February 12, 2018

The Body as Social: Roxane Gay’s Hunger

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Our bodies are not just biological, but the way we make sense of our bodies and the bodies of others exists in both a personal and social context. While our bodies are also private, they are (mostly) visible to the public, and as such, often judged and evaluated by those around us and of course, by ourselves. In addition, the physical aspects of our bodies are shaped by events that are sometimes beyond our control, whether it be based on economics, our geographic location, or traumatic events.

Author Roxane Gay demonstrates this in her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. The title, and the book’s contents, reminds us that our bodies, like ourselves, have stories of how they came to be as they are. In Gay’s case, she recounts how being sexually assaulted by a group of boys at the age of twelve changed her relationship to her body from that moment forward.

She recounts how she coped by eating and felt the desire to be bigger, to prevent herself from feeling small and vulnerable again. This set in motion the cycle of weight gain with attempts at weight loss, often leaving her heavier and feeling shame which was regularly validated by both concerned family members and cruel strangers.

Decades later, as a “woman of size,” she regularly experiences difficulty traversing public spaces that many of us take for granted: chairs in restaurants may be too small, which keeps her from socializing with friends sometimes, air travel often involves buying two tickets, with flight attendants often ready to give away the “extra” seat to another passenger, and the occasional rude comment made by a passerby. Her public appearances sometimes lead to Twitter trolls who make snide remarks about her appearance.

If you have ever looked at someone else and judged another person’s body (and really, who among us hasn’t?) this book is a must-read. The memoir of her body is one of trauma and the struggle to feel safe and avoid further victimization. It is also one of survival and success. Her book also reminds us that the stories of bodies are often more complicated beyond what meets the eye.

Before reading her book it was easy for me to think of one’s weight as the result diet and exercise alone, something an individual “succeeds” or “fails” at doing. By sharing her story, Gay very bravely lets us inside of her emotional world, helping the reader understand how weight loss can leave her feeling frightened of being vulnerable again, even decades after the attack. She acknowledges that she is at times a prisoner of her own body, and that the body she created to protect herself is also harmful to her health and well-being.

For Gay and countless others, weight is not nearly so simple as finding the “right” weight-loss plan and sticking to it. It is about unraveling a carefully woven shield created to protect her after an event that she felt she could not disclose, even to those closest to her, for many years. She explains how this and later events in her life made her feel worthless, that her body was worthless. And people’s reaction to her size continued to reinforce this message. 

Hunger also brings up an important sociological question: whose bodies are held up to public scrutiny? What factors seem to make it okay for an individual’s body to by the subject of other peoples’ discussions?

Certainly female celebrities who seem to possess so-called “ideal” body types can be most heavily scrutinized in tabloid magazines: Did she gain weight? Lose too much? Is that a “baby bump?” How quickly can she lose the baby weight? Can you eat like a celebrity and have a body just like theirs? Non-celebrity females might also be scrutinized: is she dressing appropriately for her age? Revealing too much? Too little? Wouldn’t she be prettier if she smiled more?

Boys and men are also judged, particularly if they are deemed to be too large or if their size isn’t being applied to an athletic pursuit. They might also be judged (by themselves or others) for being too small and seen as somehow “weak.”

If you think about it, your body has a history too. What is the memoir of your body? Is it one rooted in triumph based on opportunities you have been able to take advantage of? Rewards that are rooted in social practices, such as excelling in a particular sport? Have there been adverse events such as illness—yours or someone close to you—that has impacted the story of your body? All of our bodies have biological, psychological, and social histories.

And as Hunger reminds us, we are all far more than the bodies those around us can see.

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