Roxane Gay, I’m Sorry I Wasn’t Listening

Allison McCarthy
Jul 6, 2016 · 7 min read

In June, Roxane Gay announced that her much-anticipated memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body — which was initially set for publication this summer — is now delayed until 2017. On Twitter, she wrote that the book was “scary and stressful to write so I procrastinated a lot.”

I think I’m starting to understand what she meant.

For over a year, I’ve privately expressed my frustration with Roxane Gay’s writing on weight — it seemed like something had shifted from her work in 2011, when Gay wrote about a fat camp she attended as a teenager in “Reaching for Catharsis: Getting Fat Right (Or Wrong) and Diana Spechler’s Skinny.” In this hybrid book review-essay, she writes with bravado about a fat camp that was “nestled in the Berkshire mountains on what I was told were beautiful grounds, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and beauty I did not behold . . . None of the campers really gave a damn one way or the other because kids at fat camp don’t care about being really fat or sort-of fat or on the verge of fat.” She goes on to describe falling “madly in love with smoking” and chastises Spechler because the book Skinny “cannot possibly imagine that perhaps some fat people have amazing, athletic sex, just like she does. Perhaps they aren’t sitting around miserably stuffing their faces next to someone who doesn’t love them.”

As someone who spent most of her high school and college years exasperated by anyone who complained that it was impossible to find love when you’re fat, I completely agreed with Gay’s clear-eyed, damning assessment of a certain pervasive mentality that insists fat people live with a sense of passive despair. I certainly hadn’t spent every night alone, untouched and unloved. In the last two decades, I’ve fluctuated between sizes 12 and 18. But all throughout that time, I still wrote, traveled, studied, found friendship and adventure, sex and good books.

But in Gay’s later writing on the body, something changed. Her 2015 essay “Breaking Uniform,” which is an excerpt from Hunger, describes a closet that contains her “other wardrobe . . . full of the clothes I don’t have the courage to wear.” I rolled my eyes when she claimed, “The story of my life is wanting what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have.”

This didn’t sound like the words of the cigarette-smoking, camp-sexing, didn’t-really-give-a-damn writer that I so fiercely loved. Her ritual of trying on and then quickly discarding clothes that are bright or revealing struck me as the same tired, disingenuous, body-shaming rhetoric used to keep women from ever accepting themselves as-is.

Why weren’t other writers and feminists calling out The Emperor Who Has Nice Clothes, I wondered? And so I cheered on activist Virgie Tovar when she criticized Gay for publicly pathologizing her relationship to her body, “using the tired old framework that posits . . . fat is a distancing mechanism that women undertake purposefully (if not subconsciously).”

I might have gone on in this way, judgmental and perhaps a bit smug — until Gay spoke about her body issues on the NPR podcast, This American Life. She talked about her medical classification of “super morbid obesity,” which is defined as anyone with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 50. She spoke about the “extremely annoying” mis-gendering she’s received at the hands of White people. She talked about mistreatment in car dealerships and airport lines. And she talked about how the words of “Lane Bryant fat” women don’t resonate with her because, well, they have the option to buy clothes in places like Lane Bryant.

“They’re the ones I find that are often the strongest cheerleaders of: This is who I am, and you have to take me as I am and respect me because of my body, not despite it. And I admire that a great deal. But I think it’s easier to feel that way when you have multiple places where you can buy clothes and feel pretty and move through the world,” Gay said.

And that’s when I realized that I haven’t been listening. I wanted Roxane Gay to speak in ways that are not just body-positive, but also totally confident, unabashed, defiant. But I hadn’t seriously considered what it’s like for anyone whose clothing sizes go beyond the limitations of our most “inclusive” plus-sized stores.

This isn’t the first time Gay has discussed the experiences of Lane Bryant shoppers. In “Reaching for Catharsis,” she was passionate about the lived difference of plus-sized customers: “I know the body is a personal territory and that every person’s weight struggle should be taken seriously, but there’s overweight and there’s overweight. If you’re the latter, it is difficult to take the former seriously, right or wrong. No one who shops at Lane Bryant or The Avenue or Catherine’s is going feel a great deal of empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight. It’s not going to happen.” She then argues that in Skinny, “the way thirty pounds of excess weight is treated like it’s three hundred pounds of excess weight” is a problem.

Wasn’t I doing the same thing — treating all fat bodies as the same oppression, the same story? They’re not. I’ve never known what it’s like to shop in a mall that has no clothing for me, nothing that fits or flatters or feels fine. At 17, I wrote on LiveJournal about the revelation of finding comfortable, no-pinch jeans at Lane Bryant. I called it a “haven,” not realizing that most girls in 2003 were not bragging online about going to any place where the dress sizes start in double-digits. I have more choices now than I did as a teenager, and with the boon of online retail, my options expanded from what I could scrounge up in the suburbs.

My friends are quick to joke that I single-handedly keep Modcloth in business — and that’s because I can find dresses in practically every fabric and style in my size. “You’re the best-dressed person in the office,” my co-worker said. This was not a small compliment for me. In years past, I’d worn drab, oversized sweaters, the same two pairs of jeans or black pants; my style evolved as I found Modcloth, Karina Dresses, Dr. Marten’s boots, and Domino Dollhouse leggings. I found my swagger. Finally, I felt like someone worth dressing up for.

But even with a better wardrobe and feminist politics, I still obsess over any of my perceived weight gain or loss. I still wince when someone takes a photo of me at a bad angle, still struggle with going outside in anything sleeveless, still balance the mental calculus of what I think I should eat and what I want to eat.

“This whole nonstop anxiety conversation happens in my head all the time for just basic life functions . . . It’s sobering to realize just how the past 25 years have just been all about my body,” Gay said on This American Life. “And that’s where I struggle with the fat acceptance movement. I think it’s wonderful, and I think it’s necessary and a necessary corrective . . . But it’s just really hard to not care what people think, especially when they’re constantly telling you what they think.”

What we’re told to think by the fat acceptance movement is that our visible fat bodies are becoming more mainstream. But that doesn’t mean we’re seeing a variety of bodies; it means that plus-size marketing campaigns feature mostly white women with hourglass waistlines and delicate curves, not broad bellies and arms covered in stretch marks. In a recent blog post, fat activist and author Lesley Kinzel decried these unspoken fashion dictates because “while the boundaries of what is culturally acceptable and ‘normal’ are being slightly broadened, we’re usually trading one restrictive standard for another, and no culturally acceptable standard can accommodate the natural diversity of human bodies and experience. As much as we want to believe we are expanding the universe, we may only be adopting a new set of limitations.”

This stuff about fat bodies — the truth of lived experience — isn’t easy to speak about publicly because it’s not the joyful, uplifting message of acceptance. What Gay’s talking about is the harder, more candid reality of what it means to take up space in a body that doesn’t grace the cover of a Torrid catalog. At the end of the interview with Ira Glass, she says, “And even when you’re Lane Bryant fat, it’s a struggle. But at least you have that. I don’t even have that. And so it’s like, let me feel the way I want to feel. Just let me be me.”

The publicly known Roxane Gay is the writer of short stories, one novel, a screenplay-in-progress, and an essay collection that makes so many of us proud to call ourselves Bad Feminists — especially those of us who exist with the privilege of seeing our plus-size bodies made visible and acceptable. Maybe she’s not the same person who blew smoke into the faces of fat-camp counselors. Maybe there’s more to the story. Gay’s essay and This American Life interview may be painful to read and hear, and Hunger could end up being painful, too. But hers is still an experience of fatness that is powerful and vital, an insistence on the recognition of complex personal truths by those who would otherwise demand complete affirmation.


Lead image: flickr/Eva Blue

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