You see fat, but Roxane Gay sees a fortress.
Gay is the author of a bestselling essay collection, Bad Feminist; a novel, An Untamed State; the Marvel comic World of Wakanda; and two short story collections. She has contributed to the New York Times and many other publications, given a TED talk and initiated a tussle with one of her publishers that led to the cancellation of the company's book contract with right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
In her new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, she writes about something that can overshadow all those accomplishments: She is fat. "Morbidly obese," as many a doctor has written on her medical charts. She describes going to the ER with a badly broken ankle, and the doctor's first diagnosis was morbid obesity, followed by the shattered bones.
Make no mistake, Gay writes, she is not a little overweight, carrying an extra 20 or 30 pounds on her 6-foot-3 frame. She begins the book by describing a consultation some years ago at a bariatric surgery clinic when she was at her top weight: 577 pounds.
Did you flinch when you read that? She knows you did. In Hunger, she fearlessly delves into why we react that way — and why she got that way in the first place.
Our culture ruthlessly shames fat people, Gay writes, and makes assumptions about why they're fat: that they're lazy, stupid, self-indulgent, even immoral.
In Gay's case, it's none of the above. She knows exactly when and why she got fat: at age 12, after she was brutally gang-raped, a crime organized by a boy she thought was her friend.
That assault is the dividing line in her life. Before it, she was "a good Catholic girl" growing up in a Midwestern suburb. Her parents were immigrants from Haiti, her father a successful civil engineer, her mother a stay-at-home mom. Gay and her brothers were beloved, healthy, high-achieving kids.
The rape turned that child's world upside down, and she had no idea how to deal with it. "Of all the things I wish I knew then that I know now," Gay writes, "I wish I had known I could talk to my parents and get help." But like so many victims of sexual assault she felt ashamed, and she kept the secret for years.
Instead of asking for protection, she looked for a way to protect herself: "What I did know was food, so I ate because I understood that I could take up more space. I could become more solid, stronger, safer. I understood, from the way I saw people stare at fat people, from the way I stared at fat people, that too much weight was undesirable. If I was undesirable, I could keep more hurt away."
Of course, it doesn't work out that way. Hunger recounts not just how Gay became obese but how the world treats her because of what she calls her "unruly body." She writes piercingly about everyday humiliations, small and large. She writes about the determined exercise and dieting that help her take off substantial amounts of weight — and about the ways she puts it back on. She writes about how her weight affects her career (the more famous she becomes, the more viciously she is mocked for it), her friendships and her love life. She writes about the complex ways obesity is portrayed in our culture, from Oprah's longtime weight story to The Biggest Loser.
Expectations about women's bodies are, of course, a concern of feminism, one of the main subjects of much of Gay's writing. In Hunger, she analyzes the tangled web of obesity and feminism, as well as its relationship to race.
Not that fatness is limited to any one group. It's the condition of more than two-thirds of American adults, as she notes: "Statistics also reveal that 34.9 percent of Americans are obese and 68.6 percent of Americans are obese or overweight."
Hunger is not an easy book to read; Gay tells us it was excruciatingly difficult to write. But her ferocious, unstinting intelligence addresses this topic in a way rarely seen. What she gains, she tells us at the end, is a measure of catharsis. What we gain is seeing not a fat person, but a person.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.