I have a lot of second thoughts about commenting on Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Here’s why. Roxane Gay is black, 6’3” tall and fat, weighing 577 pounds at one point. These are not incidental details. This is exactly what her book is about. Do I dare to comment on such emotional and intimate matters when I am not black, not tall and not fat?
My qualms aside, I found so much to relate to in Gay’s telling of her relationship with her body. Unbeknownst to most of my friends, my most consistent and longest point of unhappiness has been my body. Gay’s weight gain started after a horrific trauma. I ate too much for more mundane reasons: solace for loneliness and to compensate for the hardships of starting school in a new country and in new language. And the wonderful taste of American processed foods — canned corn beef hash, Chef Boyardee ravioli, Fig Newton bars and vanilla wafers with milk.
Those were the after-school snacks. A few hours later, I happily ate up all of the Chinese dinner Mom painstakingly prepared every day. In 1950s America, and certainly not among people from China, weight issues were not even on the horizon. Neither Mom nor I ever heard of a “calorie.”
In fact, my first awareness that I had a problem with fat came from watching the Mickey Mouse Club. One of the two grown-up Mouseketeers, Jimmy, mentioned that if you pinched the skin at the bottom of your ribs, it should be less than an inch. I pinched myself fully expecting to be normal. I was shocked when I grabbed a fistful of midriff.
Like Gay, I come from a loving family of educated immigrants –hers from Haiti, mine China. We were both raised Catholic. Gay and I both were keenly aware of our role: to be a good student, no, a stellar student, no, the best student, and to not cause trouble. We did not bring our troubles home. Instead, we escaped through food and through books.
A couple of years later, in eighth or ninth grade, I came upon a beauty tip book the title of which I’ve forgotten. The author talked about clothes, hair and weight. She talked about calories. It was then that, like Gay, “I realized that weight loss, thinness really, was social currency.”
Luckily for me and unlike Gay, I have always liked sports. I still play tennis. I golf and walk. It’s not just for my weight. I genuinely enjoy those activities. Interval training, not so much.
I’ve also been lucky on the medical front. As a physician, I have access to, in fact, can’t escape, the medical literature about nutrition, exercise, even surgical options. These recommendations have changed wildly over the years. I realize that these days, lack of information is not the main reason people eat too much or the “wrong” foods. Still, knowing is better than not knowing. In case you want to know, currently, I eat a lowish-carb diet. I walk or play tennis every day. I do “20 seconds on, two minutes off” intervals on an elliptical. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep.
Anyone looking at me today would see a five-foot tall, athletic but by no means thin or willowy, Asian woman. They would not realize that I have obsessed over this body for the last sixty years.
The hard part is not losing the weight. It’s not maintaining the weight. It’s dealing with the terror of gaining weight. After being on vacation, I have a moment of panic as I step on the scale. I feel unmoored. What if the number is way higher? A lot can happen in two weeks.
If I’ve gained two pounds over the holidays or on a cruise, I immediately do the mental math. Two pounds a month times 12 months, that’s 24 pounds a year! OMG—I will look like a sausage! None of my clothes will fit. No one will love me — a subliminal message from living in our culture. As Gay put it so elegantly, “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth.”
I am now 71 years old. (Gay is in her forties.) Even now, I am acutely aware of the thickness of the middle section of my body, my poochy abdomen, my side boobs. (No Lululemon spandex, halter-top tennis outfit for me!) Gay feels like everyone only sees her for her size. I sort of have the same, but also the opposite, problem. I am very small in comparison to most people. People will read this and pooh pooh my feelings. I am like the thin person in Kate’s self-help group in This Is Us. “You don’t have a problem,” 600-pound Kate yells at her. In a way, neither Gay’s feelings nor mine are taken seriously. (You are pooh poohing right now, aren’t you?)
Intellectually, I know this is stupid. If I lose any more weight, I’ll just look frail and rickety — like Nancy Reagan. Only now do I realize that it’s my shape (too round) that I still don’t like, not my weight. But, why should it matter? Who am I kidding? Again, Gay goes straight to the heart of the matter: “I am working toward abandoning the damaging cultural messages that tell me my worth is strictly tied up in my body.”
Gay’s book is a detailed, insightful chronicle of her thoughts on all aspects of her large body. It also gives a poignant description of the longings, hopes and feelings inside that body and that brain and that heart. She recounts her interactions with family, friends, teachers, lovers, abusers and bosses with honesty and no small amount of humor.
I love some of Gay’s description of specific episodes. She described her trauma without raw language but left me with the lasting horror and shame of it. She talked about how swinging her arms became a focus of a critical boyfriend. She told of getting painful bruises on her thighs from chairs with arms too narrow for her body. Once at a conference, she balanced on her quads for two hours over a flimsy chair for fear it would break if she put full weight on it. (She was pleased her quads were so strong!). She expressed the universal disconnect between our good intentions and our deeds: “Every morning, I wake up and have a few minutes where I am free from my body and my failings. During these moments, I think Today, I will make good choices. I will work out. I will eat small portions. I will take the stairs when possible. …But then I get out of bed.”
I am ashamed that I have done some of exactly what she described of the way people treat fat people. I have panicked when I saw a large person oozing onto my side of the coach airplane seat, the flimsy boundary that is the armrest already raised.
I have resented patients who were fat. It frustrated me that I couldn’t hear as well through the stethoscope and I couldn’t feel as well for lymph nodes or abdominal masses or an enlarged uterus through layers of fat. My fear of messing up overrode my compassion.
Roxane Gay has become a renowned author of essays, reviews and books of fiction and nonfiction. She has won many awards. She has found love (I think). She has reconciled with her family. She has a plethora of speaking gigs. Her relationship with her body continues to be a work in progress. I hope that she figures it out before she is seventy-one. I hope I figure it out before I’m seventy-two.
Tell me: Do you perceive some aspect of your body to be a problem?