"I try not to be prescriptive in how readers approach my work," author and scholar Roxane Gay tells Bustle in an interview. "But I do hope people walk away from this book with a greater understanding that we all live in the world, and in our bodies, differently. Those differences should be understood with empathy and treated with respect." Gay is referencing her recently released book, Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body. In 304 pages, this hardcover chronicles much of the author's personal history, with particular emphasis on the cultivation and evolution of her fatness. It is, all at once, a raw, personal journey and a relatable piece of literature for those othered because of the shape and size of their figures alone.
Although Gay has, from the get-go, wanted it to be clear that Hunger "is a memoir, not a manifesto," and that she is "only one voice," there are irrevocable parallels between her story and those of many individuals living in noticeably large, imposing bodies.
Gay doesn't sugarcoat the realities of fatness: Of being the blunt of every joke on television, of receiving poor medical care because a doctor cannot see beyond a number on a scale, of being heckled by passerby, of the struggle to find well-fitting or even simply nice clothing, of being treated as a beast and not a person, or filling oneself to the brim with self-hate through it all.
What's remarkable about Hunger is that, despite being so raw and honest in these regards, it is clear, in the end, that Gay is offering incredibly useful sociocultural commentary. She may have struggled with self-hate. She may still struggle to love her body to this day. Even so, she knows that part of the reason for that will come down to the treatment of fat people by society at large; and it's precisely this that makes Hunger such a worthwhile read.
There are an infinite set of reasons that may contribute to a person's fatness. These can range from a combination of diet and activity levels, to genetic predisposition, to medical conditions, to simple preference (because yes, some folks genuinely want to be fat). While no one should be expected to offer defense or explanation of their bodies in order to be received with kindness and tolerance, the story of Gay's body is one rooted in protection. Hunger walks us through her sexual assault and the remainder of her adolescence: Years that were largely dedicated to eating and expanding. She was growing a fortress — a safety net against boys and hurt and everything else. That fortress just so happened to be her body.
In the early pages of Hunger, Gay offers a disclaimer: "The story of my body is not a story of triumph [...] There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across the book's cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self's jeans." It's indeed true that this is not a weight loss narrative. It's not even a "body positive" journey to finally feeling beautiful.
Nonetheless, Hunger can be read as a different kind of success story. "There are all kinds of measures of success and it would be such narrow thinking to view weight loss as success," Gay tells Bustle. "Part of deconstructing fatphobia is recognizing that, as Sonya Renee Taylor says, the body is not a problem. The body is not a failure that must be overcome on a path to success. So [...] being able to deconstruct fatphobia, being able to reorient your thinking around different kinds of bodies, should be seen as an immense success."
With the mainstreaming of conversations surrounding body positivity and fat acceptance, there often comes a suggestion that "things are so much better for fat people now," or that "plus size people are finally being better treated."
In Gay's words, however, "The bar for progress, where oppression of all kinds is concerned, is rather low." From a cultural standpoint, things may be better, in some respects (sometimes), for the folks who Gay refers to as "Lane Bryant fat." Or, women who fit into Lane Bryant's standard plus size range of US 14 to 28. There certainly exist more sartorial options than there did five or 10 years ago, anyway.
"For those of us who live beyond those sizes, [however], things are as lousy as they have ever been, in terms of how we're treated, seen, and discussed," Gay adds. Fatness remains cause for targeting, ridiculing, and marginalizing; and the fatter you are, the worse things seem to be.
When Gay first began promoting her book, for example, she tells Bustle that she was "surprised by how difficult it is for journalists to talk about fatness. Some of the interviews, especially early on, were incredibly awkward." Gay is a best-selling author. She is a brilliant academic. Yet when it came time to do one podcast in particular, the organizers coated the episode description in tired, unnecessary fat jokes like, "Will she fit into the office lift?" or "How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview?" Because, clearly, making a fat joke was more important than analyzing the work of a respected writer.
Fat is not an insult. It is a descriptor. And when you interpret it as an insult, you reveal yourself and what you fear most.— roxane gay (@rgay) June 14, 2017
Gay's deconstruction of fatphobia is subsequently a success, and an encouragement to others, for not framing the body as the prime problem. The problem is the prejudices that allow fat bodies to be hated, to be mocked, or to be dehumanized entirely. The body is not the villain of the story. The villains are the institutions and individuals who insist on framing it as such. It isn't rolls of flesh that are disgusting. It's the fact that we are made to feel unworthy of our personhood because of them.
When Hunger was being written, Gay says she feared "having so many strangers know so much about me and what I think and feel and how other fat people would respond." But since the memoir's release, she's instead been "surprised by the responses to the book in that so many people have shared with me how they can relate, in some way, to my experiences."
The truth is, fatphobia affects everyone. It may affect actual fat people, who cannot escape cultural detestation of their bodies, the most. But it also affects thin people: Thin people who live in fear of getting fat, thin people who treat fat people poorly, thin people who talk about fatness as though it were repugnant, even in the company of fat people that they care for. "I know many women are self-conscious about their bodies," Gay adds. "But the response to Hunger has illustrated just how intense that self-consciousness is."
Ultimately, deconstructing fatphobia — both our internalized fatantagonism and that of our cultures at large — benefits everyone. Hunger is a story of triumph because, in some way, it may just benefit everyone, too.