This brief commentary will in no way do justice to Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger; therefore, I urge anyone who reads this blog post (and is at all intrigued) to also read the book.
Gay is a critically-acclaimed author and professor, raised in the US by parents of Haitian descent. She also lives in a very large body, that which Gay describes as the protective fortress she created in response to a sexual assault experience at age 12. Now in her 40’s, Gay acknowledges the pain of knowing she no longer needs such protection; she depicts the incessant challenges of living in an “unruly” body in a world bent on disciplining such bodies.
She expresses contempt and frustration toward her body albeit a genuine liking for herself - for her weirdness, sense of humor, how she loves and how she writes. Stated in reverse, Gay articulates that we might love ourselves, who we are as people, while not necessarily loving our bodies.* Our body’s appearance and how we feel about it is not who we are; it is but one part of who we are.
To be clear, the fat acceptance movement is important, affirming, and profoundly necessary, but I also believe that part of fat acceptance is accepting that some of us struggle with body image and haven’t reached a place of peace and unconditional self-acceptance. (Hunger, p. 153)
In reference to the quote above, Gay offers an expanded definition of fat acceptance -- one that, I have no doubt, captures the real lived experience of many people. I thought of how important this more human definition is, and how many times my clients express confusing and conflicting thoughts about concepts like fat acceptance and especially, body positivity.
Gay writes of hunger. Hunger in the form of envy for all the things her body cannot do. Hunger for real relationships in which she does not have to apologize or somehow make up for her size. Hunger to feel pretty and to wear clothes with beautiful, colorful patterns -- to shed her chameleon-like “uniform” of jeans and a dark t-shirt.
My father believes that 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)
When the response to hunger and appetite is one of shame, a disordered relationship with food is a possible, if not likely, consequence (see also previous blog post). And yet, our proclivity to care for our body is in our blood. Among other things, Gay chronicles the healing power of learning to cook, in large part inspired by Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa. For Gay, Ina symbolizes a “plump," confident woman who celebrates her love of food and good ingredients. In doing so, Ina gives Gay permission to both acknowledge and satisfy her hunger in healthy, not destructive, ways.
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. (p. 215)
And maybe that’s where it starts: Small, consistent acts of self-care, one Contessa at a time.
*Gay notes that her body contempt is inextricably intertwined with societal contempt for bodies like hers. She depicts the many challenges faced, from airplane rides to fashion options (or lack thereof) to the humiliation and often lasting physical pain of sitting in too-small seats at restaurants, theaters, and professional events -- in short, to face the world as a SSBBW (super-sized big beautiful woman).