I wasn’t going to buy Roxane Gay’s Hunger initially. Truthfully, I haven’t read anything of hers except her tweets. I was given Bad Feminist for my 21st birthday, but I left it on the shelf alongside all the other books I planned on getting to eventually.
Then the Mia Freedman thing happened. Mia embarrassed Roxane in a way many fat people are intimately familiar with, and feminists everywhere analysed and argued over her actions and what they meant. Suddenly, people were upset that someone had experienced fatphobia. This was new.
I’ve been writing about life as a fat person since the age of 19; I’m 23 now. The majority of the support for these articles have been from other fat people, as well as women of all body shapes who are dealing with or who have dealt with an eating disorder. Outside of these groups and my circle of friends, it seemed that people largely didn’t care.
Roxane Gay changed that.
Suddenly, discussions of fatphobia were being had worldwide, particularly in Australia. While I suspect many were outraged that Mia had embarrassed the country on the international stage, others recognised the fatphobia that Gay had been criticising in the lead up to Hunger’s release was exemplified by Mia’s actions, and they were actually talking about it, and even better, criticising it.
Despite its distressing content, Hunger gives me hope. While I haven’t seen an increase in the number of people expressing an interest in radical body politics as a result of this incident, I have hope. I hope that they’ll read Hunger and realise how their words, actions and beliefs have contributed to a climate of hostility towards fat bodies.
The sheer fact it exists gives me hope. The fact that a world-renowned writer, academic and feminist can write about her experiences as a fat woman and be published by a major publishing house and tour the world talking about that book gives me hope. It gives me hope that people will actually listen to what she has to say, and learn from it. It gives me hope that people will actually listen to what I have to say, and learn from it.
While I don’t doubt Hunger resonates with everyone who has struggled with body image, I don’t think I’m being presumptuous when I say it has resonated with fat people the most. Struggles with body image are uniquely difficult when you aren’t already an acceptable size, and those struggles aren’t just internal — thoughts of how loathsome your body is, for example — but external as well, as Gay discusses: the treatment from strangers on the street, airline stewardesses, past lovers, family members, doctors, friends.
One of my favourite chapters, Chapter 31, expresses so many things I’ve felt but have had trouble expressing quite as eloquently as Gay has.
“When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be.”
People see fat, and they assume lazy, stupid, ignorant, unclean, slovenly, weak. People see fat and black, and racism is added to those preconceived notions, notions which are then extended and applied to an entire race of people. People see fat and female, and they feel compelled to let you know that they are not interested in sleeping with you. Cheers, mate, I’m not super keen on you either, but thanks for letting me know!
One aspect of Hunger that has been criticised has been the way Gay supposedly conflates fatness and race and the struggles being both fat and black result in.
Again in chapter 31, Gay writes “Fat, much like skin colour, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes.” I recently (and foolishly) found myself in an argument with a couple of thin people of colour on Facebook, friends of friends, one of whom said “A fat person can lose weight. Your skin colour is from the womb to the tomb.”
The fact that someone could engage with Gay’s writing and leave with that sentiment confused and upset me. I have been fat for as long as I can remember. I can remember being 5 and told to go on a diet. I can remember being 6 and told I was too fat to keep going to ballet classes. I have been fat, essentially, “from the womb to the tomb”. Stating this does not mean that I’m comparing my experiences to those who experience racism, it is simply a fact. The argument that being fat is a choice and fatphobia should therefore be taken less seriously, because really, they deserve it since they chose this, is offensive and, at its core, anti-feminist.
Gay is both black and fat, and is better placed than any thin non-black person to speak about how those experiences intersect. But even feminists without those experiences should be willing to criticise rigid beauty standards whenever they’re applied; it’s a pretty key component of how feminism has been practiced for the last forty years. Rigid beauty standards hurt everyone, particularly fat people, black people, brown people, disabled people and those who aren’t cis. The fact that self-described feminists would rather uphold these standards than support fat women worries me.
Unpleasantness aside, the fact that so many thin people are reading Hunger and talking about how it resonated with them gives me hope. Having these thoughts expressed by someone as esteemed as Gay legitimises them in a way me tweeting my frustrations does not, and I’m grateful to Roxane for being so honest and open with readers in order to encourage and facilitate those conversations.
I hope Roxane knows what this book means to women like me. I hope thin people everywhere learn from Freedman’s mistakes and Roxane’s words. I hope they’ve had their worldview expanded, even if its just by a fraction. I hope this marks a turning point. It’s unlike me to be so optimistic, but hope makes for a nice change.
If you’d like to do some further reading on body politics, check out this Google Doc of resources I’ve put together!