Reflections on “Hunger” by Roxane Gay

I recently read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay, an excellent if a sometimes difficult book about her experience in a larger body. Even though I didn’t have the traumatic experience she did and her body is larger than mine, I could relate to so many things.


That relatability made me think about the fact that while we each have our own stories about how we ended up with larger bodies, it seems that the experience of being overweight in our culture is pretty much universal.


A family matter

Not everyone may experience being overweight as a family problem, but Gay did, and so did I. She said that for a while, her parents brought up weight in every conversation, and even when that ended, she felt them watching her.


“[When I visit my parents] I feel like everything I do is being watched, scrutinized, judged. I deprive myself, to give the appearance of conforming, of making some small effort to become thinner, better, less of a family problem…” (p. 230)


I could relate to that so well. Although my parents didn’t always bring up my weight, it came up often enough, and even when it wasn’t explicitly stated, I also felt like I was being watched. In front of family, I did the same thing Gay did – “made a show of dieting (and continued eating everything I really wanted to eat, in secret).” (p. 66)


I did this, too, particularly around my mom and her mother (the three of us pictured here). Weight was very important to them, but they didn't realize how that focus impacted me.


And sadly, I think this is the norm for far too many.


Eating for emotional reasons

Gay also talked a lot about eating for emotional reasons. This description, too, resonated with me:

“Food was the only place of solace. Alone, in my apartment, I could soothe myself with food. Food didn’t judge me or demand anything of me. When I ate, I did not have to be anything but myself.” (p. 116)


I haven’t felt that way about food for a long time, but I remember when I did. When I was younger, I sometimes felt that food was the only constant in my life, the only thing that wouldn’t turn away from me. It wasn’t true, but it still felt that way at times.


And in the past year of the pandemic, I’ve realized that while I’ve sometimes turned to food out of a low-level sense of depression. With all the terrible things going on in the world, why not eat? What did a few extra snacks matter in the grand scheme of things?


Even though I knew the answers to those questions – food is at best a temporary comfort and won’t change any of the underlying issues, and overeating could contribute to me feeling tired and overwhelmed by everything – it didn’t always stop me from eating.


Given that, I have to agree with something else Gay wrote:

“I know what it means to hunger without being hungry. My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.” (p. 193)


And she’s right. Sometimes hunger is in our minds, sometimes it’s real physical hunger, but other times the hunger and yearning go deeper than that. The trick is remembering that in those cases, the hunger isn’t for food.


Self-denial

She also talked about all the ways she denied herself, including trying to take up space, avoiding wearing bright colors, and not looking feminine – because she didn’t think she deserved any of that.


“I deny myself the right to space when I am in public…. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I deem inappropriate for a body like mine… anywhere I could be seen or where I might be in the way, really.” (p. 145)


My heart ached for her when I read that, but also for my younger self, who did those things. I didn’t travel a lot when was really heavy, but when I did, I remember trying to squeeze myself into the small airplane seats without, somehow, encroaching on the space of the person next to me – including the armrest. At least I have the benefit of being short, but it was still an impossible task that I kept trying to achieve.


How many in larger bodies avoid the beaches, like I did, because it seemed “inappropriate”? Or eating in nice restaurants, going to concerts, or movie theaters?


Feeling unworthy

That leads right into feeling unworthy, having low self-esteem, and believing that you’re not allowed certain things. Gay wrote:

“I am also plagued by the idea that because I’m not a slender supermodel, I really have no business having standards…. [In relationships it] is hard to express dissatisfaction or have the arguments I want to have because I feel like I’m already on thin ice by virtue of being fat. It is hard to ask for what I want and need and deserve and so I don’t.” (p. 244)


I would add that asking for what you want or need when you’re in a larger body goes beyond personal relationships. It also applies to social settings and work environments.


My biggest personal memory of this was when I was in college and doing IT support as part of my co-op education. I was working with a bunch of guys who refused to turn the lights on, preferring to simply navigate by the dim light of the computer screens.


That wasn’t okay with me, especially when I tried to read during lunch, but it honestly never occurred to me that I could ask them to turn on the lights. Nor did I want to bring a flashlight or do anything that would draw attention to myself. I didn’t think I was worthy of having my own needs met; I just went along with what they did.


And so I was incredibly relieved when another young woman joined us about three months later. She was tiny, even shorter than me, and skinny, and she had no problem standing up for herself and demanding that the guys keep the lights on. I was so grateful to her, but I didn’t even have the courage to tell her that – although I did make some chocolate chip cookies as a sort of thank-you.


Impact of social messages

And of course, there’s the negative impact of social messages, including yogurt commercials. Gay wrote:

“In these commercials, women swoon over the possibility of satisfying their hunger with somewhat repulsive foods while also maintaining an appropriately slim figure. The joy these women express over fat-free yogurt and 100-calorie snack packs is not to be believed. Every time I watch a yogurt commercial I think, My god, I want to be that happy. I really do.” (p. 135)


This made me curious to look up some yogurt commercials – since I’ve given up cable, I haven’t seen these types of ads for quite a while. And they’re truly horrendous. I even found this article called A Brief History of Terrible Yogurt Commercials Aimed at Women that says it all and is worth a look.


Yogurt commercials aren’t the only problem, either. All the commercials and programs geared towards weight loss serve to remind people that you can only have self-worth (or worth in general) if you’re thin.


Gay talked about how children would stare at her and, being children, didn’t worry about whether they should talk about her size. She, like too many, has been the subject of name-calling and shaming by complete strangers, as well as doctors who are supposed to help take care of her.


But as she’s gotten older, she’s questioning those messages more, trying to get away from them.

“I am learning to care less what people think. I am learning that the measure of my happiness is not weight loss but, rather, feeling more comfortable in my body. I am increasingly committed to challenging the cultural norms that dictate far too much of how women live their lives and treat their bodies.” (p. 303)


If only society would get the message and stop with the yogurt ads and all the other damaging messages.


Important reminders

Since I don’t live in a body that large anymore – and never lived in one as large as Gay – it’s easy to forget how difficult things can be. So while parts of the book were difficult to read, it was well worth it.


It reminds me of both the difficulties we all face in accepting ourselves as we are and why it’s important to try to change and challenge our cultural norms.

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