A Practice in Empathy

Review of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Fat women’s bodies are not their own. They are a ‘subject of public discourse’. Fat women become a body and a body alone; losing their selfhood amidst the near-constant ridicule. Even at six feet three inches and 577 pounds (at her heaviest), Roxane Gay was invisible. People do not see her but rather her body; a body that is unruly and unacceptable.

In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay describes what it is like to move through the world in a fat woman’s body; not Lane-Bryant-fat, a term cheekily coined by Gay to describe women sized 12-26, but rather ‘morbidly obese’. Gay starts what she says was the hardest book she’s ever written by warning the reader that this is not ‘a triumphant story’; that she will offer us no happy endings, no before and after pictures. She merely offers us the stark and cruel reality of what it is like to live in her body. This reality was born out of a vicious, inhuman gang rape she suffered at the mere age of twelve. After the gang rape, ‘hating [herself] became as natural as breathing.’She ate and ate and ate and became a ‘fortress’ to prevent other terrible things from happening to her. In the memoir, the rape is not simply past for her, it is intrinsically present and painful. Food was comfort. Weight protected her. Fatness was punishment.

Gay’s memoir is a poignant exploration of her troubled relationship with her body; a relationship which is riddled with past violations and inexplicable shame. It is both a deeply personal self-examination and a culturally relevant critique of our fat hating society. Roxane Gay demands empathy from her reader without ever inspiring pity. This is done through her clean and emphatic prose which invites the reader to enter into the cage of her body. Her prose is best displayed as it slips into near-stream-of-conscious when she is grappling with raw, unapologetically brutal memories; as can be seen in the retelling of her gang rape: “In my history of violence, there was a boy. I loved him. His name was Christopher. That’s not really his name. You know that. I was raped by Christopher and several of his friends in an abandoned hunting cabin in the woods where no one but those boys could hear me scream.”

Hunger is not an inspiration or an instruction but rather a practice in empathy. And for many women, it is the articulation of thoughts and feelings long had but never expressed.