me, stare, talk about me or say cruel things to me. I am terrified of children, their guilelessness and brutal honesty and willingness to gawk at me, to talk loudly about me, to ask their parents or, sometimes, even me, ‘Why are you so big?’”
This kind of thing happens to fat women. The last time it happened to me was when I was across the street, spending an hour with two little boys who had just become siblings to twins because their mother needed some help, alone with the four of them. One of the little boys, careful to wait until his mother was out of the room, asked me why I was so big. It was not the first time I’d had to try to explain my body to a child and probably won’t be the last.

Some of the things Gay says make me want to be more like her. For instance, I’ve never been so detached in this kind of situation:
“Shame is a difficult thing. People certainly try to shame me for being fat. When I am walking down the street, men lean out of their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, how they see it, and how it upsets them that I am not catering to their gaze and their preferences and desires. I try not to take these men seriously because what they are really saying is ‘I am not attracted to you. I do not want to fuck you, and this confuses my understanding of my masculinity, entitlement, and place in this world.’ It is not my job to please them with my body.”

The part of this book that I like the best is the part about what it’s like for large women to try to go out into the world: “there are very few spaces where bodies like mine fit….Anytime I enter a room where I might be expected to sit, I am overcome by anxiety. What kind of chairs will I find? Will they have arms? Will they be sturdy? How long will I have to sit in them? If I do manage to wedge myself between a chair’s narrow arms, will I be able to pull myself out? If the chair is too low, will I be able to stand up on my own?”
I’m wondering this right now about the chairs in the classroom where I am scheduled to begin teaching on August 24.

One of the things I have discovered about theaters is that there are often row-by-row differences in how wide the seats are. I would buy more theater tickets–in places like New York, London, Stratford, and Niagara-on-the-lake–if the seating chart or a person in the box office would simply tell me which are the slightly wider seats. Once, when we had tickets for a play in a historic London theater with very narrow seats (the Aldwych), the person who was helping me get my mother in and out of the theater in a wheelchair let us sit in an unused box with two chairs in it, so we didn’t have to squeeze ourselves in and out of the aisles and the armrests.

Going out into the world is even more fraught when it’s a visit to the doctor, and Gay describes this well:
“Because doctors know the challenges the obese body can contend with, they are surprised to learn I am not diabetic. They are surprised to learn I am not on a hundred medications….As a result, I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s absolutely necessary….Doctors are supposed to first do no harm, but when it comes to fat bodies, most doctors seem fundamentally incapable of heeding their oath.”
Just a couple of weeks ago when I was in the hospital after my knee replacement, a doctor I’d never met before came in and asked me how long it had been since I’d tried to lose weight. As I stared at him, trying to figure out who he was and why he would come in to ask me such a question, he retreated, backing out of the door. I guess it had seemed to him like a good opportunity for fat-lady-baiting but since I wasn’t easy prey, he went to find someone else.

I appreciate the wry tone in which Gay says that sometimes people don’t notice her “because they don’t expect the writer who will be speaking at their event to look like me. They don’t know how to hide their shock when they realize that a reasonably successful writer is this overweight. These reactions hurt, for so many reasons. They illustrate how little people think of fat people, how they assume we are neither smart nor capable if we have such unruly bodies.”
Clearly she is smart, capable, and brave.

Thanks to Roxane Gay for writing such a book, and to Claudia for sending it to me.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Johnson permalink
    August 12, 2017 4:01 pm

    I can appreciate that the writer (and you, perhaps?) feel singled out because of her size.

    However, rudeness, intrusive comments about the food someone eats or should or should not eat, the sizes we are or should be—those comments aren’t restricted to people of size. I can give you example after example of rude, judgmental and offensive comments I hear or read about me; I’m not, though, because this isn’t a tit for tat post.

    Instead, I will say with gentleness that sadly, I think this is how people are. Humans are pretty nasty to each other, we get all up in business that isn’t ours to worry about or judge or change and we do so with no regard to the damage we leave behind.

    I wish I could hold out hope that such judgment will stop, but I can’t because I don’t believe it will. People are jerks.

    • August 12, 2017 9:17 pm

      The judgement is probably an enduring part of the problem, but not fitting into the space provided for human bodies in public places is something we could actually fix, if we cared to.

  2. August 12, 2017 4:07 pm

    I read an interview with her last week about this and she’s so incisive, I really want to read this. The quote you pulled about men commenting on her body is fascinating, and depressing.

    • August 12, 2017 9:18 pm

      Yes, incisive is a good word for the way she pins and skewers.

  3. Alice Couvillon permalink
    August 12, 2017 4:22 pm

    When I go to the doctor, I always remind them not to tell my weight out loud. I was amazed how they’d always do that.
    And those theater seats!! Too close. I’m 5’10”. My husband is 6’4”. He gets the aisle seat.
    After 68 years of wanting a perfect body, I figure it’s better to be healthy!

    • August 12, 2017 9:21 pm

      Yes–saying the weight out loud–you’ve got to wonder why. Early in my marriage, when my weight was at a fairly normal place for someone of my height (6′), I was at Bethesda Naval Hospital and was asked to step on the scale by a tiny Asian nurse. She asked me to read her the number out loud, which I did. Without looking up she asked “are you pregnant?”

  4. August 12, 2017 4:48 pm

    Trevor Noah did a very fine interview with her on the Daily Show, and I’ve been looking forward to reading her book. Thanks for the review!

    • August 12, 2017 9:22 pm

      Oh, I’ll have to look up this interview. Thanks!

  5. August 13, 2017 7:08 am

    Yes, yes the “are you pregnant” question! I want to read this book, but on the other hand I am usually afraid of books that get too close to home! Nicely reviewed!

    • August 13, 2017 9:00 am

      I wouldn’t be afraid of reading this one. Gay is encouraging the kind of person who doesn’t even look up to see a person before opening her mouth.

  6. August 15, 2017 6:45 pm

    I am reading this right now and it’s so absorbing. A very fast read for me, as I knew it would be. I am finding so much about her relationship with food that resonates with me personally. I was so glad to see this book on the New York Times bestseller list. The one thing I am wondering as I read it is, how much therapy (if any) has she gotten? She doesn’t talk about that in the book, at least to where I’ve gotten so far.

    • August 15, 2017 7:16 pm

      I don’t remember a mention of therapy, but then I wouldn’t. Maybe it’s outside the scope of this particular memoir.
      It’s interesting (and I found it interesting in the comments to your post saying you’re reading this book) that so many women who aren’t very much overweight relate to what she says about hunger.

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