Our Enraging, Beautiful, Hungry Bodies
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There’s a moment in every day where I think of my younger self—the fifteen-year-old me, the sixteen-year-old me, and the twenty-year-old me who prayed morning, noon, and night to be rid of my body. When I was younger, my scars, bruises, bent fingers, limping leg, and crooked lips disgusted me. I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy and I have lived as though my body were a curse, as though I was being punished for a crime I didn’t know I committed. As a disabled person who is a full-time walker and doesn’t need a mobility aid, I never felt like I was able to express my frustration without someone jumping in to say that someone had it worse than me or that they didn’t see me as disabled. I was bitter and angry because I lived when I so often hoped for the courage to die. There are things I say to my younger self after accomplishments and dreams fulfilled that I hope she hears. We never thought we’d make it to where we are, especially in this body. We saw ourselves the way the world sees us, as freaks or not at all.
The body is a complicated thing, not only in the way it is perceived by others but also in the way we perceive it ourselves. So much of the hatred toward my body stemmed from the way the world views it. A few years ago, before I began embracing my body, I was in the mall when a group of girls shouted at me. “Why in the hell are you walking like that?” they asked, before bursting into laughter. I didn’t know how to respond so I said nothing. Instead, I internalized my shame and berated myself for daring to exist in the world. When I got home that night, I cried myself to sleep.
In her new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay experiences similar moments of cruelty. Once, Gay is told by a flight attendant to remove her own seatbelt extender and use the airline’s “approved” extender. Gay attempts to remove it quietly, but the flight attendant turns the moment into a spectacle, refusing to take off until Gay does as she is asked and speaking loudly enough for other passengers to hear throughout the ordeal.
In the memoir, Gay is vulnerable and honest in ways we’ve come to expect in her work. What sets Hunger apart is the amount that we learn about Gay’s personal life and the events that shaped who she is and the body she is in. At times, it felt like we, the readers, did not deserve to hear these stories. The chaptered bursts of memory, events, and self-reflection are so intimate that reading them felt like listening in on conversations one can only have with people one trusts deeply. Yet by the memoir’s end, I wanted to be the person who deserved to hear these stories. The vulnerability in Hunger hit me hard and I think that’s intentional. By allowing herself to be vulnerable in her writing and in this memoir, Gay allows her readers to be vulnerable, too. The vulnerability in the memoir forces the reader to confront any preconceived notions about the body that we came to the book with. The short chapters also make it easier to retain all the information being shared, gifting the reader with an intimacy of a trusted friend.
My body and Roxane Gay’s body are not the same. We don’t experience the world in the exact same way, but I found myself nodding my head in understanding through various parts of her memoir, recognizing her anger, her fear, and her sadness. We are not the same, but we live in a world that does not give us the comfort and accessibility our bodies deserve. Gay writes:
I did an event in New York City at the Housing Works Bookstore to celebrate Harper Perennial’s fiftieth anniversary. There was a stage two or three feet off of the ground, and no staircase leading to it. I knew there was going to be trouble. When it came time for the event to begin, the authors with whom I was participating easily climbed onto the stage. And then there were five excruciating minutes of me trying to get onto it too while hundreds of people stared awkwardly.
I have had a similar experience. At the end of middle school, there was an eighth grade graduation ceremony. The principal called our names we were supposed to go on the stage, grab the certificate, shake some hands, and leave. When my name was called, I panicked because there were steps, but no handrail. I had to stare down a teacher until he got the hint that I needed help, while my classmates behind me waited impatiently. As a disabled person who does not need mobility aids, I still find myself entering inaccessible places often—places with broken handrails or none at all, sidewalks high enough off the ground that I have to pause and prepare my body to step onto them or ask a loved one for a helping hand.
Asking for help has always been hard for me. I have always feared appearing weak, to loved ones and strangers alike—I don’t want my body and my presence to be an inconvenience. When Gay writes about how she is terrified of other people, their stares, questions, and comments, I know that I am, too. For most of my life, that fear of people has kept me from really living, from feeling free. Even now, with my newfound like for my body, I still tense up when I catch people staring. I still have to actively keep negative thoughts at bay when I hear their snide comments and muffled laughter. I live differing versions of my graduation ceremony if not daily, weekly, and if not weekly, monthly.
Through my reading of Hunger, I often found myself noting the way in which many of the events—the negative ones, specifically—that happened to Gay happened more than once in varying forms. I was particularly appreciative of the way in which Gay told the story of her body in a circular narrative, adding in memories and moments that pushed it along but also reminded the reader what we’ve been told already. It works because that is what life is: a series of moments, both big and small, good and bad, that we keep going back to, that shape us and influence our decisions whether we want them to or not. There are truths that we discover and lies we believe when reading or learning about someone else’s life. The way that we navigate the world is at once singular and collaborative.
When the world sees your body as other, unruly, or wrong, they don’t see the person contained within the body. Who you are ceases to matter. The only thing that matters is space and how much of it you take up. All the people who feel comfortable saying whatever they want about me and my body, or Roxane and hers, are evidence of this. For example, Gay tells another airplane story about an older male passenger complaining about Gay sitting in the exit aisle of a plane, arguing that she could not handle the responsibilities of the seat. When we fail to see the people inside the bodies and only react to the bodies themselves, and when we deny a person their humanity because they live in a body that is unlike ours, we allow the ugliest parts of ourselves to come through. We feed into and stand behind the culture that already treats fatness and otherness like a contagious disease and fat and differently abled people like an epidemic.
While reading Hunger, I found myself enraged by the things that people would say to Gay without pause or care as to how their words came across. As she spoke of retreating inside herself, I was instantly transported back to the times in which I’d done the same—when children have asked me what is wrong with my body as their parents rush them away with an apology on their lips, or when I have to ask for help to do mundane tasks like retying my shoes because I cannot tie them as tightly as they need to be tied. I used to tell my friends I hated trying on clothes because the lighting was bad, but the truth is, I hate how long I take to change. I find myself mortified by the idea of taking long enough for them to stop asking me on mall trips. I often wish for the power of invisibility in these moments, apologizing for a body that is ‘other.’
There is both comfort and loneliness to being invisible. My own comfort lies in having convinced myself that invisibility is better than the questions and the stares, even though invisibility doesn’t grant me any peace of mind. Invisibility allows people to see right through me, but they still find ways to broadcast their discomfort. In Hunger, Gay shows us the limits of invisibility. She describes how she was often the punching bag in her past relationships. She tells of a time when she got her makeup done to impress a partner, only to have him tell her how she might further improve her appearance. There were partners who cheated and made her feel lesser. Still, she found herself hungering for these relationships, reciprocating the interest of the partners who pursued her first, even if her own interest wasn’t initially there.
In each of these moments of vulnerability, Hunger showcases the ways in which hunger is much more than food. Hunger can be the quiet desperation of wanting to be understood and loved but pushing the people who may want to understand away because past scars still bleed inside the cages of our memory. Hunger can be hating yourself, in part, because the world you exist within expects you to. Hunger can be letting the world hurt you because you think pain is what you deserve. Hunger can be deprivation, anger, and sadness. It can be hard truths, joy, and honesty.
Hunger forced me to ask myself tough questions. Who am I when I’m alone with my thoughts? Even as someone who identifies as disabled, reading this book made me realize how complicit I am in the ways that our society treats fat bodies. I thought of my desperation to lose weight and how many times I have looked at an overweight person and been glad I wasn’t that big—as though fatness would be an added strike against me. The intimacy of the book urged me into an intimacy with myself, allowing me to confront my own past thoughts and actions in order to see people fully, outside of European beauty standards, outside of standards of whiteness and patriarchy, such that I, and others, can be fully seen for the totality of who we are.