On Reading “Hunger” By Roxane Gay

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A stark reflection of everything wrong with our food dialogues.


On a Sunday in June 2013, Geoffrey Miller- evolutionary psychologist, tweeted

“Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth”

Although he later apologized and deleted the tweet, this less than 140 character expression of Miller’s opinion on obesity was captured by the online world forever. No deletion was going to nullify the onslaught.

If this tweet disgusts you (as it should), then reading Roxane Gay’s “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” is like having a bucket of cold water splashed on your face. We can “tsh-tsh” all we want about the topic of obesity, but through her own story, Gay makes it increasingly obvious how we are failing in our food dialogues. Without empathy, our discussions are half baked and pointless.

Without empathy, our food discussions are half baked and pointless. Click To Tweet

Roxane Gay is the author of popular books like Bad Feminist and Difficult Women. Her debut novel An Untamed State was highly praised and as the Guardian called it – “an unflinching portrayal of sexual and spiritual violence.” She has a Ph.D. from Michigan Technological University and is a faculty member at Purdue University.

“Every body has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger.”

And so begins the memoir which talks about her struggles with obesity, and how she sought food after a sexual assault to turn her body into a “fortress” where she could feel safe. Gay writes about her personal and professional ups and downs, about race, culture, fitting in and so much more in this brutally honest memoir. But beneath all that, Hunger acts as a mirror which shows us our double standards when it comes to defining beauty and talking about obesity.

“Writing this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth.This a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. The do not. This is not a story of triumph, but this is a story that demands to be told and deserves to be heard.” 

We have many notions about food, eating disorders and over-eating. Obesity is immediately associated with gluttony without thinking that there could be an underlying cause for this dependence on food. Food advice is handed out by everyone, for everything- from eating too much to eating too little or even when you are eating just right (you get advice on the constitution of your plate). Many different factors shape our eating habits, and assumption based advice does not often work.

This doesn’t  mean that we ignore unhealthy food habits and let our family members struggle- no. (In the book, Roxane Gay is more than honest about the day to day struggles of living with obesity). It means that we need to stop being judgmental, and thinking that we can actually judge because what we know is what is right. Gay points out in the memoir that even health professionals are quick to judge. She writes that when she visits a doctor for a sore throat, the diagnosis has obesity listed first followed by the cause for the throat infection.

It has been four days since I finished reading Hunger, and I have spent these four days listening to her interviews, reading about her previous work and poking around the world wide web for reactions on Hunger. Among all the praise I also found a few discussions dissecting this book to understand how someone could be so honest! Is this solipsism or just an expression of hatred?- they ask.  To me, it looks like she managed to expose a gaping hole in the wall, and instead of talking about this hole we are focusing on possible cracks on the side and its imminent danger.

 

A part of this book which I can never forget is when she talks about her experience with cooking and trying out different recipes.

“I did not think it was possible for me to love cooking. I did not think such a love was allowed. I did not think I could love food or indulge in the sensual pleasures of eating. It did not occur to me that to cook for myself was to care for myself or that I was allowed to care for myself amidst the ruin I had let myself become.  These things were forbidden to me, the price I paid for being so wildly undisciplined about my body. Food was fuel, nothing more, nothing less, even if I overindulged in that fuel whenever I could.”

I don’t think I have ever read such a fragile expression of love for food.

I write about food sustainability. I philosophize food in the hope that people will make a deeper connection with it, which will, in turn, lead to respect for everyone involved in the making this food.  But sustainability runs deeper than that. Simran Sethi, author of “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love” once said -” The greatest act of living sustainably is to be kind to each other.” It is impossible to talk about sustainability without addressing pre-conceived notions about body images and the food that feeds into it.

There are multiple layers to the issue of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and the emotional relationship we all have with food. In this essay in Aeon.co, Dr. Weinberg states -“We need to focus on treating and preventing obesity, not only through intensive weight-loss regimes for individuals, but by attacking the root cause: the behaviours that are damaging to your health, no matter what your size.” (I would strongly recommend reading the essay to better grasp these hidden layers).

Of course in our limited capacity, we cannot all look at these layers or identify contributing factors. What we can do is stop equating the obvious and learn to add an element of empathy to our food dialogues when needed.  We can redefine what we consider to be perfect.

“I believe we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types. I believe it is so important for women to feel comfortable in their bodies, without wanting to change every single thing about their bodies to find that comfort. I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.” Roxane Gay; Hunger A (Memoir) Of My Body.

 

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