Past Trauma, Present Pain: Roxane Gay’s Memoir Is as Complex as the Body Itself

Fierce and confident though she may be, the celebrated writer hasn't reached "a place of peace and unconditional self-acceptance."

Unlike other memoirs about surviving trauma, Gay makes it clear from the first page that her story is unfinished. She has not overcome the emotional anguish that comes from living in her body or the events that led her to choose food as a numbing agent in the first place. Harper Collins Publishers

Survivors of sexual or physical trauma feel the consequences of violence in different ways. Some respond to sexual assault with promiscuity. Others turn to drugs or alcohol, choosing to numb painful emotions by self-medicating. Many times, it’s a combination of varying self-destructive behaviors.

In her new memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, writer Roxane Gay reveals that her response to being raped at age 12 was to overeat: “I ate because I understood that I could take up more space. I could become more solid, stronger, safer.” Gay painfully discusses how this trauma manifests in her life and in her “unruly” body, presenting a story that is as real and complicated as the human form itself.

Gay is the author of the 2014 bestseller Bad Feminist, a collection of pop culture and personal essays. Her writing has appeared almost everywhere: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon, just to name a few. But in terms of feel and emotional heft, Hunger most closely resembles Gay’s 2014 novel, An Untamed State, about a woman who is kidnapped in Haiti, raped, and brutalized.

Both books intimately examine two people who seem to have it all in their respective states of “before”—before the sexual violence that changed them—and who are then left to “be broken further before they can truly heal.” Hunger and An Untamed State consider the implications of losing control. Both books are devastatingly honest and painful to read at times. I read An Untamed State in a frenzy, devouring it from front to back in 24 hours. I consumed Hunger in a similarly intense fashion, engrossed by the deep dive into Gay’s psyche.

The book begins with Gay’s childhood and ends with the present. In the middle chapters, she explores fatness in popular culture, television shows such as My 600-lb Life, Extreme Makeover, and the The Biggest Loser. These shows run the gamut of pure exploitation to, as Gay refers to My 600-lb Life, “some truth.”

Unlike other memoirs about surviving trauma, Gay makes it clear from the first page that her story is unfinished. She has not overcome the emotional anguish that comes from living in her body or the events that led her to choose food in the first place. She says: “The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover.”

Gay is writing from the present, not in retrospect or a place of healing. Because of this, the book feels like an exercise of contradictions as we see her thinking on the page, actively working through the meanings of her life’s events. She confronts her past behavior by admitting one fact and then, in the same sentence, disagreeing with herself. For example, she writes, “I don’t know how things got so out of control, or I do.” There is a feeling of resigned disbelief, that feeling of looking at yourself and realizing your life is not at all how you thought it would be—the good and the bad. It is also that feeling when you look more and consider how you got to where you are, and it is, indeed, exactly like how you thought your life would turn out.

Throughout Hunger’s 320 pages of short, vignette-style chapters, we learn that Gay hates being fat, but becomes anxious with vulnerability when she loses weight. She is annoyed by the representation of fatness in U.S. society, yet has internalized those images so that she often feels uncomfortable in her body, especially in public. She resents those who despise fat people, yet she despises her own obesity. These contradictions are indicative of a person still struggling to accept herself. Her desire for a different, less “unruly” body is palpable on the page.

Gay’s public persona is that of a fierce and confident woman. Her Twitter profile says, “If you clap, I clap back.” However, Hunger reveals Gay as, yes, fierce and confident about her intellect and talents, but also as someone with insecurities to which most of us can relate. She writes, “This hopelessness is paralyzing …. I look at my body, and I live in my body, and I think, I will never know anything but this. I will never know anything better than this.” She desperately wants to change her body, but there is no guarantee being thinner will make her, or anyone, any happier. Hunger teaches that there is no right or wrong way to look at yourself, that the human body and mind are, in fact, their own exercises in contradictions.

She also reflects on the fat acceptance movement. “I also believe that part of fat acceptance is accepting that some of us struggle with body image and haven’t reached a place of peace and unconditional self-acceptance,” she writes.

This statement especially resonates with me, a 235-pound, 5-foot-7, size-18-wearing woman whom Gay would categorize as “Lane Bryant fat”—meaning I can find clothing at the plus-size retail store. Gay directly addresses the criticism she has received from those in the fat acceptance community who take issue with her admitting to not loving her body. She says, “They know some of the challenges of being fat, but they don’t know the challenges of being very fat.”

Admittedly, though my weight is similar to those within the fat acceptance community, I have never embraced it or body positivity. Both concepts have always felt exhausting and fake to me. To love my body regardless of ingrained cultural norms is difficult and feels forced.

Race adds another layer of complexity. As a Black woman, society’s beauty ideals have not historically included me. Gay writes that when you are a Black and obese, even your femininity is invisible. To ask Black women and other women of color to unreservedly accept their bodies regardless of size does not consider those additional layers that need overcoming.

I may not know what it means to be “very fat,” but I find myself relating more to Gay’s view of body acceptance than I do with a movement that, frankly, feels unrealistic to me. Gay’s discussion of body imagery is a point of view women of any size can relate to. We cannot always be happy with our bodies. But Gay points out that this dissatisfaction does not mean she suffers from low self-esteem. “I don’t want to change who I am,” she writes.

With this realness comes an “abiding rage about the things I have been through at the hands of others.” It permeates every page, every sentence. It is the strongest emotion felt throughout the book. Gay has good reason to be angry. She was manipulated and harmed at such an early age that most of her life, three decades, has been dedicated to coping with what happened to her that single day. She is angry at the boys who sexually violated her. Angry at the world that views people her size as if they are sideshow attractions.

Hunger covers a wide spectrum of topics—childhood, college, relationships, exercise, cooking, eating—all from the gaze of how each issue is affected by Gay’s body size. Race, however, is one topic barely discussed. There are brief moments where Gay reminds you that she is a Black woman, such as meeting her landlord in Michigan or living in rural, virtually all-white towns for most of her life. But considering her very poignant writings on race, I hoped for more discussion specifically about being a Black “woman of size.”

Another uncharted area in the book, which at times I found frustrating, was Gay’s deliberate withholding of information. I respect her decision not to divulge every single secret, every tawdry detail of her life. Gay speaks about this in a recent interview with Vice, saying, “I tried to not write about my relationships too much or about my family. I don’t think you have to cannibalize yourself to tell an important story or to write about yourself.” Writing so deeply about being raped and living as a woman who once weighed more than 500 pounds is already revealing and intimate. However, many tough topics, especially those relating to her health, are barely touched upon.

In one early scene, Gay visits a weight-loss surgery clinic with her father. She walks the reader through what happened at the clinic and her father’s comment that helps her decide not to have the surgery. But she does not explore further why she chose not to pursue the operation. And, toward the end of the book, Gay recounts the ordeal of being hospitalized with a severely fractured ankle. In the scene describing the accident, Gay states that she felt “a very intense wave of pain” and that after thinking that she needed to lie down, she woke to find that she injured her ankle. As a reader, I was distracted by wanting to know where that pain came from and whether the doctor resolved that issue.

I realize, however, that my commentary here may be “couched as concern,” which Gay describes as the typical way in which the public discusses fat bodies: judgment disguised as care. In worrying about her health this way, have I become complicit in the public gawking and judging? Engaging the reader in this manner is part of Gay’s brilliance. She forces us to confront our own participation in fat-shaming dialogue, which is a humbling experience.

Hunger reveals the complexity of human instinct, the multiple ways a person can think about herself, and how our behavior can protect and harm us at the same time. This book is about so much more than one person’s body. It is about the choices we make, the relationships we have, the ways others treat us, and the way we treat ourselves.

Hunger will make you ache. It will challenge you. Most importantly, it will make you understand the life of a woman who, to paraphrase Gay’s words, was broken, broke some more, and who isn’t yet healed but has started to believe that she will.