“The story of my body is not a triumph,” Roxane Gay writes in the opening pages of her 2017 memoir, Hunger. “This is not a weight-loss memoir… Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”

Hunger - Roxane Gay - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In short, vignette-like chapters, Gay describes her rapid weight gain in the wake of a devastating trauma (to say the least), and her life lived in a fat body. Take this as your trigger warning: Hunger includes detailed descriptions of sexual assault and disordered eating – and this review is going to cover them, too.

The story Gay tells in Hunger is not one we often hear in discussions about weight as it relates to health, or food as it relates to weight. It’s one we’re not comfortable hearing, but one as essential to understanding the subject as understanding that the BMI is bullshit.

[The BMI is a measure] that allows the medical establishment to try and bring a sense of discipline to unruly bodies

Hunger (Page 9)

Gay is not ‘voluptuous’ or ‘pleasantly plump’. She isn’t even obese, or morbidly obese. She is, she tells us in Hunger, ‘super morbidly obese’. She is completely frank in describing her shame about her body’s size, and her desire to be thin or ‘normal’. She sees her body as a “cage of her own making”, one that has certain benefits (more on those in a minute) but overwhelming downsides.

She brilliantly articulates the conflict and contradiction of living in a fat body. She ‘knows’ that we ‘should’ love our bodies as they are, for what they can do, and feed them with fuel while rejecting diet culture… but that knowledge doesn’t (always) correspond with her feelings. It’s possible to know all the body-positive catch-phrases, but not to feel the way they say we should, when we exist in a world that is so pervasively and inherently anti-fat.

But Hunger is not just one long confession about self-loathing and body image. Gay delves deep, deeper than we could ever hope or expect, into the reasons she has the body she does. As a tween, Gay was the victim (her preferred nomenclature, though she respects the use of ‘survivor’ by those who choose) of a violent sexual assault, perpetrated by a boy she believed to be her boyfriend and his friends. She was gang raped, and she told no one. It’s horrifying and heart-breaking and horrendous.

That experience was defining, in that Gay began to eat as a means to self-soothe after that event, and as a means to become physically repulsive to men. Her body is a rejection of the male gaze made manifest, the only way a young Gay could see to protect herself from further violation.

Hunger is a study in contradictions. Physical heft bought Gay personal space and a layer of protection, but it also made her body public property – the subject of opinions and input from complete strangers, uninvited. She is encouraged at every turn to ‘get healthy’, to ‘lose weight through diet and exercise’, without any consideration for the cause of her weight gain to begin with (not to mention the impossibility of finding active wear that will fit her). And, as I mentioned a second ago, Gay interrogates the conflict between the way the body positivity movement says she ‘should’ feel about her body, waging constant war against every other message (internal and external) she receives about the way she looks.

Throughout Hunger, Gay addresses clothes, diets, bulimia, public spaces, doctors, food – all the aspects of her life that her size touches. If you are of average size yourself, or even close to it, it will be revelatory the ways in which weight can stymie your capacity to simply go about your business.

Gay has described Hunger as “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write”, and it’s not hard to see why. I cannot fathom the bravery and strength it took for her to simply put these words on a page, let alone share them with the world in a best-selling memoir. I’m in awe of her, honestly, and I’m sure after reading Hunger you will be, too.

Want more? Read my full review of Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hunger:

  • “I wanted to relate to her as I am also obese but most of the time I didn’t. I’m what she calls “Lane Bryant fat” in the book because I can still buy clothes there. It’s a decent read if you like memoirs and struggle with weight even if you are “Lane Bryant fat” because we can still be pretty big, too.” – Jessie Tyler
  • “I felt I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two long-time intimate adversaries: Roxane Gay and her body.” – Laurasaridavis
  • “The best thing about the book is its cover: a clever, almost abstract photograph of fork tines. Sorry I wasted my time on such an inferior, whiny memoir.” – Elizabeth
  • “The book description needs to be more clear as to what this book is about. It is not about the life of an obese woman, the trials she faces and how she rises above. It’s about self pity and a little bit of Liberal politics.” E.A.S.