This book review of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, explores Roxane Gay’s moving story about shame, vulnerability, trauma, and strength. Learn how widespread the damages of sexual violence can be, and how a girl simply tried to cope with them by making her body a fortress. Roxane hungers for safety and acceptance, but more than anything she hungers to be comfortable in her own skin.
An honest expression of shame and empowerment in an unaccommodating world.
READ THIS BOOK REVIEW IF YOU:
- Want to understand the effects of trauma and shame
- Are interested in human stories and life experiences
- Enjoy fresh, honest perspectives of the world
Just a Body
Truth an Hunger
About the author
Video and Podcast
Each of our bodies has a unique story to tell. This is a memoir of Roxane’s body and her hunger.
It’s not a story with stark before and after photos, nor is it a tale of harnessing willpower. It’s not a story of success, but a story of truth — a confession.
Roxane was 577 pounds at her heaviest. She is smaller now, but she isn’t small. She never will be, not least because she stands at 6 feet 3 inches tall. In a world that tells women to be small, to not take up space, Roxane will always take up space. But she doesn’t want to be noticed: She wants to hide.
Her size is of her making, but it isn’t solely her responsibility. As a young girl, Roxane experienced trauma. In the aftermath, she didn’t understand how to cope. But she did understand that fat people weren’t desirable.
So Roxane ate. She systematically built a cage around the girl she once was, hoping to protect herself from any more pain and hurt.
People see bodies like Roxane’s and make assumptions. They assume they know the whys and the hows, but they don’t understand how Roxane got where she is now. Roxane created her own fortress to protect herself from trauma, and for a long time she was silent about it.
But she doesn’t want to be silent anymore. This is the story of a transformation: Not from fat to thin, but from a young girl who felt secure and whole to the incident that destroyed that, and the aftermath that continues to this day.
Roxane doesn’t want to be defined by the worst moments of her life, but she has carried the secret alone for too long. She hopes that be adding her story to the countless stories just like it, she can help shed more light on the horrors of sexual violence and how life-altering it is.
When Roxane was 12, the boy she loved took her to a cabin in the woods where a group of his friends waited. They held her down and took turns raping her. Later, the boys told a very different version of the story at school.
Roxane didn’t know how to tell her parents. She feared they would be disgusted or that they would blame her. She remained silent and tried to play the part of a normal girl, but inside she was dying.
Her family moved often because of her father’s job, and Roxane was glad to be free of the boys who had hurt her. But it was getting more and more difficult to pretend around her parents, so she asked to go to boarding school.
Away at school, Roxane could sink further into herself without having to fake it. She had freedom and began to eat more and more. She struggled to connect with people and was lonely, but food was a constant solace. She could be herself while eating.
She had her writing, too, and she often wrote stories about violence against women, trying to rid herself of pain without actually telling her story.
Roxane gained a lot of weight in school, and her parents often worried about her. She would diet when she was home in order to please them, but she always gained the weight back when she returned to school. Roxane’s parents saw her body as a problem to fix, but she wanted to be big. Her weight protected her from men and kept her isolated from the people who could hurt her.
Roxane sank further and further into isolation, depression, and self-loathing. She barely slept because she had nightmares about the cabin in the woods. At the end of high school, Roxane was barely holding herself together.
But her parents valued education, and Roxane didn’t want to disappoint them any more than she already had. Despite her turmoil, she was always a good student and was accepted into Yale University.
Roxane struggled far more at Yale than in high school. There was less structure and the classes were more challenging, and she found herself continually switching majors, skipping classes, and continuing to overeat.
She discovered the internet and the possibilities for anonymous connections. Roxane loved that she could talk to people without having to risk her personal safety. She found other women who had experienced sexual trauma and learned that she wasn’t alone. In theory, Roxane knew she wasn’t at fault for her assault. But she couldn’t make herself believe it. She didn’t feel worthy of absolution.
A few weeks before Roxane’s junior year was to begin at Yale, she left without telling anyone. Roxane spent the next year moving around the country and meeting up with people she had met online. She let men and women do whatever they wanted to her body, believing she was already broken. Eventually, Roxane returned home where her parents welcomed her and loved her, despite being hurt and confused by her actions.
Roxane couldn’t stand the idea of returning to Yale, so she finished her undergraduate degree at Vermont College before enrolling in a graduate program for creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She was doing better, but she continued to overeat and live in isolation.
Roxane still loved writing and wrote every day. She liked the freedom that a career in academia offered, so she began a doctoral program at Michigan Tech. There, she studied but also taught classes.
On her first day of teaching, Roxane was so terrified that she became physically ill. She worried not about the material or the curriculum, but about standing up in front of others who would judge her size.
At the end of her doctoral program, she was offered a teaching position at Eastern Illinois University. Her writing was becoming well-known. It was getting harder to hide from the world, but she was starting to be OK with that.
Just a Body
Being an overweight woman makes your body the subject of public scrutiny. When all Roxane wants to do is hide, she can’t. Her body is judged, criticized, and scorned. People assume they know why she looks a certain way. Her family views her body as a problem to solve, bringing it up in every conversation and asking her about diets, exercise, and willpower.
Roxane knows they do it out of concern, but it makes her feel like she is nothing but a big body — that she doesn’t exist as a human.
The rest of the world is no different.
Reality television is particularly obsessed with obesity. Shows like The Biggest Loser exploit overweight contestants — most of whom are probably dealing with unresolved trauma — at their most vulnerable, pushing them harder and harder to be thinner and thinner through unhealthy and drastic measures.
Female celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Simpson, and Kirstie Alley endorse weight-loss programs and diets, making it clear that no achievement is enough if you aren’t thin. Only thinness brings real happiness.
Roxane watches these shows and commercials even though they make her sad and angry. She hates the cultural idea that wanting to lose weight is a natural part of womanhood — that the less space you take up, the more you matter.
Roxane doesn’t hate herself, but she hates her body. She hates that she can’t discipline herself and how she is viewed by the world. She also hates that she is letting other women down by hating her body.
But she also likes parts of herself. It took her a very long time to admit this, because our culture dictates that she shouldn’t be happy while she is big.
Some days are harder than others. Some days, Roxane can recognize that her body isn’t the problem — that society’s hatred of it is. Other days, it’s hard to separate her heart, her soul, and her talent from the body she lives in.
Roxane has hesitated about writing about her body. People get uncomfortable when they hear about big bodies, and other overweight people get angry that she wishes she were thinner. Roxane supports body-positivism, but she isn’t happy in her own skin. She knows that being thin isn’t the key to happiness, but she still wants to be healthy and comfortable.
She has tried dieting. Sometimes it begins to work, and Roxane feels herself becoming lighter and moving easier. Her clothes fit better and she aches less. But always, inevitably, she becomes terrified and vulnerable. She ends up gaining the weight back and feeling both safe in her cage and ashamed of her lack of willpower.
When she goes to the gym, people stare and judge. Or, they give unsolicited encouragement, assuming she wants their affirmation. Roxane ignores them, knowing that if she responded she would unleash mountains of rage.
When Roxane’s friends post their physical accomplishments on social media, it makes her angry. She sees them running marathons and hiking and feels palpable jealousy that she can’t do the same things. It’s a different kind of hunger but a hunger all the same.
Roxane’s life is one of constant self-consciousness. Her body does not meet the unspoken standard of how women should look. People are cruel in their stares and comments. Men shout out of their car windows, furious that Roxane’s body isn’t catered toward their specific desires.
So she tries to be invisible, even though this is impossible. She presses into walls and corners, taking up as little space as possible and fuming at the people who don’t ever consider the space they occupy.
Clothing is a nightmare. There are few options for obese people, and none of them is very fashionable. When Roxane shops, she isn’t looking for something she likes — she’s looking for whatever fits. At home, she has two wardrobes. One is full of dark jeans and black tops — safe. The other is filled with bright colors and beautiful pieces, items she dreams of wearing but is too terrified to don in public.
When it comes to her body, Roxane feels such shame. Shame that she continually fails to take care of herself or make the changes she wants. But she feels hungry all the time, and she has learned that you can hunger without actually being hungry. When she eats, she feels comforted and safe. But those feelings inevitably turn to disgust, and then she often eats even more to comfort or punish herself. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Hunger isn’t about the stomach. It exists in the body, of course, but also in the mind, heart, and soul. Roxane is always hungry.
There aren’t many places where Roxane’s body comfortably fits. Living in a big body means hyper vigilance. Will chairs support her? Do they have arms that will press painfully into her thighs, leaving her bruised and sore? Roxane often avoids making plans, not because she’s antisocial but because she doesn’t fit.
Air travel is the worst. People stare, obviously dreading being sat next to her. When they realize they are seated elsewhere, their relief is obvious and cruel. People are angry at the prospect of Roxane’s fat body touching theirs.
Eventually, Roxane began buying two plane tickets when she travelled, which meant she couldn’t travel very often. Often, the bigger your body, the smaller your world becomes.
Living in a big body means considering things that no one else has to.
Food is complicated for Roxane. She likes cooking but hates grocery shopping; She enjoys eating but is a picky eater. It’s difficult for Roxane to have a good relationship with something that she doesn’t feel like she is allowed to like.
Above all, food is a reminder of Roxane’s flaws.
When Roxane was a girl, her mother cooked delicious meals that reflected their Haitian background, and the whole family ate together at the table. When she eats Haitian food now, Roxane feels both a longing for her family and a quiet anger for their concern that so often comes across as cruelty.
When Roxane is at home, she is starving. She doesn’t dare eat very much, paranoid that her family is always watching, judging. She is tired of their concern and having of the same conversations over and over again.
Roxane’s family members are thin, stylish, and beautiful. When people find out that she belongs to them, their shock is palpable and painful. She has seen that same look on a lot of faces, and it is a source of deep shame.
But Roxane’s deepest shame comes from relationships — her first relationship, more specifically. Roxane continued to spend time with the boy who raped her, and he continued to abuse her. After the rape she felt so dead inside that she didn’t care what happened to her.
The rape set the course for Roxane’s relationships for a very long time. She fell into a pattern of masochism, of dating people who treated her with indifference at best and cruelty at worst. She was never enough, and she never dared ask for anything. Roxane didn’t feel worthy of happiness. The moment anyone showed any sign of interest, Roxane would reciprocate, believing she was lucky just to have attention.
She had good relationships, too, but even then she struggled to voice her opinions or be herself. To Roxane, simply being with a fat person was enough to ask of others.
Relationships continue to be difficult for Roxane. Many people think she is cold, but she isn’t. Only people she can truly trust see the depth of her warmth. But Roxane feels a constant pressure to get everything right, to be what other people want her to be.
Roxane is better about caring for herself now. She is aware of her patterns and knows how to watch out for them. But the anxiety is still there — the fear that her true self won’t ever measure up.
It is terrifying to be seen.
Roxane has always loved writing because with the written word, your looks don’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much you weigh or what terrible things have happened to you: All that matters is what is written on the page.
But once her writing starting becoming famous, the safety and anonymity disappeared. Now, people see her photos online and make cruel comments. Roxane is opinionated, but when people lash out it’s rarely to actually engage in debate. It’s usually a cruel joke about her appearance. She is never, ever allowed to forget her appearance.
The more famous Roxane gets, the more painfully obvious it becomes that to the world she is, first and foremost, fat.
In 2014, Roxane fell and severely broke her ankle. She had to spend 10 days in the hospital and had not felt that powerless in a very long time. She was falling apart, but her loved ones showed unending support.
Roxane had always known that she was loved, but this made it real. She finally acknowledged what her death would mean to the people who loved her, and she realized that it was her responsibility to take care of herself. It was time to start a more humane relationship with her body.
Roxane was broken and then she broke even further. But this new break showed her that hope was possible.
She is slowly moving toward a life that she wants. She is doing things that make her happy and not apologizing for her body, for existing.
Roxane holds an appreciation for the lessons that her body has taught her. Because of her size, she understands how difficult it can be to move through a world that doesn’t accommodate you. She has a greater respect and appreciate for all kinds of bodies.
Truth an Hunger
When Roxane was still just a girl, she was raped in a cabin by a boy she loved. Afterwards, she ate to protect herself.
Roxane still copes with the effects of this trauma. She has flashbacks and anxiety. She thinks of him every single day.
But she isn’t a scared little girl anymore. Roxane knows what she deserves and what she is capable of. She writes and uses her voice to defend the vulnerable. Each year she cares a little less about what people think of her.
Roxane has learned that happiness isn’t about weight, but about being comfortable in your own skin. This is what she is continually striving for, day after day. She doesn’t need her body to be a fortress anymore.
This memoir was the hardest thing Roxane has ever chosen to write. With these vulnerable words, Roxane is showing her hurt, her heart, and her truth.
About the author
Roxane Gay is a bestselling author, professor, and cultural commentator. Her writing has appeared in compilations like Best American Mystery Stories 2014 and Best Sex Writing 2012, as well as in publications like The New York Times and Virginia Quarterly. Gay’s other books include An Untamed State, Hunger, and Difficult Women.
Roxane Gay is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has worked as a professor at Purdue University and has founded the publishing house Tiny Hardcore Press. She is the author of a novel – An Untamed State – and the memoir Hunger.
Roxane Gay is an author and speaker. Her essay collection Bad Feminist was a New York Times bestseller, and her novel An Untamed State was a finalist for the Dayton Peace Prize. Gay actively contributes to The New York Times and her writing has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Rumpus, and Salon. Gay holds a doctorate and previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, Purdue University, and Yale University. Roxane is showing her hunger.
Roxane Gay is the author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, which was a New York Times bestseller; the novel An Untamed State, a finalist for the Dayton Peace Prize; the memoir Hunger, which was a New York Times bestseller and received a National Book Critics Circle citation; and the short story collections Difficult Women and Ayiti. A contributing opinion writer to the New York Times, she has also written for Time, McSweeney’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Bookforum, and Salon. Her fiction has also been selected for The Best American Short Stories 2012, The Best American Mystery Stories 2014, and other anthologies. She is the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana, and sometimes Los Angeles.
Roxane Gay | Website
Roxane Gay | Twitter @rgay
Roxane Gay | Facebook @roxanegay74
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Women’s Biographies, Arts and Literature, Black and African American Biographies, Memoirs, Feminism, Mental Health, Autobiography, Adult
The New York Times Bestseller
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
Lambda Literary Award winner
From Roxane Gay, the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist, a memoir in weight about eating healthier, finding a tolerable form of exercise, and exploring what it means to learn, in the middle of your life, how to take care of yourself and how to feed your hunger.
New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and bodies, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she casts an insightful and critical eye on her childhood, teens, and twenties—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers into the present and the realities, pains, and joys of her daily life.
With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and authority that have made her one of the most admired voices of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to be overweight in a time when the bigger you are, the less you are seen. Hunger is a deeply personal memoir from one of our finest writers, and tells a story that hasn’t yet been told but needs to be.
“I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one I made but barely recognized or understood but of my own making. I was miserable, but I was safe.”
In this intimate and searing memoir, the New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay addresses the experience of living in a body that she calls “wildly undisciplined.” She casts an insightful and critical eye over her childhood, teens, and twenties—including the devastating act of violence that was a turning point in her young life—and brings readers intwo the present and the realities, pains, and joys of her daily life.
With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and authority that have made her one of the most admired voices of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to be overweight in a time when the bigger you are, the less you are seen. Hunger is a deeply personal memoir from one of our finest writers, and it tells a story that hasn’t yet been told but needs to be.
“A gripping book, with vivid details that linger long after its pages stop. . . . Hunger is arresting and candid. At its best, it affords women, in particular, something so many other accounts deny them—the right to take up space they are entitled to, and to define what that means.” — Atlantic
“A work of staggering honesty . . . . Poignantly told.” — New Republic
“The book’s short, sharp chapters come alive in vivid personal anecdotes. . . . And on nearly every page, Gay’s raw, powerful prose plants a flag, facing down decades of shame and self-loathing by reclaiming the body she never should have had to lose.” — Entertainment Weekly
“Bracingly vivid. . . . Remarkable. . . . 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.” — Los Angeles Times
“Searing, smart, readable. . . . “Hunger,” like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” interrogates the fortunes of black bodies in public spaces. . . . Nothing seems gratuitous; a lot seems brave. There is an incantatory element of repetition to “Hunger”: The very short chapters scallop over the reader like waves.” — Newsday
“Luminous. . . . intellectually rigorous and deeply moving.” — The New York Times Book Review
“Her spare prose, written with a raw grace, heightens the emotional resonance of her story, making each observation sharper, each revelation more riveting. . . . It is a thing of raw beauty.” — USA Today
“Powerful. . . . fierce. . . . Gay has a vivid, telegraphic writing style, which serves her well. Repetitive and recursive, it propels the reader forward with unstoppable force.” — Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers
“This is the book to read this summer . . . she’s such a compelling mind . . . . Anyone who has a body should read this book.” — Isaac Fitzgerald on the TODAY Show
“Unforgettable. . . . Breathtaking. . . . We all need to hear what Gay has to say in these pages. . . . Gay says hers is not a success story because it’s not the weight-loss story our culture demands, but her breaking of her own silence, her movement from shame and self-loathing toward honoring and forgiving and caring for herself, is in itself a profound victory.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“Hunger is Gay at her most lacerating and probing. . . . Anyone familiar with Gay’s books or tweets knows she also wields a dagger-sharp wit.” — Boston Globe
“Wrenching, deeply moving. . . a memoir that’s so brave, so raw, it feels as if [Gay]’s entrusting you with her soul.” — Seattle Times
“It is a deeply honest witness, often heartbreaking, and always breathtaking. . . . Gay is one of our most vital essayists and critics.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Searing.” — Miami Herald
“This raw and graceful memoir digs deeply into what it means to be comfortable in one’s body. Gay denies that hers is a story of “triumph,” but readers will be hard pressed to find a better word.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A heart-rending debut memoir from the outspoken feminist and essayist. . . . An intense, unsparingly honest portrait of childhood crisis and its enduring aftermath.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Displays bravery, resilience, and naked honesty from the first to last page. . . . Stunning . . . essential reading.” — Library Journal (starred review)
“A work of exceptional courage by a writer of exceptional talent.” — Shelf Awareness (starred review)
Praise for Bad Feminist:“A strikingly fresh cultural critic.” — Ron Charles, Washington Post
“Roxane Gay is the brilliant girl-next-door: your best friend and your sharpest critic. . . . She is by turns provocative, chilling, hilarious; she is also required reading.” — People
“[Gay is] hilarious. But she also confronts more difficult issues of race, sexual assault, body image, and the immigrant experience. She makes herself vulnerable and it’s refreshing.” — Tanvi Misra, Atlantic, “The Best Book I Read This Year”