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Orienting in Roxane Gay’s Memoir Hunger

To tell you the story of my body, do I tell you how much I weighed at my heaviest? Do I tell you that number, the shameful truth of it always strangling me? At my heaviest, I weighed 577lb, or over 41st, at 6ft 3in. That is a staggering number, but at one point, that was the truth of my body. […] I began eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away. Of all the things I wish I knew then that I know now, I wish I had known I could talk to my parents and get help, and turn to something other than food.

Today, I am a fat woman. I don’t think I am ugly. I don’t hate myself in the way society would have me hate myself, but I hate how the world all too often responds to this body. It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is. I’m a feminist and I know that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body should look. […]

My body is a cage of my own making. I have been trying to figure a way out of it for more than 20 years.

 

Roxane Gay’s 2017 autobiography Hunger is appropriately subtitled A Memoir of (My) Body. Gay’s body, which, by her own description, is morbidly obese, is a memoir in itself: a record of the trauma she experienced when she was gang-raped at the age of twelve. After the assault, Gay deliberately ate in an attempt to make herself “repulsive” to men, turning her body into a protective fortress.

In this short excerpt from her introduction, Gay both orients the reader to what appears to be the defining theme of her memoir – her weight – and makes clear that her motive is not what it appears to be. Her obesity will not be the focus of this book. Although much of the memoir is concerned with the effects on Gay’s weight on her life – strangers taking food out of her shopping cart; the humiliation and discomfort of struggling to fit into airplane seats; a boyfriend encouraging her later development of bulimia nervosa because she is at least “working on her problem” – her weight is always secondary. It is a result of one trauma and the cause of another.

Gay makes this distinction in the first pages of her memoir. By posing what appears to be a rhetorical question (“Do I tell you that number?”) but then defiantly answering it (“that was the truth of my body”), she subverts the reader’s expectations. Although the truth of her highest weight may be “shameful” to her, she refuses to hide it, simply because the number itself is not central to her story. Gay initially seems to make her weight the focus of her introduction, but by sharing, not withholding, this “shameful,” “strangling,” “staggering” information, she strips it of its importance. Most memoirs like hers present a glamorous image of “overcoming” obesity; as Gay demonstrates in this introduction, this is not her motive. Her weight itself has never been the problem.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Source: Adapted excerpt from Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay (Harper: 2017)