For far too long, I did not know desire. I simply gave myself, gave my body, to whoever offered me even the faintest interest. This was all I deserved, I told myself. My body was nothing. My body was a thing to be used…
*Content warning: sexual assault.
What I liked the most about Roxane Gay’s newest book Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body is its rawness, its openness, and its honesty. This might come across as a rather trite statement—but it’s perfectly applicable to Gay’s style. Gay does not dress up the story of her body. She does not cloak her memoir with platitudes. Neither does she leave anything out. She never holds back, no matter how personal the content in her essays become.
Her body is naked in this book—probed by her own consciousness as well as the consciousness of society.
Hunger is an amazing memoir because every word is completely honest. At times, it’s an upsetting read, and it hurts. But there are also times where it is uplifting as Gay reflects on how her body and her life are intertwined.
Yet, there’s no “animating agenda” behind Gay’s Hunger. In a book market still saturated with healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, and attaining perfect bodies, Hunger performs in complete opposite to expectations. Gay tells us how it is, not how she wants it or society wants it. Which is, we inhabit a world where women—Gay reminds us—are told they are taking up too much space while the world makes no space available. All the while the world demands a different body than exists.
Hunger isn’t about weight loss. This book isn’t written in this age of body reflectivity for the purpose of selling books, amassing wealth, pandering to a culture frenzying over health.
It’s a reflection on a society obsessed with the size of women, of women accused of taking up space. It’s the recollection of a body that grows and grows and grows—the society that nurtured its gratuitous growth and Gay’s struggle with this growth throughout her life.
Yes—society, particularly its patriarchal curves, is to blame for such body negativity. How can a body proceed comfortably through space and time when it is endlessly probed, subjected to shrewd critique, condemned for its contours? Why do we all obsess with the size of a body? Why are we all hell bent on removing the story of a person’s body?
I think that is the most important observation Gay offers readers: the body is never allowed a story as to why it exists in the shapes it does. It’s simply denied or judged. Or cast as an obscene object that expands (or maybe contracts), never properly fitting in with the world.
Everybody has a body with a story.
I know that to be frank about my body makes some people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable too…I do, however, live in a world where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged. I am a product of my environment.
Gay is upfront that this is the memoir of her body. But this isn’t a detached body. This isn’t a story of the body versus the mind, which hundreds of years of Western philosophy would lead us to believe, and which is a mantra so many weight-loss/healthy-eating programs spout. The body takes centre stage. It has a story to be told.
Hunger moves through Gay’s experience of rape as a teenager by a boy (and his friends) she thought she loved and her hunger to control her body and the men who hunger for her body. Between a desire for a healthy body and one that makes her body undesirable, Gay struggles to reconcile this moment in her life throughout the memoir.
This isn’t a memoir that emerges from a lifelong resolution or a sudden epiphany. Gay isn’t sharing “answers,” she is sharing the experience of her body in the world. A body that has transformed, that she tries to shape, that the world so eagerly shapes. Hunger is another stepping stone in Gay’s journey to reconcile with her body as well as that singular moment in her childhood.
Maybe what I wish to say, what I desire to say, is that we shouldn’t always pursue reconciliation—or closure—when it comes to the body or our bodies. There is no perfect body we can make—but, of course, that is cheap wisdom. There is no ultimate method of avoiding shame when reflecting on our bodies reflection in the mirror. The world doesn’t bear a universal solution to accepting our body somewhere (and the body of those who inhabit the worlds near us). Abolishing body negativity—in all its iterations—is not an easy task. That is what I have learned from Hunger.
There might always be that body negativity—it’s a memory, a phantom, a poltergeist raised by society. We’re are never permitted, I think, to comfortably live in our bodies, to embody the body we are. We always try to negate that body in a fleeting fantasy of a different body.
I finished Hunger with a bounty of questions. How do we reconcile the need to love our body with our drive to feel shame about our body? Is it okay to feel shame about our body?
What becomes key is that the body isn’t too blame here. Gay is at times ashamed of her body, at times is at odds with her body. But she never blames her body because it is shaped by the torrential forces of the material and social world. Certainly, it’s shaped by Gay as well.
Our bodies are forever at the mercy of scrutiny, of the scalpel, of a multiplicity of cravings (inside) and out.
This exposure of ambivalence is the brilliant edge of Hunger.
The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir…This is not a book that will offer motivation. I don’t have any powerful insights into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites…Mine is, simply, a true story.
Gay’s style is minimalistic but pithy. She doesn’t bloat the text with obtuse details. Even the chapters are short. But each is carefully crafted, taking the shape of a poetic journal entry. I feel like Gay had written this text in short bursts, seizing her thoughts as they came. As such, Hunger seems like a quick read. Except that it is filled with quotable moments and insights needing a pause for pondering.
That is not to say Hunger does not culminate into a cohesive whole. Gay hasn’t compiled a collection of ramblings or complaints. Hunger is joined together by one world-shattering experience: rape. Each section brings the reader back to that one moment in Gay’s life where everything changed.
Last year, I had the opportunity to read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which was also a fantastic read, yet Hunger sets itself apart from Gay’s previous work. It isn’t an essay. It isn’t academic. It does, however, follow some of the same cues: the work is deeply personal. But even more so than Bad Feminist, I would say.
So Hunger is a harrowing memoir, which depicts a hunger for closure that may never come.