This week a couple of projects came to a close and my body took one look at a potential day off and came down with a stinking cold, so I snuggled down with a book.
I chose Hunger by Roxane Gay.
I first encountered Gay’s work back in 2010, in lit zines and up at Fictionaut. Much of her writing included beautiful women having sex — in empowered (His Name Is), overwhelmed (Problems Pretty Girls With Pretty Faces Face), mystical (The Weight of Water) or painful (Requiem for a Glass Heart) ways.
Female “beauty” in fiction often gives me a twinge because it’s usually described as tall, petite, golden, brown, black-haired, blonde, slender, rangy or a whole list of other things I am not. Sexy MCs aren’t short, mousy, freckled women with stubby thighs and big thumbs. That said, I often enjoyed the underbellies of Gay’s stories, e.g. the torn complexity of Men Don’t Leave Me, or Ever. Happily. After‘s contrariness and humour.
Then I didn’t read her for years until this week when I picked up Hunger.
The story goes as follows: Gay was attacked as a young girl, ate a lot, and didn’t starve it all off. The book charts her reaction to and recovery from childhood trauma with restraint; this is not reality TV or misery memoir, and we’re not given gratuitous details. We’re told that she had a really tough time, ate, topped 500 lbs, and doesn’t like flimsy chairs with arms. Then we’re invited to consider the society we live in, including attitudes to body size, and to understand the effect we have on people when we assume that those in our life will all exist within our personal “normal” size range, or that those who eat a lot do so for fun.
Many of the issues in the book could apply to the very thin; the need for control, the need for safety, a hunger for self-acceptance, well-placed fear of being judged, a tiredness of being judged, and running from pain. And although it warns otherwise, ultimately this feels like a success story. It tells of a woman who overcame (is overcoming) trauma, who carved out a good life and career and held onto both humour and what sounds like a lovely family. Although the pain, restraint and discomfort come through, it’s a warm narrative which allows us to consider what has been left unspoken.
And it made me think about fat.
Fat is an enormous issue for us right now, and one of my soapboxes. We have an obesity epidemic. We also have a marketing epidemic which I would argue is the more pervasive and dangerous: the “diet” industry is a parasitic machine that ultimately does not want us to reach perfect health and happiness, because if we all did, the industry would fail and die. This has shaped our culture.
What is fat?
I’m a scientist. You say “fat”, I hear “energy reserves”. It’s fuel and protection: warmth, energy, and bilipid membranes. Fat is necessary, we evolved to use it as winter sustenance, a source of survival and power. When Gay says she ate to be strong, to build herself as fortress, on a fundamental, biological level this makes sense.
Fat is stored food. Fat is survival.
Is fat ugly?
Why is “ugly” even a word?
I am not overweight but I’ve been called fat and ugly many, many times. (I have had that relationship.) I could live my life and never hear the word “ugly” again, and that would be OK.
Why is there not a word (*is there?) for that gorgeous, incredible, tingling, freeing feeling when you take off your shoes and socks at the end of a hard day? And yet instead we have created a word that means we personally don’t like the look of something and we’d like others to share our negativity, even at the expense of others?
Some of the things we say, and don’t say, are the result of crap linguists. History is full of people who didn’t get everything right, and our language reflects this. We should know this when we speak.
In any case, to me, fat is neither ugly nor beautiful, it’s just functional. Fat is food. See above.
(* Was half-expecting some sort of German kenning for “happy feet”. Fußglück, vielleicht? Is that a word already? Can we get to the end of a long day on our feet, prise off our shoes and socks, flex our feet and sigh, “Aaaah, Fußglück!”)
Is fat a healthcare issue?
Yes. Maintaining one’s weight at some sort of median mid-range level means you are statistically (population stats) less likely to suffer from various conditions, e.g. Type II diabetes, various heart disorders, joint disorders etc. As a population, being very overweight carries some health risks. Not all fat people are unhealthy, but excessive fat will cause issues in many people.
Not getting enough sleep is the same. Not eating a balanced diet is the same. Not taking any exercise is the same. Substance abuse, including drugs, alcohol, caffeine – the same. Dangerous hobbies, fighting, sword-swallowing, having children in your early teens or late forties – the same. Cycling without a helmet, driving while turning one’s head to a passenger, the same. You’re with me, you know what I’m saying. It’s a factor, one factor of many (many many many). Are we going to list them all every time we see someone? Judge everyone on all criteria? No.
“I am not!”
We don’t want to be fat. We’d rather be thin, even though starvation can kill you faster than overeating. This is marketing. Whoever came up with the diet industry was a business genius – let’s tell people they should be what their bodies will constantly rebel against, and then when they fail, let’s market a lifelong solution that can never work. Kudos on the financial front but zero points for morals.
Be thin! Lose weight! Flat tummy! This does not mean “be happy, be active, be strong!”
I personally would like all “diet” foods to be banned. Saccharin-rich, processed foods that only fill you up if you skew your portion sizes – other than making the manufacturers rich, how do they help anyone?
As part of this “diet industry culture”, I know that if someone is calling me fat, they are not giving me a compliment – they are being rude. My wish to be accepted, to be liked, to be included in a wide, warm human circle (and not ostracised or criticised) sends me into a spin until I recall that in times gone by, a fat woman was someone who had beaten winter.
Roxane Gay’s book made me reassess my own opinions about fat, and consider how I view my own body and others’. It made me wonder whether I cater for large or small people when I invite them to my home or events. (My house is great for small children but my chairs all wobble; I never thought to wonder whether my larger friends worry about that.) It made me redefine my own parameters: what would it be like to be 500 lbs? Given how I reacted (with brevity) when strangers opined all over my pregnancies, I can only picture how much I’d welcome people’s regular opinions on my bodyweight.
All this brings me back to a moment when I was twelve – the same age as Gay when she was attacked. When I sat in a class and the teacher, Mr B, asked, “What right do you have to be here?” – and none of us could answer. (I have blogged separately about the full story of Mr B because it underpins a lot of what I say and write.)
Reading Gay’s book made me want to shout, ‘You have every right to be here! To live, breathe, and be safe. You do not owe anyone an explanation, or justification – let alone apology – for the air you breathe or the space you take up.’ But I don’t know her. Thankfully, it sounds like she already knows this.
I hope she wanted to write that book. I’m sorry that she needed to. I’m glad that she did.