Hunger by Roxane Gay – book review

by Elizabeth Heritage / 15 September, 2017
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Roxane Gay: a life derailed by a horrific childhood event that led her to overeat.

A raw, honest, painful and sometimes frustrating memoir on what it’s like to be fat.

Hunger is a memoir told in bright, searing prose of what a grim prospect it is to be fat. You can’t fit into the seats in restaurants, movie theatres and planes. You can’t buy good clothes. You can’t get anything out of the doctor except “you need to lose weight”, even if you have a sore throat.

You are subject to socially acceptable fat-shaming from strangers, on social media, and even – disguised as concern – from your nearest and dearest. You are trapped in your fat body and in your brain that, influenced by your fat-phobic environment, tells you repeatedly how ugly and repulsive you are.

You believe intellectually in the body-positive movement that says all bodies are good bodies, but it’s not enough. You understand as a feminist that the beauty and diet industries are purveying unattainable standards and self-hatred as a deliberate strategy to extort money from you, but that’s not enough either.

You know you would be healthier if you could love – or at least not actively hate – your body, but that seems every bit as impossible as making your fat body smaller. And you can never, ever get away from it. As Roxane Gay said at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival: “It’s just a shitshow all day every day.”

Hunger is a raw, honest memoir. Gay is a US feminist and critic whose career is going from strength to strength. Her intellect and talents are formidable, and in Hunger she turns them on herself.

Gay writes powerfully about how her life was derailed by a horrific childhood event that led her to overeat and make herself fat as a self-protection strategy. Those actions have had an ongoing and profound effect: “My body is a cage of my own making.”

She speaks candidly about how, even as she understands this cause and effect intellectually, still, every time she starts to lose weight through diet and exercise (which she does repeatedly), some powerful urge kicks in when she gets below a certain weight and makes her overeat again. All her insight cannot fix the chronic after-effects of her trauma or her fraught relationship with food: “What I know and what I feel are two very different things.” It makes for painful and sometimes frustrating reading.

Gay acknowledges this frustration and our thwarted instinct to want a happy ending: “I wish, so very much, that I could write a book about triumphant weight loss and how I learnt to live more effectively with my demons. I wish I could write a book about being at peace and loving myself wholly, at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which has been the most difficult writing experience of my life … Here I am showing you the ferocity of my hunger.”

HUNGER: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay (Constable & Robinson, $35)

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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