Rox­ane Gay’s reck­on­ing

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - RE­BECCA CAR­ROLL CRITIC AT LARGE

Like the ma­jor­ity of women in Amer­ica, I think about nearly every piece of food that I put into my mouth. We all know why too. Be­cause apart from money, thin­ness is the coun­try’s most val­ued and de­sired cur­rency. If you are a woman, of any race, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble not to in­ter­nal­ize this main­stream mantra of ema­ci­a­tion as the end goal, but if pre­empted and per­pet­u­ated by sex­ual as­sault, a woman’s body can be­come the tow­er­ing em­bod­i­ment of ex­quis­ite pain. Such is the case for Rox­ane Gay, whose lat­est work, “Hunger,” is a mem­oir of her body and how she has lived in and with it since sur­viv­ing a hor­ri­ble act of vi­o­lence.

Gay, who rose to lit­er­ary star­dom in 2014 with her cheeky, bril­liant best­selling col­lec­tion of es­says, “Bad Fem­i­nist,” has writ­ten pow­er­fully and of­ten for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions about gen­der, race, iden­tity, pop cul­ture and per­sonal pol­i­tics, but “Hunger” is the first book-length piece of writ­ing that fo­cuses ex­plic­itly on her weight. “This is a book,” she writes, “about liv­ing in the world when you are three or four hun­dred pounds over­weight, when you are not obese or mor­bidly obese but su­per mor­bidly obese.” What evolves from there is a brac­ingly vivid ac­count of how in­tel­lect, emo­tion and phys­i­cal­ity speak to each other

and work in tire­less tan­dem to not just sur­vive un­speak­able hurt, but to cre­ate a life worth liv­ing and cel­e­brat­ing.

The crit­i­cal beauty of “Hunger” is that Gay is so much smarter than ev­ery­one who has judged her based on her ap­pear­ance, which she man­ages to con­vey with­out airs or ever ac­tu­ally stat­ing this as fact. Her can­dor and self-aware­ness are nec­es­sary and re­li­able guides for the poignantly af­flicted jour­ney from a happy, pretty girl in a lov­ing fam­ily to “a thing, f lesh and girl bones” used, bro­ken and dis­carded by a teenage boy and his friends. And then, the three-decade af­ter­math. “Those boys treated me like noth­ing so I be­came noth­ing.”

And yet there is not a sin­gle mo­ment through­out the book when this state­ment rings ir­refutably true, which is to say Gay’s mighty strength of char­ac­ter, sapi­ent in­sights, deep and abid­ing love from and for her fam­ily (“We’re al­ways tied to­gether with our eyes and our lips and our blood and our bloody hearts”) are, to my mind the very op­po­site of noth­ing­ness. But that’s what is also re­mark­able about this book, and which also serves as an on­go­ing theme from chap­ter to chap­ter: It is, and it isn’t. In sev­eral in­stances, Gay drops a spare but sear­ing ex­is­ten­tial para­dox: “I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do.” “I do not have an an­swer to that ques­tion, or I do.” “This is no way to live but this is how I live.” “I wish I knew why. Or I do know why.” “I wrote this book. I don’t know why. Or I do.” Usu­ally, it’s the lat­ter that be­comes her sus­tained re­al­ity, but there is also the sense that one re­al­ity could not ex­ist with­out the other — a cru­cible of war­ring re­flec­tions.

In­deed, Gay does know why she turned to food. “Food of­fered com­fort when I needed to be com­forted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me.” The daugh­ter of mid­dle­class Haitian im­mi­grants, Gay and her two younger brothers were raised in Ne­braska, well loved and pro­vided for, with a rev­er­ence for their her­itage and a healthy at­ti­tude to­ward food. As Gay be­gan to put on weight, though, it be­came a se­ri­ous prob­lem. “When you are over­weight in a Haitian fam­ily, your body is a fam­ily con­cern.” And so be­gan years of her par­ents en­gag­ing in cri­sis man­age­ment — Gay’s body be­ing the cri­sis.

At 13, just one year af­ter the as­sault, Gay goes away to pri­vate school (Phillips Ex­eter Academy), where she in­dulges in her love of books and dis­cov­ers an affin­ity for theater but strug­gles with the trauma she has shared with no one, and sub­se­quently, eats. “The fat,” Gay writes, “cre­ated a new body, one that shamed me but one that made me feel safe, and more than any­thing, I des­per­ately needed to feel safe. I needed to feel like a fortress, im­per­me­able.” There were bouts with ill­ness and a sum­mer away at weight loss camp, but each time she lost weight she would undo what was out­wardly per­ceived as progress in or­der “to make my body big­ger and big­ger and big­ger and safer.”

There were years of lone­li­ness, body-sham­ing and racism — Gay in­cludes an anec­dote from when she opened her ac­cep­tance let­ter to Yale within eye­shot of a white male peer: “He looked at me with plain dis­gust. ‘Af­fir­ma­tive Ac­tion,’ he sneered, un­able to swal­low the bit­ter truth that I, a black girl, had achieved some­thing that he could not.”

Later, Gay dis­cov­ered on­line chat rooms, where she could “pre­tend to be thin and sexy and con­fi­dent,” bat­tled bu­limia for four years and spent a “lost year” in Arizona, when she was in­volved with both men and women, be­fore grad­u­ate school in Michi­gan, where Gay, who iden­ti­fies as queer, fell into a healthy, lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with a man. With each di­choto­mous ex­pe­ri­ence she de­vours her way through, her body ex­pands — but so does her mind and her heart.

“Hunger” is also a pointed take­down of Amer­ica’s mas­sive com­mer­cial thin­ness mar­ket­ing ma­chine — namely, re­al­ity TV, a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try that in­cludes tele­vi­sion shows like “The Big­gest Loser,” “Ex­treme Makeover: Weight Loss” and most re­cently, Khloé Kar­dashian’s “Re­venge Body,” where guests get re­venge on some­one who has be­trayed them by los­ing weight and get­ting in shape. “It’s a hell of a thing,” writes Gay, “this idea that the way to truly set­tle old scores is to get thin­ner and fit­ter.”

She also calls out the steady stream of celebri­ties who en­dorse weight loss pro­grams — Va­lerie Bertinelli for Jenny Craig, Weight Watch­ers’ Jessica Simp­son, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, Oprah Win­frey, who sells the prod­uct with this mes­sage — “In­side every over­weight woman is a woman she knows she can be” — to her gar­gan­tuan fan base, which at the height of her show was pre­dom­i­nantly white and fe­male, al­though she has shifted her fo­cus to black view­ers with the launch of OWN.

I was sur­prised that Gay, who has spent her pro­fes­sional adult life pri­mar­ily in ru­ral Mid­west­ern col­lege towns that are, by her own ad­mis­sion, “in­hos­pitable to black­ness,” didn’t ad­dress more di­rectly the role that race plays in this bought-and-paid-for as­pi­ra­tion. The com­mer­cial and con­sumerist nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing women’s bod­ies is based en­tirely on a white fe­male aes­thetic. As a black woman adopted into a (thin) white fam­ily, who at­tended all-white schools, I was bar­raged with images of white­ness as the stan­dard of beauty un­til my 20s. It was then, when I met and be­came friends with other black women, that I re­al­ized my body, which has fluc­tu­ated but is nei­ther fat nor es­pe­cially thin, didn’t have to be im­pos­si­bly skinny to be beau­ti­ful. Mean­while, I have had white women gush openly (and un­so­licit­edly) about my curves while fail­ing mis­er­ably to hide their own pal­pa­ble re­lief at be­ing just shy of anorexic.

Black women’s bod­ies are sta­tis­ti­cally curvier, rounder, fuller and — de­spite cease­less crit­i­cism that stretches from Sarah Baart­man and the Venus Hot­ten­tot all the way up to Ser­ena Wil­liams — to each other and, broadly speak­ing, within black cul­ture, our curvi­ness is con­sid­ered the stan­dard, and very of­ten beau­ti­ful. But curvi­ness is not the same as su­per mor­bidly obese in this coun­try, and no one is more acutely aware of that than Gay. And now, of course, we are wit­ness­ing a peak mo­ment in the body-pos­i­tiv­ity move­ment, a racially in­clu­sive move­ment of self­ac­cep­tance no mat­ter the size or girth of your body, which is all to the good, and Gay touches on it briefly in the book, but that was also pi­o­neered by two white women (Con­nie Sobczak and El­iz­a­beth Scott).

At the start of “Hunger,” Gay refers to her body as “un­ruly.” By the end, though, Gay’s body is less un­ruly and some­what more un­fet­tered. She writes: “I no longer need the body fortress I built.” Gay knows she has work to do beyond just weight loss, that the next chap­ter in her life will be a process of “un­de­stroy­ing” her­self.

Un­de­stroyed, un­ruly, un­fet­tered, Ms. Gay, live your life. We are all bet­ter for hav­ing you do so in the same fe­ro­ciously hon­est fash­ion that you have writ­ten this book.

Car­roll is edi­tor of spe­cial projects at WNYC ra­dio in New York and the au­thor of sev­eral books of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion about race in the United States. She is one of The Times’ crit­ics at large.

Eva Blue

IN “HUNGER,” Rox­ane Gay ad­dresses weight in Amer­ica and her­self. Af­ter an as­sault, she writes, “I needed to feel like a fortress.”

Harper

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