Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

Sapna Doshi, Ph.D - 8th Mar 2021

Roxane Gay's book, Hunger, is now one of my favorite books I've ever read. Before continuing to read my review about this book, I should say that the author does talk about sexual trauma and the impact it had on her life throughout the book. So if you've experienced trauma yourself, you may want to decide for yourself if it feels like the right time to read this book or review. 

Roxane Gay wrote her memoir of her body in one of the most raw, authentic, honest ways I have ever read. I so appreciated her capturing the many unique challenges that individuals face living in a larger body. She wrote the following, and it will forever stick with me, "The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes." She says that once and repeats it again (I listened to the book on Audible). 

The book discusses the ways in which sexual trauma at a young age led to adding layers of protection to her physical body as a means to avoid attraction from the opposite sex. She provided examples of ways in which she tried to fit in, the ways in which she did not feel like she belonged, and the insults that were thrown her way just because of the size of her body and the way that she looked. There was an innocence she described having prior to her trauma and you could just feel how that was taken away from her and how life would never again be the same. Making sense of sexual trauma at a young age can be so overwhelming and can be internalized as shame such that help is never sought out. Roxane Gay talks about the ways in which she kept her trauma to herself. Only when she read a book many years later where she learned that what she experienced was called rape was she able to make sense of what happened to her as a child. 

There was an interesting storyline about her relationship with her family. Roxane is from a Haitian family and grew up with a mother who would put great effort into cooking food and preparing snacks for her and her siblings. Her parents were concerned about her weight gain and tried to have her go to a camp and have medically supervised weight loss to address it, but without knowing all the underlying factors that led her to be the weight at which she was. You could feel the love the family members had for one another and the simultaneous struggle to fully be vulnerable with one another. In the end, her parents read her publications. There weren't a lot of explicit discussions in the family around it. There was a moment in the book where the author highlighted an interaction between herself and her mother that danced around the trauma she experienced. I liked how Roxane Gay discussed how that was actually what worked best for her and her mother. It just goes to show that there are many ways to deal with things given how varied our cultural and family contexts can be.  

The author talks a lot about the ways in which living in a larger body can be difficult from fitting in restaurant or school chairs, not knowing where to buy clothing, needing to buy two airplane seats and getting a seatbelt extender, feeling that others are hoping that you don't sit next to them, facing judgement, etc. She also talked about the discrimination she faced by doctors and how she had to advocate for herself not to be weighed in the office. 

She also discussed the ongoing impact of trauma years after she was assaulted. She talks about how she still thinks about the person who did this horrible thing to her and how she still struggles with flashbacks and nightmares. She also talked about discovering her sexuality over time and realizing how women were not inherently safe either. 

What I loved about this book was Roxane's discussion about her difficulty in fully accepting her body as it is and wanting to lose weight and simultaneously feeling appreciative of the body positive, body acceptance, and healthy at every size movements. She talks extensively about her personal history with bulimia and going on diets. She talked about how awful these times were, but she also discussed that at times when she was exercising and losing weight, she did feel better in some ways. This is a really difficult thing to balance. Can we love and accept ourselves and still want to lose weight? This is something we talk about amongst our colleagues at Mind Body Health. Let's be clear, being a lower number on the scale does not equal health. Weight loss is incredibly challenging and most of what we know is that diets can create weight loss that typically leads to weight regain. We also know that weight loss can be done in many different ways that are incredibly unhealthy and damaging to the mind and body. Perhaps the way to go about it all is thinking about the behaviors you can engage in that are sustainable and feel good for your mental health and physical well-being without focusing on the number on the scale going down. If it happens to go down, so be it, but perhaps not making that the focus gets all of us closer to optimal health.

There was no happy ending where things were neatly wrapped up in a bow and the author found radical acceptance and love for herself and her body. I appreciated this because I don't think body love and radical acceptance is the common outcome for most people even when they go through extensive therapy. Life is an ongoing acknowledgement of our struggles that will continue to be our struggles while we try to forge ahead and be honest with ourselves about how we're living. It's an ongoing learning process of how we get up everyday and try to do the things we know will help us despite the unhelpful messaging of the world externally or our own internal unhelpful messaging that presents in the form of thoughts, biases, judgements, and criticisms. 

Roxane Gay has had many accomplishments in her life and has helped so many people through sharing her writing with the world. She's the perfect example of how we can forge ahead and live a meaningful life doing meaningful things while still working through our internal "stuff" everyday on an ongoing basis. That is life.

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