Roxane Gay, the brilliant writer responsible for Bad Feminist, Dangerous Women, and one of my favorite Twitter feeds, just released her latest book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. It’s about her experiences as a fat person living with a fat body and all of the fucked up things that come with it. (No. There is no nicer way to say it.)
Gay’s testimony is bold. I know; "bold" is a catchy buzzword when it comes to personal narratives. Whenever someone talks about sex or crime, we call it "bold," even though sex and crime are very common aspects of American life. But Hunger is bold because Gay writes on a topic about which we are still intentionally silent, passive, and indirect: being fat.
To be clear, the general public does not mince words about fat people. As Gay notes in Hunger, fat bodies become “public space,” with everyone feeling entitled to make unsolicited opinions about them. But while there are so many messages out there about why fat bodies are a burden, need to be changed, or should not exist, there are very few words that describe the lived experiences of fat people.
I know this because I, too, am a Black woman with a fat body. And while I knew a lot of what Gay says in Hunger to be true, I had never heard many of these observations spoken aloud (I bought the audiobook, read by Gay). And I certainly never dared to speak them myself. For example, Gay points to fashion as one of the arenas in which her body isn’t accommodated. At her size, she is unable to fit the clothing sold at specialty retailers like Lane Bryant. Faced with the overarching idea that fat people deserve whatever inconveniences they experience because of their bodies, I quietly accepted defeats like these when they happened to me.
The matter of clothing may seem trivial, but it’s not. In both the book and on a recent episode of This American Life, Gay explains that difficult access to things which make her feel more feminine and attractive is one of the differences that separates Gay from being what she calls “Lane Bryant fat.” These are the women, Gay has noticed, who are often at the forefront of the body-positivity movement, calling for women to love themselves at every size. That Gay is decidedly outside of this movement, unable to fully accept her body and wanting to change it, was equally revolutionary to hear.
The body-positive movement, while amazing and necessary, is not perfect. Like the broader feminist movement from which it came, it's particularly susceptible to whitewashing and a lack of intersectionality. It has also created a binary from which fat women must choose: You either love yourself or hate yourself. You either accept what the world has to say about your body or you reject it wholeheartedly. You think your body is beautiful or you’re perpetuating the body-shaming that too many already experience. The truth for fat women like Gay, and fat women like me, is always somewhere in between and not nearly so simple. But that’s not something we talk about, either.
Between the two extremes of fatphobia and fat acceptance, fat women are still only as important as their weight and what they choose to do with it. Wilful ignorance to the fact that fat people can be anything other than fat is perhaps the most painful truth that Gay lays bare in Hunger. As I write this, Gay is clapping back at trolls on Twitter who refuse to allow her to talk about herself in certain ways. In her book she writes, “The bigger you get, the smaller the world gets.” Truer words have never been spoken.