BY: Katherine Schaumberg, PhD
DATE: 21 November 2017
In the genre of memoirs about food and eating, Professor Roxane Gay’s recent release “Hunger: a Memoir of (my) Body,” provides a much needed perspective. Gay explains in detail the experience of living in a large body as a Black, queer woman in America. She discusses her plans to gain weight in an effort to hide from the world after an experience of sexual abuse as a child, followed by a heart wrenching account of living in what she sometimes terms an “unruly” body. Gay often highlights the shame associated with living in her body, and speaks to the complex relationship that she has with body acceptance and weight management. As Gay discusses her history with dieting, I was reminded of a recent piece, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age,” in the New York Times by author Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Both Gay and Brodesser-Akner express the frustration of countless weight management attempts throughout their lives, ultimately championing movements of radical body acceptance and Health at Every Size (HAES®), but hedging somewhat on these approaches with a desire to care for their body in a way that will also support longevity and quality of life. In many ways, their struggles reflect ongoing discussions on the utility (and often experienced futility) of weight loss efforts, along with how messages designed to promote health, even from well-meaning family members and friends, may also carry the potential of increasing weight stigma and risk for unhealthy weight control behaviors.
Most notably, Gay offers some experienced wisdom related to what has NOT worked to promote healthy body image and behaviors, namely shame. Gay intricately describes situations in airports, doctors’ offices, clothing stores, grocery stores, and other public spaces where she has felt shame. In all such instances, she describes how this shame was harmful as she attempted to pursue a positive relationship with food, exercise, and her body. She discusses going to doctors as rarely as possible because “doctors only see and diagnose my body,” highlighting the humiliation when a doctor’s office is ill-equipped for her body. Gay rails against the central importance of one’s body shape in determining self-worth and the shame that often arises from failing to have a specific body type, particularly for women.
Another voice that Gay offers in this book is the experience of developing an eating disorder as an adult. Gay describes that it still “feels strange to use that word [bulimia] with regard to myself” and that “when you’re fat, no one will pay attention to disordered eating … you hide in plain sight” and “I was really so old to be dealing with what we think of as an adolescent problem .. I was embarrassed.” With frank expressions and reflections on her eating disorder, Gay identifies pervasive cultural stereotypes about eating disorders, highlighting how these outdated stereotypes are often misguided. For further discussion about research related to who is at risk for eating disorders– see the Academy for Eating Disorders 9 truths about eating disorders.
In summary, Gay’s memoir is an important book that offers an expression of her personal experience of body image and eating from an incredibly vulnerable position. Although her voice as a woman of a certain color, age, and size highlights the importance of the representation of her experience, it is ultimately Gay’s vulnerability that makes this book a necessary read.
[Important note, mature themes in the book are often depicted in detail, and all material is not suitable for younger readers.]