The Boldness of Roxane Gay’s Hunger

In her moving new memoir, the writer explores desire, denial, and life in an “unruly body.”

HarperCollins / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

What is often deemed the most intoxicating part of weight-loss stories is the moment of triumph. Think, confetti showering the winning contestant on a reality show, a newly svelte celebrity swimming inside their “fat jeans, or Oprah underscoring in a Weight Watchers ad that she can, in fact, eat bread every day. At a time when there is no shortage of recommendations for women on how to discipline or make peace with their bodies, Roxane Gay’s book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, stands out precisely because she begins it by declaring that she hasn’t overcome her “unruly body and unruly appetites.”

Hunger is about weight gained and lost and gained—at her heaviest Gay weighed 577 pounds. It’s also about so much more: the body she built to shield herself from the contempt of men and her own sense of shame, her complex relationship with parents who took great interest in solving her weight “problem,” and what it has meant for her to be highly visible and yet feel unseen. She describes much of her ongoing struggle with weight and trauma as a result of being gang-raped at the age of 12 in the woods near her home in Nebraska. “People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not,” she writes. “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe.” The story of Roxane Gay’s body did not begin with this violation of her innocence, but it was the fracture that would come to define her relationship with food, desire, and denial for decades.

Hunger builds on Gay’s writing about feminism, women’s bodies, and rape culture to unflinchingly tackle personal experiences. Paradox is a recurrent theme: She uses it to illustrate her complicated efforts to face her body, accept it and what it has endured, and still desire to change it. Her unadorned writing style communicates the strain of confronting her weight and her life as they’ve changed. Lines like “I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do” and “I do not have an answer to that question, or I do,” imply that Gay understands all too well a broader culture that refuses to accommodate fat bodies and the restraint required to describe the slights she’s experienced within it.

While Gay is grappling with a painful, first-person story, she gracefully weaves in the sharp commentary that she’s come to be known for. She notes how coming to terms with her own size afforded her empathy for people with differently abled bodies. She denounces reality shows like The Biggest Loser, Fit to Fat to Fit, Revenge Body, and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, among others, that market themselves as advocating empowerment through exercise, but that “treat fat as an enemy that must be destroyed, a contagion that must be eradicated.” And while she takes the thinspiration industrial complex—from commercials on women’s network to Oprah’s wheelbarrow of animal fat—to task with heartening doses of sarcasm, she also adeptly pinpoints how impossible it is for women to simply exist in a culture that equates obesity with misery and within which their own self-determination will never be enough.

Gay is sometimes referred to as an “overnight sensation.” Those most familiar with her work are quick to point to the roughly 20 years of writing online that led to her recent successes, from the novel, An Untamed State, to the collections Bad Feminist and Difficult Women. But what Hunger illuminates is that food and the anonymity of writing on the internet were two of the salves for the loneliness and anxiety that enveloped Gay into her 20s. Its short, intimate chapters follow Gay through the brokenness of her teens, the recklessness of the following decade, and her current, ongoing struggle to reconcile the fact that being an overweight black woman at times makes her body a site for commentary and her humanity invisible. She mercilessly describes the way this rudeness gets couched as concern:

When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display ... Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes … People are quick to offer statistics and information about the dangers of obesity, as if you are not only fat but incredibly stupid, unaware, and delusional about your body and a world that is vigorously inhospitable to that body ... You are your body, nothing more, and your body should damn well become less.

This is not the first time Gay has written about her weight, the assault she experienced in her youth, and the ways that society assigns value to women of her size. An Untamed State, a novel that in some ways parallels Gay’s own experiences, follows a protagonist who is brutally kidnapped and then raped. Bad Feminist included an essay about Gay’s trip to fat camp, and countless essays she’s previously published online—including “Breaking Uniform,” and “My Body Is Wildly Undisciplined And I Deny Myself Nearly Everything I Desire”—are reprinted in Hunger. Last year she appeared on This American Life, where she noted the difference between being “Lane Bryant fat” and super-morbidly obese (the latter the clinical term for Gay’s size).

In Hunger, she repeatedly juxtaposes an inherent, internal conflict: the survival mechanism of making herself bigger in the years following her rape and the ways in which that very act has made her life difficult in a new way. In one revealing section, Gay describes the kinds of exhausting considerations that she makes daily because of her size—from googling event venues to see if there are stairs, to worrying about airport seating, to dressing in mostly jeans and cotton shirts, to wondering whether a restaurant’s chairs will have arms that will pinch her. The catalog of small anxieties that interrupt her days is moving, even as it highlights the ways the world doesn’t accommodate women like Gay.

Her descriptions of violence are both specific—down to the scent of the beer on the breath of her rapists—and omnipresent. Trauma reverberates through the short chapters, even as she appears to accept what happened, and to rebuild. There are countless permutations of the sentence, “When I was twelve years old I was raped and then I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,” and descriptions of herself as “a mess.” She relies on the repetitive descriptions of her rape and her brokenness in a way that might in other circumstances seem gratuitous, but which in Hunger serves to give readers some emotional insight into the unrelenting nature of trauma.

Woven into this repetition is a ruminative preoccupation with strength, in all its varieties. In a 2012 article for The Rumpus, Gay wrote that she is “always interested in the representations of strength in women ... and what it costs for a woman to be strong. All too often, representations of a woman’s strength overlook that cost.” What makes Hunger emotionally resonant is her ability to make the cost of survival—her moving forward from the rape and the challenge of her size—so transparent.

Gay occasionally nods to her identity as a black woman—for example, describing growing up Haitian American, or noting the white classmate who hurled “affirmative action” at her as an insult when he was not admitted to the school of his choice. But she leaves for just a few moments her explicit comments on the ways that black women’s bodies are read in popular culture—which result in some of the most powerful lines in the book. “Black women are rarely allowed their femininity,” she notes at one point, when talking about how people misgender her because of her size. And when she says that she doesn’t want to allow her body to dictate her existence, part of that determination involves negotiating space as a black woman in places that she describes as “inhospitable” to blackness.

Observations such as these help make Hunger a gripping book, with vivid details that linger long after its pages stop. In addressing unwieldy topics such as weight, sexual violence, and trauma, Gay’s takeaways are many and her ending impossible to classify as a destination. And by writing this memoir she’s exposed imperfections—in culture, feminism, and herself—that require any claims to humanity and dignity to make room for inconsistency. She doesn’t try to reconcile how her critiques and failures intersect in ways that might seem contradictory; she allows herself to fall short of those aspirations and forms her own conception of her body and of healing. She began her memoir by warning that it would not inspire motivation, though her ability to reject society’s judgment of and contempt for overweight people, while being vulnerable enough to admit that she struggles with body positivity, inspires hopefulness nonetheless. Hunger is arresting and candid. At its best, it affords women, in particular, something so many other accounts deny them—the right to take up space they are entitled to, and to define what that means.