Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Caitlin Gibson.
Roxane Gay begins her new book — the hardest she’s ever had to write — by describing what it isn’t.
“The story of my body is not a story of triumph,” Gay writes in the opening pages. “Mine is not a success story.”
Instead, it’s a searing account of the essayist’s lifelong struggle with her weight, which once topped 500 pounds. “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” is no weight-loss memoir, she is quick to explain. There’s no tidy resolution here, no willowy woman on the book jacket holding the waistband of her old pants an arm’s reach from her new body.
The resulting book turned into a portrait of resilience in the aftermath of trauma: When Gay was 12, a boy she adored lured her to a cabin in the woods near her Nebraska home, and he and a group of hisfriends raped her.
For years, she told no one. Food became a vital source of comfort; her doting parents, both Haitian immigrants, were alarmed as their quiet daughter gained more and more weight. “They knew nothing of my determination to keep making my body into what I needed it to be — a safe harbor rather than a small, weak vessel that betrayed me,” Gay writes.
Of all her work so far, “Hunger” is certainly the most vulnerable. Which made it the most painful story to tell, Gay says.
Over “Hunger’s” 88 short chapters, she explores the loneliness and pain of her body’s constraints. There is the exhaustion of constant scrutiny, of unavoidable logistical challenges. (How sturdy is a chair? How high the step onto a stage?) She conveys the relentless anxieties that fuel a “constant, destructive refrain”: I am the fattest person in this shopping mall. I am the fattest person on this panel. I am the fattest person in this casino. I am the fattest person.
But she also chronicles her perseverance, her formative relationships, and her ongoing quest for healing and peace. Although she turns a critical eye inward, she has much to say about a culture that glorifies TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser” and “My 600-lb Life” but makes little effort to accommodate larger people or support their physical and mental health.
The book offers a pointed retort to the smug strangers who shoot Gay sidelong glances at the gym or gawk as she settles into an airplane seat: Here is everything you could have possibly wanted to know about whyhow and someone comes to live in this body.
As for what it means for her — she’s still living her way into that answer.
And has that brought her closer to the peace she seeks?
“We’ll see,” she says. “It’s too soon to know.”