I read this book shortly after Sherman Alexie’s You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, and the two have a lot in common. Like Alexie’s book, this one is emotionally raw and intense, and deals with very personal subjects; it is full of the author’s feelings about her life, but not quite the story of her life, conspicuously omitting some elements while baring her soul about others; whether to counteract the intensity of its subject matter or due to the author’s trauma, it is made up of a large number of short chapters; and as a result, it’s addictive reading that I finished much more quickly than I expected. Perhaps predictably, I liked this book better than Alexie’s, because it’s mostly chronological and contains no poems and is generally focused. Hunger may be best described as Roxane Gay’s reflection on her life through the lens of her size – she’s extremely overweight, though not as much as she used to be. The story of her life that emerges is bare-bones for a memoir and full of gaps and vagueness, but the account of her emotions and of living in the world in a body of her size holds back very little.
As Gay warns readers early on, this isn’t a triumphant or how-to sort of book about weight. But for readers who haven’t personally dealt with obesity, there are a couple of major takeaways. One is that most people probably haven’t reached “morbid obesity” simply by being self-indulgent or ignorant about healthy choices; for Gay, her initial overeating and her fear of losing weight are intimately bound up with a terrible childhood trauma, and this seems to be the rule rather than the exception.
The other is that being far larger than the average person complicates almost every aspect of one’s life. Some of it is constant family and social judgment and pressure to lose weight, and societal messaging that obese people are worthless. Apparently there are people out there who can’t resist taking food out of others’ shopping carts as if this is somehow going to solve anyone’s problems. Some of it is simple physical consequences, like moving more slowly than others and being in pain much of the time. And some of it is the way physical spaces aren’t set up to accommodate people of Gay’s size: she writes about having constant bruises on her legs from chair arms, about being unable to climb up on the stage unassisted at a speaking event, and about having a difficult time finding clothes to fit her (and then not feeling like she’s permitted to wear colorful or attractive clothes).
I think some people have the impression, perhaps unconsciously, that extremely overweight people don’t realize their weight is a problem (because if they did they’d have lost it already) and that if we don’t point it out and punish them for it, they won’t fix it. But of course the absurdity is clear: we live in a weight-obsessed culture, where someone like Gay has to brace herself for harassment or humiliation every day; treating people poorly won’t help anything. This book walks a fine line in its discussions of body image and health, and in my judgment it’s successful. Gay hardly trumpets her weight as an ideal, but she still sees loving her body as a valid goal, and calls out the medical establishment’s over-obsession with weight. When she comes in with strep throat, focusing on her obesity isn’t helpful – and many people (doctors and otherwise) hide simple social judgment behind purported “health” concerns over conditions she doesn’t actually have.
So, this is a great book to read for improving understanding and hopefully sensitivity toward others. It’s also well-written and a quick read. I’m a facts-driven kind of gal and would have liked it better if we’d learned more detail about the author’s life, but that clearly isn’t the focus of this particular book. Nevertheless, I recommend it.